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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Man Shocked 12 Times By SPD Files Suit

Jury selection began Tuesday for the civil rights lawsuit filed by Michael Watson against several Seattle Police officers over an arrest that occurred during the February 2005 Mardi Gras in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

The incident arose over allegations of theft made by a reportedly aggressive street vendor against Watson, who was accused of stealing a $5.oo string of beads. Officers claim that they overheard the dispute and when they warned Watson to pay the vendor he became belligerent and punched an officer in the chest. Officers then claim they were forced to wrestle him to the ground and arrest him for theft, resisting arrest, and assaulting an officer.

However, Watson claims that he was struck from behind by one of the officers after he used an obscenity in reaction to being accused of theft which caused him to fall into the officer he was accused of striking and then he claims officers needlessly used a stun gun on him over a dozen times during the arrest and suffered a ruptured disc, bruised ribs, and a shoulder injury caused by the officers.

While police officers, one of which an alleged expert in the use of Tasers, claim that they didn’t use their stun guns on Watson nearly as many times as was suggested, medical reports taken from Watson’s visit to Harborview Medical Center a day after he was arrested and posted bail record at least 12 individual burn marks on his torso and back. According to records, the charges against Watson were later dismissed in Seattle Municipal Court.

Allegations of excessive use of force being tied to counter-accusations of assault on an officer are fairly common, and sometimes contentious as the use of an assault on an officer charge along with obstruction and resisting arrest have long been termed as “the trinity” by police officers and as “cover charges” by defense attorneys and civil rights lawyers. Several recent cases in Seattle highlight the problems with accusations of assault on an officer, some of which resulted in losses by the city of Seattle in federal court.

Hayes & Lujan Case: Officers claim that Hayes tackled an officer who was arresting Lujan over a jaywalking incident but witnesses talking to journalists after the event made no claims to that effect. Hayes was ultimately found guilty of assaulting an officer anyway.

Bradford Case: Bradford ultimately won a wrongful arrest and use of force case against the city of Seattle even after an officer who reviewed the arresting officer's report tried to change it to indicate that Bradford had hit the officer, when the arresting officer even admitted he hadn't.

DV-One Case: A local DJ was arrested and convicted of assaulting an officer when he was trying to find out why officers were arresting and throwing his daughter against a cruiser for jaywalking. The DJ and some witnesses claimed he didn't hit the officer when he was beaten by several officers, but he was still convicted of assaulting an officer.

Nix Case: Nix, in his 70s at the time, was brutally beaten and later ended up hospitalized after he nearly bled to death in jail from the injuries he sustained in the beating which included a ruptured spleen. Officers insist that the arthritic old man, of whom friends say had great difficulty walking, had "surprised them with his speed and strength" when he allegedly assaulted them. Nix and other witnesses claimed the officers never identified themselves before they started pummeling him in an alleyway during an alleged drug bust.

In each of these cases of use of force the charges of Assault on an Officer came under questionable circumstances or the charges were outright disproved and highlighted serious problems with officers embellishing reports without consequence. Certainly, though, with the large number of publicly visible cases of alleged assaults on officers, there must be an epidemic of violence against the police, which they often cite as being the reason for aggressive tactics against civilians during arrests.

A review of records supplied by the Seattle Police Department seem to indicate otherwise, in fact showing a remarkable downward trend in the number of assaults against officers and the level of violence alleged during those supposed assaults, as the following graph shows… police work is the safest that it’s been in years:
chart shows incidents of assault on an officer, injuries from incidences, and excessive use of force complaints

However, as can be seen, the number of excessive use of force complaints filed don't correlate to the number of reported incidences of assault on an officer... while incidences of assault against officers have drastically declined over the years, excessive use of force by officers has risen somewhat in comparison, showing that officer aggressiveness is not tied to any reduction or increase in incidences of assault against officers.

It should be noted that there has been a downward trend in citizen reporting of abuses as trust in the oversight system has eroded and reports have indicated that complaints are used to prepare defenses against lawsuits instead of disciplining problematic officers, as exhibited in both the Bradford case and this case where the people alleging abuse did not report it to the police due to mistrust or the advice of their lawyers, so the use of force trending is likely off. Irregardless, it's clear that working as a police officer in Seattle is safer than ever, thus the steadiness of use of force complaints remains baffling.

So, the city finds itself in the midsts of another excessive force lawsuit where problematic claims of assault on an officer as justification for excessive force have been called into question. If Seattle's private law firm hired on a no-bid contract to defend police officers against civil rights litigation lose this battle, it will be the seventh civil rights abuse case lost or settled by the city in the last 12 months. The case against the city on behalf of Mr. Watson is being handled by Seattle civil rights attorney John Kannin of Kannin Law and no details yet on start dates or expected duration.

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