Two months ago, I wrote about photographing a large group of police officers who were surrounding a man downtown and questioning him loudly. I'm a reporter, so I usually stop to observe major police activity when I see it. But this time, King County sergeant Patrick "K.C." Saulet charged up and threatened to arrest me when I took pictures of officers. He said that if I didn't leave the the city sidewalk and the nearby county transit plaza—both of which are public property—I would go to jail, even though standing on public property like that is legal, and taking photos of officers is legal. I had been keeping my distance from the cops, standing back from their activity. I was the only person taking photos and the only person in the busy area singled out for an arrest threat. Sergeant Saulet, a big man, was physically intimidating when he rushed up, and it was a scary experience.
I left the scene because I didn't want to be arrested. Still, I wanted to know who was in charge. So, as I reported at the time, I approached three officers leaving the scene to ask who the commanding officer was. In response, Seattle Police Department officer John Marion yelled at me, threatening to "bother" me at my job.
What I didn't know then was that a nearby police van's video system—and a body mic attached to Officer Marion—captured the exchange between Officer Marion and me (unfortunately, there is no video of my exchange with Sergeant Saulet). I obtained the footage via public records request. This video begins just after Sergeant Saulet threatened to arrest me and just before I approached Officer Marion and two other officers leaving the scene. Here's the footage:
The video shows that Officer Marion repeatedly claimed that the King County Metro transit plaza was private property, even though that is demonstrably false, and insisted numerous times that he planned to make a workplace visit to The Stranger for the sole purpose of harassing me. The microphone also reveals that, while I was across the street, Officer Marion was talking about the incident. The recording sounds like Officer Marion was concerned with me taking photos. "He is trying to take a picture of you..." it sounds like he tells Sergeant Saulet, then added that Saulet shouldn't worry because the photo would be poor quality. "Don't worry, the picture of your badge is going to be blurred." The recording also reveals Officer Marion mocking me, saying I was "pouting" after I'd been threatened with arrest, officers laughing at me, and one of them ridiculing my statement that the sidewalk was public property.
Officer John Marion: "I'm going to come there on my time and come bother you at work."
I should amend my original article slightly. I said that Officer Marion threatened to come "bother" me at my job at least twice—in fact, now that I've seen the video, it shows that after I asked Marion who was in charge and if the sidewalk was public property, Officer Marion threatened to harass me at my job five times.
"Tell me, where do you work," Marion barked.
When I answered, "Stranger," Officer Marion exploded into the following tirade:
"I'm going to come to The Stranger and bother you at work and see how you like it, how about that? I'm going to come there on my time and come bother you at work. Okay, give me a business card, and I'll come bother you while you are trying to do your job and see how you like that. M'kay? Oh, he's going to write about it some more. I'll just come to The Stranger and find out—and come bother you at work. I'm sure your boss will love it when I just come in there and bother you while you're trying to write your newspaper."
This is a direct, unambiguous, and repeated threat from an armed man to track me down for no other reason to harass me on private property. If a civilian did that to someone else on the street, would that be a crime? SPD spokeswoman Detective Renee Witt refused to answer the question.
I'm a little shaken in the video—mostly polite, but annoyed and exasperated—because I'd been threatened with going to jail for doing something legal. I was the only person singled out, and, as the SPD and King County Sheriff's Office confirmed at the time, taking pictures and inquiring about the commanding officer were reasonable, legal activities.
But the video shows Officer Marion escalated the situation, asking impertinent questions and interrupting my answers. For example, he asked if I was having a medical problem (I wasn't) and if I was angry (I was, for good reason). When I tried to explain my frustration with being threatened with arrest for engaging in legal activity on public property, he cut me off.
Officer Marion also demonstrated a skewed perception of what was happening. In the video, he said that taking pictures of the cops was "getting involved" and "confront[ing]" officers (in fact, I stood back and Sergeant Saulet had approached me). Officer Marion indicated that asking who was in charge amounted to "harassing" officers. Officer Marion also said taking photos of cops and writing about them was "threatening" them.
I did not harass any cops. Legally taking photos and writing about police isn't "threatening," either. It makes you wonder what's going on in a cop's head when that's how he views ordinary encounters with the public. Marion also has little credibility. He twice claimed the sidewalk near the transit station is private property—it's absolutely public property. "You're on private property here," he said. "It's private property," which he then called "the truth." It's not surprising that Marion also claimed, wrongly, I was confronting officers and harassing them—I was taking pics from distance. When the cops did talk to me, the suspect had already left.
Where does this assumption come from—that documenting police activity and writing about it amounts to menacing police? From the president of police union itself. "It is extremely frustrating when individuals with zero police training feel qualified to voice their opinions on police actions," Rich O'Neill lamented in a 2011 copy of the newspaper published by the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, which represents about 1,250 officers. Apparently Marion thinks it's menacing for the public to observe him, too.
This incident occurred exactly one year after the City of Seattle submitted to a federal consent decree to fix the police department's pattern of excessive force and troubling examples of racial bias. Federal prosecutors had alleged the pattern was a result, in many cases, of officers escalating ordinary situations into serious confrontations. "In a number of incidents, failure to use tactics designed to de-escalate a situation led to increased and unnecessary force," the the US Justice Department wrote. And in my case, Officer Marion did escalate the situation with his confrontational body language and threats in a way that could have ended badly with many people. I believe he did it so casually—with other officers standing by—that his behavior represents commonplace police intimidation and harassment that many Seattle residents are subjected to every day by cops. And those cops do it with impunity. As I told Officer Marion, this behavior is why SPD is under that federal court order.
Admittedly, my incident wasn't physical like recent incidents that involved Seattle cops kicking, punching, and shooting, people. But cops escalating normal incidents like this one is still serious—the Feds warned us this was part of SPD's problem—and that's why I've filed a complaint against him. The initial investigation is complete and is currently under review by SPD brass. Police Chief Jim Pugel will ultimately decide Officer Marion's penalty. (The county is conducting a separate investigation of Sergeant Saulet.)
I doubt Officer Marion will be fired. But If I lied at my job repeatedly, particularly lied about the law when I knew it was false, I would be fired. If I then threatened a member of the public in my official capacity five times to visit them in a private place with the sole purpose of harassing them, I would also be fired. That would have been the case when I was been a paperboy, a waiter, a canvasser, a house painter, a nonprofit organizer, and now as a reporter. I'd be fired for doing what that cop did. And cops shouldn't be held to a lower standard than regular people—they should be held to a higher standard.
If the SPD deems this to be a matter of "rudeness," as the chief suggested, or the OPA director deems this merely a courtesy violation, then they have failed to protect the public from problem cops, failed to build bridges with their community, and failed their duty to reform the police department.
In a final veiled threat, Marion said this as I rode my bike away: "Make sure you mind the law, sir."