William Wingate, right, in topcoat with cane, led a protest walk in February on Capitol Hill over his arrest while using a golf club as his walking support. He said he no longer feels comfortable using a golf club on... (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

VIDEO SPD Chief Fires Officer who Arrested Man With Golf Club

Seattle Police Officer Cynthia Whitlatch was fired Tuesday over her arrest of an African-American man carrying a golf club as a cane, in what Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole labeled a case of biased and overly aggressive policing.

The closely watched decision stemmed from Whitlatch’s arrest last year of William Wingate, then 69, whom she accused of swinging the club as a weapon.

O’Toole sustained findings by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) that Whitlatch violated department policies regarding bias, discretion and de-escalating confrontations.

But O’Toole modified findings that Whitlatch had no basis to stop Wingate or use minimal force while detaining him, determining the evidence was inconclusive.

Whitlatch, 48, defended herself throughout the internal investigation, insisting she acted properly. She also portrayed herself as the victim of discrimination because she is white.

The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild backed her, vowing to appeal if O’Toole accepted an internal recommendation to terminate her employment.

Whitlatch’s actions also drew strong condemnation from the community, including a February march of protesters carrying golf clubs as canes.

Wingate was arrested July 9, 2014, while on his daily 10-mile walk, using the golf club as a cane. Whitlatch stopped him on Capitol Hill and, according to official accounts, claimed Wingate swung the club in a threatening manner, striking a stop sign, while she was driving past in her patrol car.

The two engaged in a heated verbal exchange, captured on patrol-car video, in which Wingate denied swinging the club. Wingate was booked into jail for investigation of unlawful use of a weapon and obstructing a police officer.

City prosecutors pursued only the weapon offense, and Wingate quickly agreed to a continuance of his case, under which the misdemeanor charge would be dropped in two years if he met court conditions.

A closer look

Prosecutors later moved to dismiss the entire case after a former state representative raised questions about the arrest. A judge accepted the dismissal, and the police department’s deputy chief, Carmen Best, ultimately apologized to Wingate for his arrest and returned his golf club.

Prosecutors later moved to dismiss the entire case after a former state representative raised questions about the arrest. A judge accepted the dismissal, and the police department’s deputy chief, Carmen Best, ultimately apologized to Wingate for his arrest and returned his golf club.

 Whitlatch’s racial views subsequently emerged as an issue when it was disclosed that, within two months of the arrest, she posted a comment on her Facebook page in the aftermath of riots in Ferguson, Mo., over the fatal police shooting of an African-American man on Aug. 9, 2014. In her post, she criticized “black peoples (sic) paranoia” in assuming whites are “out to get them.”

The OPA had already looked into that matter, referring it for supervisory counseling.

But Whitlatch’s overall racial views led to the internal recommendation she be fired over the encounter with Wingate. She claimed during the internal investigation that she was being targeted because she is white, and noted Best and the judge who dismissed the case against Wingate were both African American.

 A preliminary department report found Whitlatch’s actions and statements, during the incident and the recent past, indicated she felt unfairly treated by African Americans. It also concluded her perceptions of race appeared so “deeply seated” they influenced unwarranted and aggressive treatment of Wingate.

The report also noted Whitlatch has been previously disciplined and counseled for “unprofessional conduct,” including a verbal reprimand in 2002 over a traffic stop and a written reprimand in 1998 stemming from a personal dispute over $1.04 at a retail store.

”Extremely hostile”

Whitlatch told the OPA she detained Wingate after she heard a “big clank,” saw Wingate hit the sign with the golf club and deemed it was a “threat toward a police officer.”

 She said she initially didn’t intend to arrest Wingate, but that he was “extremely hostile” and “more obstructive than almost anybody else I’ve ever dealt with.”

In a second OPA interview, Whitlatch acknowledged that she didn’t see Wingate actually make contact with the stop sign, but saw a motion, heard a clang and saw Wingate “glaring” at her.

O’Toole, in modifying the OPA findings, found it inconclusive whether Wingate lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Wingate.

In turn, a finding that Whitlatch improperly used force when she held down Wingate’s hand while searching his pockets was deemed inconclusive because it arose from the finding the stop was improper.

O’Toole is required, in a letter, to explain her reasons to the mayor and City Council when she changes a finding.

Ron Smith, president of the police guild, has said the department failed to complete the investigation within a required 180-day limit. Police should have opened it in September 2014, when two commanders learned of the matter at a meeting with community members, not in January, he said.

Wingate sued the city and Whitlatch in April, alleging race discrimination, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violation of his civil rights.

Whitlatch’s Facebook post contributed to the police department’s development of a sweeping social-media policy that went into effect March 1, which bars officers from privately posting comments that reflect negatively on the department and its ability to serve the community.

Another officer’s Twitter posts in which he ranted about race, gays, President Obama and other subjects came to light in February.

The officer, Sam Byrd, received a written reprimand, with O’Toole noting in a written finding that he took “full responsibility” for what he acknowledged to be inappropriate posts.

 

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