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