SEATTLE -The Seattle City Attorney has announced a decision in the case of an undercover officer caught on tape repeatedly kicking a teen inside a downtown convenience store last October.
Seattle Police Officer James J. Lee is being charged with fourth degree assault, a criminal misdemeanor. If convicted, he faces up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. He will be arraigned April 29.
“We understand that our police officers have a dangerous job,” City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a press release. “They are thus permitted the legal ability to use reasonable force in apprehending people suspected of having committed a crime. When the force used is not reasonable under the circumstances, the officer must be held accountable.”
Lee's attorney, Peter Offenbecher, said his client is innocent. "We intend to vigorously defend him in court," Offenbecher told KING 5. "He is an outstanding officer. We're very disappointed he has been charged."
The incident happened as the officer was trying to make an arrest following a drug buy-bust Oct. 18, 2010. The video showed the teen, D'Vontaveous Hoston, inside the store, raising his arms in apparent surrender just before Lee kicked him to the ground. Officer Lee then kicked Hoston two more times, once in the torso and once in the head, before another officer moved in and handcuffed Hoston.
Lee claims he had issued multiple warnings to the teen to get on the ground before they entered the store.
After the video aired on local TV, Seattle Police Chief John Diaz sent a formal request to the chief of the Washington State Patrol asking his department to conduct a criminal investigation into the incident.
The Seattle City Attorney received the state patrol’s case, consisting of several hundred pages, last month.
The Seattle Police Department released a statement Wednesday, confirming the charges.
"The Office of Professional Accountability will continue to monitor the case as it proceeds through the criminal justice process. The involved officer remains on administrative reassignment," the statement read.
Seattle Police Officer's Guild President Rich O'Neill criticized the decision, saying there was no evidence to support the charge and that it was only meant to appeal to those who are "anti-police." He also claimed that the charge sends a bad message to criminals and citizens.
"You are supported if you flee from the police, ignore police verbal commands and then file a frivolous claim against the police department. With this decision you now become 'the victim,'" O'Neill said in a written statement. "This message tells our citizens who want to live and work in the downtown area and be free from the open air drug markets and roving gangs who victimize people; that our city will not support the very officers that you rely on to protect you!"
Hoston's lawyers filed a claim against the city of Seattle in February, seeking a jury trial or a $450,000 settlement, claiming the youth was the victim of “unjustified and excessive force” by the Seattle Police Department.
"I think the video speaks for itself," said Chris Carney, Hoston's attorney. "Mr. Hoston was not involved in any criminal behavior. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, happened to have the wrong color skin. The officer attacked him for no reason when D'Vontaveous was trying to surrender. Mr. Hoston has been exonerated and I think it's beyond time that the officer be held accountable for what he did to D'Vontaveous."
James Bible, president of the Seattle NAACP, applauded the decision to charge Lee but thinks the officer should also be charged for another incident that night. Bible is an attorney for Darius Yearby, another suspect who was arrested. Pointing to video taken outside of the store, Bible claims Lee used unnecessary force by putting his foot on Yearby's head.
Attorney Tim Tesh said one of his clients was involved in a confrontation with Officer Lee in Pioneer Square in 2004. His client admittedly gave police officers an obscene gesture, then ran away, Tesh said. His client claimed that Lee caught up with him and hit him over the head with an object, causing a gash. But Lee maintained that never happened.
The client was charged with obstructing an officer and resisting arrest, Tesh said, but when the case went to trial, a jury found the man not guilty. The man filed a claim for damages with the city, which eventually paid the man $11,000, Tesh said.