Seattle police ruffle a lot of jaywalker feathers


Earlier this year, a Seattle police officer was brought up on administrative charges he punched someone he had stopped for jaywalking in a distant southeast corner of town near Lake Washington.  Here’s how TV/radio station KOMO  just described the outcome: “The case was ruled excessive, but a clerical mistake sent the disciplinary notice to the wrong officer, and by the time anyone noticed the mistake the 180-day deadline had long since passed.” Case closed.

Now I don’t know which is worse: The cop allegedly slugged someone for insufficient reason, the powers-that-be couldn’t get his name right on the paperwork–or Seattle police consider jaywalking a major law enforcement priority.

But it’s become pretty clear that Seattle cops are cut from a different cloth, even by the sometimes rough-justice standards found among the constabulary forces of the United States. I’m hardly alone in this opinion. Just this morning, the U.S. Justice Department in “the other Washington,” as the nation’s capital is called out here, released a long-awaited report that stated, “Our investigation finds a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force … as well as serious concerns about biased policing.” The 67-page report specifically lists (on page 10, if you’re looking) jaywalking among the minor offenses that prompted “repeated uses of excessive force” by police.

In advance of the federal report, Seattle Police recently announced that it has ordered a “complete revamp” of how it operates. This apparently means less beating and more meeting. And in the hours before this morning’s Justice Department’s press conference, the police powers-that-be posted on their own blog copies of recent reports summarizing the department’s use of force and other alleged misconduct.

Over the years Seattle policemen have been portrayed by such actors as John Wayne (in the 1974 movie “McQ”), Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez (in the franchise movies “Stakeout” and “Another Stakeout”), Dabney Coleman (in “Short Time”) and Woody Harrelson (in “Battle of Seattle”). Still, the Seattle Police Department is hardly the stuff of popular national legend like the cops in, say, New York City (“Serpico,” “Law and Order,” “Car 54, Where Are You?”) or Los Angeles (“Dragnet”).

So perhaps to make up, Seattle seems to have become the U.S. anti-jaywalking enforcement capital.

Last year, according to Seattle’s annual Traffic Report, city cops wrote 1,570 jaywalking tickets, up a hefty 23% from 1,274. One of those 1,570 went to Kenny Williams, general manager of the Chicago White Sox. He got cited after crossing a street midblock near Safeco Field to enter the stadium and watch his team play.

The cops even stage periodic stake-outs to catch errant street-crossers. And why not? Under the law as it now stands in this inconsistently tolerant town, jaywalking in Seattle carries a heavier penalty than marijuana use or public nudity. (But unlike jaywalking, it’s not clear that those two modest prohibitions are even enforced. In Seattle, weed is smoked openly, especially during the annual Hempfest festival every summer that draws hundreds of thousands to the Seattle waterfront. The start of summer is marked each year by a clothing-optional bicycle parade in the city’s Fremont neighborhood.)

The word about jaywalking certainly has gotten around locally. As a friend of a Facebook friend recently posted, “We went out there [to Seattle] for a game last month. Outside the hotel downtown @ 6 a.m. No traffic in sight. People wait for the ‘walk’ signal before crossing streets. These people are robots.”

As the Lake Washington incident suggests and the Justice Department report reinforces, Seattle also has become the U.S. cops-punch-jaywalkers capital, too.  This has been a problem for years and the subject of at least four official reports. Video of one earlier punching incident involving a woman is posted on YouTube. The policeman was later cleared of an excessive-brutality allegation, and the woman pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. A 17-year-old boy sued the city, saying his nose was broken after police used excessive force during a 2009 jaywalking stop. Police said the teen resisted officers.

A number of these incidents seem to have regrettable racial overtones: white cop, black defendant.

Now, policing can be a tough business. And for all of its “Seattle Nice image, the city has a serious crime rate 25% above the national average. But so why worry much about unserious jaywalking?  (By the way, the term, generally defined as crossing on foot a street not at an intersection or crosswalk, was coined nearly a century ago to describe “jays,” or rural folk who supposedly didn’t know how to walk safely in the big city. In early usage the term was considered a pejorative.)

It’s been forcefully argued that strict enforcement of jaywalking laws does not improve safety, and even flies in the face of a centuries-old tradition that  streets belong to all. Moreover, Seattle is a town that prides itself on being pedestrian friendly, meaning it should be drivers, not walkers, whom the law should lean on. So the question certainly can be raised whether police resources in cash-strapped Seattle are being deployed in the best way.

Or for that matter, in any way. I’m an ex-police reporter who over the past four decades have lived or worked around the country in places like New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Albuquerque and Los Angeles. Since becoming New To Seattle last summer, I never have frequented a big city where I have seen less of a routine police presence. Sometimes I go weeks without seeing a police cruiser on the streets or a cop walking (or bicycling) a beat. Granted, I live in one of the safer, more quiet zip codes in Seattle. But I regularly go through downtown Seattle and get to all corners of the city refereeing youth soccer matches. To my eyes, Seattle police are MIA.

Indeed, the police presence has been so scant at night around downtown Seattle that a 23-year-old man dressed up in a black superhero-style costume with a yellow mask, called himself Phoenix Jones and, with a group of followers armed mainly with their voices and a little pepper spray, tried to maintain law and order. Even though he’s gotten into altercations, Jones gets a lot better press than Seattle cops. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t target jaywalkers.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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16 Responses to Seattle police ruffle a lot of jaywalker feathers

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  10. NewToSeattle says:

    Third and Pike is definitely a rough intersection.

  11. Dorothea says:

    Seattle Police have been handing out jaywalking tickets for 25 years. We all know it, and that’s why we wait at cross-walks, in the rain, at 2:30 in the morning with nothing coming either way. It’s just the way it is. And yes, I’ve been ticketed so now I just don’t do it.

    The Seattle Police Department is a hot mess, controlled by Sgt. Rich O’Neill of the Seattle Police Officers Guild. Ian Birk – who essentially murdered John T. Williams – is the end product of the training and policies used by the SPD. Cops are there when they *aren’t* needed (i.e., the shooting of the woodcarver, jaywalking tickets) but never around when they *should* be (see: Third and Pike, any time of the day or night).

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  13. NewToSeattle says:

    Ha! That’s a stretch of road I’m not on often.

  14. chrismck says:

    I don’t think they are MIA – I think they all moved to Aurora south of 85th to ticket loads of people going barely above the speed limit and making lots of money for the city (apparently jaywalking isn’t as profitable as speeding tickets)!

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