Was the Seattle Police officer justified in punching the teenager?
SEATTLE – Seattle Police brass have launched an investigation into every aspect of what started as a jaywalking stop and quickly deteriorated into a single officer being surrounded by a growing angry crowd.
The videotape of the incident first aired on KING 5 News. It shows a veteran officer throwing a punch at a 17-year-old girl, landing on her chin.
Local African American community leaders quickly reacted.
"This is another case of we are standing here and we are saying to the police shame on you," said James Kelly, President and CEO of the Urban League. "The use of violence in the form of a full blown punch to the face was wrong."
"He escalated the the situation which could have turned into a riot out there," said Chris Bennett, Seattle Medium founder.
SPD says the tape doesn't tell the whole story.
"We can't rely on the video, particularly this video because you can't see there is quite a bit of what occurred from the beginning up until about 10 or 15 seconds to where the officer took the action that he took," said Acting Deputy Chief Nick Metz.
"I don't care what Nick Metz, Diaz, or the mayor or anybody say(s) - we saw what we saw," said Bennett.
Seattle police say it all started Monday afternoon after an officer observed four women jaywalking across Martin Luther King Junior Way South in Seattle's Rainier Valley.
When the officer attempted to stop them, voices and tensions escalated. The officer was attempting to handcuff a 19-year-old woman when her 17-year-old friend tried to intervene. In the video, you can see the 17-year-old push the officer. That's when the officer pulls back his arm and punches the 17-year-old in the face.
As a crowd of people gathered around the officer and teens, a man who heard them argue pulled out his camera and videotaped the incident. He later distributed the tape to local media.
Once the tape hit the air, Deputy Chief Nick Metz said police took a look at the tape and it did raise some serious concerns.
"You obviously have to take into context everything that occurred from the point that the officer did make contact with the individuals until the situation ended. As I said before, we have some concerns about the tactics the officer used and employed at the time. Again, we did feel what occurred did deserve a review by the Office of Professional Accountability," said Metz.
Eventually the officer managed to handcuff the first suspect as well as the girl he punched. The 19-year-old woman was booked into King County Jail for obstructing an officer. The 17-year-old girl, who was punched, was taken to the Youth Service Center for investigation of assault on an officer. Both females were cited for jaywalking.
"I think if the young women involved had just cooperated with the officer, I can't say what the officer's actions would have been - whether he intended to cite them or if he intended to just give them a verbal warning - it certainly would not have escalated to where it did. These women do have to bear much of the responsibility in the altercation that occurred," said Metz.
And even the Urban League says the young women are not without blame.
"Let me be clear here, what the 17-year-old did was wrong and I am not making any excuses for her, but two wrongs don't make a right," said Kelly.
The 17-year-old girl was in court Tuesday afternoon. She is charged with jaywalking and under investigation for assaulting the officer. Prosecutors will decide charges by Thursday. The girl had visible bruises on her arm. The judge released the girl to the foster home where she lives. Her caregiver spoke out on her behalf.
"This is a good kid in a bad situation. It could be your kid, your son or daughter. Would you want the police hitting them?" she said.
Both the 17-year-old and the 19-year-old have had arrests in their pasts. And the 19-year-old was once arrested for assaulting a King County Deputy. In all cases, charges were dropped.
KING 5 News talked with one of the young women involved in the incident. She said she was scared and did not want to appear on camera.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the Seattle Police Officers Guild came to the defense of the officer and credited him for settling an angry exchange in a way that no one was hurt.
Sgt. Rich O'Neill also offered a warning.
"It is never okay to get into a confrontation with an officer out on the street, use force against that officer and then somehow think that you are justified in doing that," he said.
He said the video underscores the need for the community to know what to do when they encounter a police officer.
The Seattle police officer involved, Ofc. Ian Walsh, was hired on the force in November of 2006. He has been transferred to a training facility to go over training tactics.
This punching incident comes less than two months after another video sparked outraged against Seattle police officers. In that video, two cops are seen stomping on a robbery suspect. One of the officers used racially charged language against the Latino man, who was later freed while other men were arrested. That case is still under investigation.