Former Seattle Police officer Cynthia Whitlatch was found guilty in a civil jury trial of violating an elderly man’s constitutional rights during a terry stop in 2014, awarding William Wingate $325,000 in damages.
Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole fired Whitlatch last September, following an Office of Professional Accountability investigation into allegations the stopping of Wingate as he walked along East Pike Street on July 9, 2014, and subsequent arrest was racially motivated.
Wingate, who was 69 at the time of the 2014 incident, was using a golf club as a cane as he walked east on East Pike Street. He was waiting for a light change on the northwest corner of 12th Avenue East and East Pike when Whitlatch made contact, pulling her patrol car over, opening her door and yelling at the man to drop his club, according to a complaint filed by Wingate, which alleges the former officer’s terry stop was based on the man being black.
In an initial police report, Whitlatch wrote she had seen Wingate raise the golf club and begin to swing it in a threatening manner, striking a stop sign. In a later interview with OPA, Whitlatch said she had not seen Wingate raise his club, nor did she hear a stop sign being struck, according to the case memo submitted by OPA Director Pierce Murphy. The civil complaint states Wingate had switched the club from one hand to the other.
O’Toole sustained three of the five recommendations made by the OPA, which stated Whitlatch violated SPD policies regarding the abuse of police discretion, escalation and bias-free policing.
"This particular case involving bias, abuse of police discretion, and escalation of a contact that should have been resolved without any confrontation is of great concern to the Seattle community and the Seattle Police Department," O’Toole wrote.
Wingate was arrested during the course of Whitlatch’s stop, after she called backup. Wingate turned his golf club and a plastic bag over to another officer without incident. The complaint states Wingate was arrested for alleged harassment and obstructing a police officer.
Wingate was walked to the East Precinct in handcuffs, without the assistance of a cane or his club, according to the complaint, and refused a request for water for eight hours after his arrest. Wingate was transported to the King County Jail after being screened at the East Precinct.
Prosecutors later dismissed the case and Wingate received an apology from SPD Deputy Chief Carmen Best.
"Your perceptions of race and other protected categories appear to be so deeply seated that they likely impacted the authoritarian manner in which you treated this man and your refusal to deviate from that approach towards an individual whose actions did not warrant such treatment," O’Toole wrote in her termination letter.
A civil trial jury found Whitlatch violated Wingate’s 14th Amendment equal protection rights and that the former officer is liable to Wingate under the Washington Law Against Discrimination. The jury did not find Whitlatch to have acted maliciously or in reckless disregard of Wingate’s federally protected rights.
According to the city attorney’s office, O’Toole found Whitlatch’s actions were performed within the scope of her position and the attorney’s office retained outside counsel — Christie Law Group — for the former officer.
Because Whitlatch was acting in her position as a law enforcement officer with the city of Seattle, it will be the city that will pay the assessed damages, according to the attorney’s office.
“Punitive damages, however, are paid in the discretion of the Mayor. … The standard is whether, in the Mayor’s opinion, payment of the damages is in the interests of justice and the City,” according to an email from the city attorney’s office.