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Mayor Ed Murray says “Seattle is not Ferguson.” In countless ways I’m sure he’s right, except for this very important one: It’s just as unlikely for cops to get charged for bad deeds here as it is in supposedly backward Missouri.
In fact we’re arguably worse than Ferguson.
No offense to the thousands of protesters marching on behalf of Michael Brown. But what has stood out to me is how the Ferguson case isn’t nearly as flagrant as recent police-brutality cases here in progressive Puget Sound.
In Ferguson, the police officer, Darren Wilson, had a good case to make that he was under some level of assault. If it’s true that Brown slugged the officer through the squad-car door and tried to wrestle away his gun — as the officer and some witnesses attest — then getting even a low-level manslaughter charge to stick against the officer would be next to impossible.
The Ferguson case is supercharged by that region’s racial history. But still — compare the facts of it to what happened in Seattle to John T. Williams in 2010. Ferguson isn’t on the same radar screen of outrageousness.
Unlike Brown, Williams didn’t assault anyone or do anything hostile, beyond toting his carving knife with a wood block and maybe looking menacingly in a police officer’s direction. The officer, Ian Birk, told him to drop the knife. When Williams didn’t — perhaps because he couldn’t hear — Birk shot five times and killed him.
Even the police department called that “egregious.” Yet no charges were filed. Our outgoing U.S. attorney, Jenny Durkan, this week compared that case to Ferguson in an article she wrote for The Washington Post, headlined: “As a federal prosecutor I know how hard it is to charge officers like Darren Wilson.”
An officer has to have malice or willfully bad intent to be convicted, she wrote. It’s an incredibly high bar. “Accident, mistake, fear, negligence or bad judgment is not sufficient,” Durkan wrote when declining to charge Birk.
You can see why the chances of Darren Wilson getting convicted by the state or the feds in Ferguson would be near zero.
We’ve had other baffling cases, such as Christopher Harris, a completely innocent man who mistakenly ran from police in Belltown in 2009 and then was shoved into a wall so hard it paralyzed him for life. The officer who did that not only wasn’t charged, but remained on the force.
But one case here was so extreme that prosecutors took the rare step of charging the officer. Troy Meade, of the Everett police, had shot an aggressive drunken driver, Niles Meservey, seven times from behind, killing him. The officer’s conduct was so questionable that a fellow officer did something unheard of: He crossed the blue line to testify against his mate, claiming the force Meade used was both excessive and vindictive.
Yet Meade was acquitted of second-degree murder by a jury in 2011. The officer argued the car was about to back up and hit him, and because the law puts such a premium on this state of mind defense, he walked.
My point isn’t to bash our local cops. These were isolated cases and don’t reflect on other officers.
But the narrative that’s developed out of Ferguson is that the officer there wasn’t charged because the system is inherently racist. Parts of it may be, but more so it’s just incredibly pro-cop. It lets them walk pretty much no matter what.
Durkan writes it’s this way for a legitimate reason: “We want police to be able to make split second decisions necessary to protect us.” That is crucial.
But in the Williams shooting in particular, it tilted too far. If there was nothing wrong legally with what happened to him, then it’s hard to imagine anything with the police ever being legally wrong.
Ferguson is bringing up an important debate about racial inequality.
But the case is too murky to support a national movement on police accountability.
We’ve had much starker ones right here. Seattle may be more Ferguson than Ferguson.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com
By David Edwards
Thursday, August 14, 2014 8:53 EDT
An African-American Seattle man who happened to be walking by a pro-Palestinian protest said that he is still confused as to why a security guard would have pepper sprayed him instead of a white man who was harassing demonstrators and yelling racial slurs.
Freelance photographer Alex Garland, who photographed and videotaped the incident, told The Stranger that a white shirtless man had been trying to start fights with activists at a pro-Palestinian rally on Saturday.
Garland said that the man had been shouting epithets like “towelhead” and “sand n*gger.”
As 26-year-old Raymond Wilford was walking to a friend’s house, the shirtless man apparently confused him for a protester.
“I was trying to avoid him because I heard him say a bunch of racial stuff,” Wilford told The Stranger.
In photos taken by Garland, the two men can be seen squaring off in a fighting stance, but Wilford said he never actually threw a punch.
That’s when a Westlake Center security guard arrived on the scene.
“The security guard was like, ‘Stop,’” Wilford recalled. “The white guy was still yelling and walking towards the security guard. I was like, ‘Why are you pointing your mace at me? He’s the one being aggressive.’ And then he pepper-sprayed me.”
Photos show the security guard walking past the shirtless white man to pepper spray Wilford, who is black.
“The guy that was the aggressor was closer to the security guard,” Garland said, according to MyNorthwest.com. “The other individual, the person of color, was further away but he was the one who got pepper sprayed.”
Video taken by Garland shows protesters pleading with the security guard, saying, “You Maced the wrong guy.” A Seattle police officer arrived on the scene, and the security guard took Wilford away to be detained. Meanwhile, the photos show the shirtless man casually walking away.
The security guard later told Seattle officers that Wilford “took an aggressive step towards him” so he was forced to deploy his pepper spray, a police reported indicated.
Valor Security Services, which employs the security guard, told KING that the guard gave multiple warnings.
“Please know these actions are never done without warning and careful consideration,” Valor spokesperson Scott Born insisted in a statement. “It is always our goal to try to resolve all situations as peacefully as possible.”
Valor declined to tell KING if the guard was still working for the company. The Seattle Police Department was investigating the incident.
For his part, Wilford said that he would like to speak with management at Westlake, and he has not ruled out legal action.
“I’ve been treated like that all my life, so it kinda brushes off,” Wilford explained to The Stranger. “I’m from the South, I’m from New Orleans. I’ve seen the worst of it.”
“People here seem to be more secretive about their not liking black people, or their racism,” he added. “I’m so used to it I don’t know what’s wrong and what’s right half the time.”
Watch the video below from KING, broadcast Aug. 12, 2014.