The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has launched an investigation into an incident in which an officer arrested an elderly veteran who was using a golf club as a walking stick.
The arrest has sparked outrage in the city and calls for the officer, Cynthia Whitlach, to be fired. She has been put on desk duty while the investigation continues.
On Thursday, Mayor Ed Murray discussed the incident with police chief Kathleen O’Toole, who took up her post last summer promising reform.
Officer Whitlatch, who is white, arrested 70-year-old William Wingate, who is black, in the city last July on charges of obstruction, after accusing him of “swinging” the golf club at her. But a video and audio recording of the encounter on the sunny street, captured on the police cruiser’s camera, showed Wingate did nothing of the sort.
News of the investigation follows an incident earlier this month , in which a member of the public shot footage of a Seattle police officer pepper-spraying a male teacher and a middle-aged woman who were walking away from a protest march.
In 2011, a US Department of Justice investigation into the SPD found a pattern of excessive force and possible bias . Whitlatch was one of more than 100 officers who filed a lawsuit last year to knock down the agreement between the city and the DoJ , although that lawsuit failed in October .
Whitlatch also made widely reported comments on Facebook about “black racism” and African Americans blaming their problems on whites.
Seattle police released video footage of the encounter between Whitlatch and Wingate. In the video, Whitlatch is seen encountering Wingate on a street corner. He is leaning on the golf club, and the officer can be heard calling from her cruiser for him to put the club down, because it is a weapon.
In a surprised and puzzled tone, Wingate asks “What?”
He then tells Whitlatch he has been using the club as a cane for 20 years. She starts shouting at him to “set down” or “shut down” the club – the audio is not entirely clear.
Wingate is holding a small shopping bag in one hand and the club in the other – he raises his arms in a slight shrug of apparent confusion and irritation. At that point, Whitlatch shouts: “You swung that golf club at me.”
The exchange continues until another officer arrives and an arrest is made.
Wingate spent the night in jail. The case against him was later dismissed; the police have apologised.
In November, Wingate’s attorney, Susan Mindenbergs, filed a claim against the city. The claim, which seeks at least $750,000 in damages, says Wingate’s civil rights were violated and his only crime was “walking in Seattle while black”.
The Seattle King County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People said the actions by the SPD were “too little, too late”. It has called for Whitlatch to be fired.
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