Police accountability advocates are calling for an investigation into excessive force and possible failure to follow de-escalation protocols following an altercation on Thursday afternoon. A man who witnesses described as non-combative and frail was seen being slammed to the pavement in Downtown Spokane and subsequently videotaped being headlocked by a Spokane police officer.
On Friday, police officials released nearly 9 minutes of body camera footage that complicates the narrative of the man being non-combative, but also opened up several other criticisms from advocates who asked why the officer did not attempt to de-escalate the situation as required by a recently passed Washington State law, and led Council President Breean Beggs to question whether the officer had probable cause to arrest the man at all.
Anwar Peace, a police accountability activist and the head of Spokane’s Human Rights Commission, said that he reached out to the Police Ombudsman Bart Logue on the night of the incident and that he is working on a complaint about the excessive use of force and potentially illegal chokehold. Beggs said he has also asked for “a complete investigation” by the Ombudsman’s office. “There are a lot of eyes looking into this,” Peace said.
Beggs separately pledged to ask City Council to pass a law he is currently writing which would change qualified immunity — a controversial legal principle that reform advocates say prevents police accountability — to a new standard that would allow the Spokane Police Department (SPD) “to be held financially responsible for damages caused by those illegal policies and training and provide financial compensation to those who suffer the harms of that poor training and illegal policy.”
The phone video, the body camera and the witnesses
Within hours of the incident, which took place at 4:13 p.m. Thursday afternoon, bystander video began circulating among activists. By early Friday morning, the video was posted to social media.
Sarah Love, a counselor at Compassionate Addiction Treatment (CAT), came upon the scene just before the altercation began as she drove her son home. Love told RANGE she witnessed the officer running across Division and up Second Avenue before slowing to approach the man with his taser drawn. Love couldn’t hear what the officer was telling the man and she didn’t understand what the man was shouting back. Less than a minute after making contact, the officer had grabbed the man and thrown him to the ground. That’s when Love began filming.
By the time the video begins, the man is already on the ground and the officer has him in a headlock restraint. During the course of the video, the man does not appear to be resisting — or even moving. The headlock lasts approximately 15 seconds, until the officer appears to notice the person filming, at which point he releases the headlock and flips the man roughly onto his stomach, places a knee on his back and pulls his left arm behind his back as though to begin handcuffing him. Love’s son can be heard on the video exclaiming, “Jesus.”
The video ends before cuffs are actually placed on him. In all, the video lasts 30 seconds.
*Content warning: this video depicts violence and may be upsetting.*
A nearby bystander, who spoke with RANGE Friday, said the officer “slammed him so hard I could hear his head hit the concrete.” They asked to remain anonymous out of fear of police retaliation.
Jenna Connacher, a case manager at Compassionate Addiction Treatment (CAT), also saw the scene unfold from across the street and said it seemed like the man went limp when he was slammed to the ground.
Just before 5 p.m. Friday, in response to the outcry on social media, SPD released about 8.5 minutes of bodycam footage from the moment the officer takes the call to after the man is in handcuffs. According to police spokesperson Julie Humphreys, the man was reported to have thrown an apple at someone riding by on a scooter and threatened and spat at a security guard near the Armory Building on second. He was reported to have assaulted multiple people at a second location and was also reportedly armed.
The officer’s interview with the security guard captured on the body camera makes no mention of a weapon or multiple assaults, though the guard does say the man threw an apple, spat at her and threw a hat that the man found lying on the ground.
Moments later, the officer confronted the man with his taser drawn, the man turned, holding a pizza box, but soon dropped it, puffed up his chest and raised his arm slightly above his waist. At that point the officer grabbed the man, said, “do not do that shit,” and took him to the ground. The body camera footage does not clearly show what happened during the takedown or how forcefully the man hit the ground.
At no point in the footage does the man hold or appear to possess a weapon.
Watch the SPD full video here.
In the media release accompanying the body camera footage, Humphreys downplays the bystander video as incomplete, and lauds the body camera footage as “an important perspective to the incidents that our officers encounter each day,” saying “This perspective can be particularly valuable in better understanding the circumstances leading to an arrest and the level of resistance that an officer encounters.”
Council President Beggs and reform advocate Kurtis Robinson, who serves on the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) — which sets training standards for every law enforcement and corrections officer in the state — believe the body camera footage is valuable as well, but not for the same reasons the Spokane police do.
Two tapes, two stories
The body camera footage not only complicates the witness and advocate narrative of what happened on Thursday — it complicates the account of the police themselves.
On the one hand, the footage of the altercation itself partially validates the police statement that the man was behaving aggressively.
On the other hand, the full video, which includes the officer’s interview of the witness who reported the man’s erratic behavior, has Robinson questioning why the officer ran up on the man so quickly, with his taser drawn and without making any apparent attempt to de-escalate the situation or wait for backup, possibly in contravention of state law, CJTC guidelines, and the Washington Attorney General’s Model Use of Force Policy.
In an email to RANGE Friday night, Council President Beggs echoed those concerns.
“Typically an officer would ask to talk with someone before they ordered them to the ground unless there were allegations of serious assaultive behavior that might pose a serious risk to the officer,” Beggs wrote. “Similarly, officers usually group up with a suspect they know is having behavioral or cognitive issues both for officer and suspect protection.”
In Robinson’s view, “Everything about that situation said de-escalate,” he told us by phone on Saturday. “Even just the location he’s at — the population that hangs around there — suggests this is a person who has some challenges. Then you put the context of the [security guard] witness statement and it’s obvious this is not a mentally well individual.”
“That should have triggered de-escalation. It should have triggered mental health engagement,” Robinson said. “Instead [the officer] went into charge mode.”
Ironically, this altercation came the same day KXLY published a lengthy segment promoting the department’s Behavioral Health Unit. It’s unclear why that unit wasn’t called in to assist in this case.
We requested comment from SPD early Friday and were told by Humphreys that there would be a press release coming “that will address your questions.” That release included the body camera footage. We followed up with more questions about the footage after it was released and have not heard back. We will update this story or write a follow-up if they respond.
Beyond the failure to de-escalate, the body camera footage has Beggs questioning whether the officer even had probable cause to arrest the man at all.
Beggs pointed out that state law (RCW 10.13.100) doesn’t allow police to arrest someone for a misdemeanor the officer didn’t witness. There are exceptions to that rule, but the only exceptions that apply here regard if the suspect physically harmed or threatened to harm a person in the commission of the misdemeanor.
Beggs believes the longer video demonstrates a lack of probable cause. “I found it interesting that the complaining witness corrected the officer and told him that [the] suspect did not have a weapon and that he had ‘issues,’” Beggs wrote to RANGE Friday night. He continued:
“I didn’t perceive any actual or perceived threat of physical harm from the complaining witness. We never saw the hat she described that was thrown in her direction but it’s hard to believe it would be harmful. Actually contacting someone with spit in Washington could be a 4th degree assault but I wasn’t clear that he actually spit on her. So, the question becomes did the officer have the legal authority to arrest him when he ordered him to the ground. The officer also says he took a swing at him but the only thing I observed was a flinch of the arm when the officer grabbed at him.”
The man was booked on one count of misdemeanor obstruction of an officer, misdemeanor fourth degree assault, (presumably for spitting at the security guard) and one count of third degree assault.
There’s some ambiguity where the third degree assault charge comes from, though at the end of the body camera video, the officer can be heard saying “you just got a third” — presumably referring to that charge. If that is indeed the case, then the only felony charge would be for actions after the officer approached the man, not anything he had done leading up to the altercation.
Third degree assault is a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison or a $20,000 fine.
Details of his jail stay are harder to pin down, but it appears he was held overnight on those charges. On Friday he was released on his own recognizance, but held for an additional day on an “institutions hold,” which are generally granted for mental health reasons and require evaluation by designated crisis responders to make sure a person isn’t a danger to himself or others.
By mid-afternoon Saturday, jail records indicated he had been released.
Each of the three witnesses RANGE spoke with felt the man was agitated but not threatening, with his hands at his side, and was yelling in response to being yelled at by the officer.
Connacher, who witnessed the altercation from across the street, saw no reason for that level of aggression. “I’ve seen situations where cops need to protect themselves when people are being aggressive,” she said. “This wasn’t one of them.”
Compassion and accountability
Over the last decade, the city of Spokane has had the seventh deadliest police force per capita among America’s 100 largest cities. Last year, three people were shot and killed by SPD officers: Peterson Kamo, Dominic Spears and Robert Bradley. A fourth man, Terry Allen Starkweather, was killed inside Spokane city limits by a Spokane Sheriff Deputy.
Read more about the circumstances of those deaths and deaths at the hands of Spokane County Sheriff deputies in this Emma Epperly article from the Spokesman Review.
When RANGE asked SPD Chief Craig Meidl about the high levels of police violence in Spokane last winter, he attributed it to the fallibility of humans.
“The reality is, we hire humans and humans are free to make that choice of violating policy, violating law, committing acts that everyone else that they work with disagrees with,” Meidl said.
Meidl emphasized that the department has instituted reforms that are aimed at accountability. “The steps that we’ve taken include the body camera video, as an example. It includes the chain of command review of all of our uses of force in all of our complaints. It includes civilian oversights.”
“We explain our expectations. We work to develop that culture of professionalism, that culture of integrity and that culture of compassion,” Meidl said. “But in the end, these officers will have that free choice of violating policies.”
For Love, encounters like this are disheartening, because they are the most visible and violent examples of the way people who are struggling with drug addiction and homelessness are treated and talked about in Spokane. “There’s an arrogance and ignorance with how people talk about addiction,” Love said. It’s not as simple as eradicating addiction by making drugs illegal or sweeping people who are using out of sight.
“Something deep inside is wrong. There’s a cancer of trauma in our culture,” Love said. A cancer that grows when people who live on the street are subject to violence and harassment, which can lead people to keep turning to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. “They are living that way because of the circumstances of their life — desperate pain and fear, discrimination and stigma.”
Julie Garcia, the founder of Jewels Helping Hands, echoed Love’s sentiment and said that the rough treatment of unhoused people persists because of the dehumanization of unhoused people in general. “This shows that these folks are disposable in the eyes of our community … and people wonder why these people have an opposition to authority.”
Garcia said she will try to connect the man with housing and services. “All we can do is try to help on the other end,” she said. “Hopefully we can get him into something — it sucks that it would have to happen this way.”
Kurtis Robinson echoes a similar sentiment about pervasive trauma, but his focus is on law enforcement. “Have you seen that stat that was on the 2020 report to congress about the suicide rates of officers?” He asked. “They’re in crisis — and one of the main reasons is we are not supporting them properly.”
For Robinson, support has multiple facets. “We ask officers to provide a service. We need to make sure we support them in doing that job and also make sure there are no loopholes in holding them accountable when they fail to do that job,” he said. “If you raise a child without healthy boundaries and accountability, how do they act? Very poorly.” With support that includes accountability, people grow up to value themselves, value their community, and value their place in community, he said.
“We all need that real human support — and support comes with boundaries. Real, healthy boundaries.”