Updated Friday, January 25, 2013 at 12:18 PM
The Seattle Police Department's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) is reviewing an incident in which an officer put his hands on a man's throat and face, then punched him twice after the man, a suspect in a hit-and-run, resisted being handcuffed, a police spokesman said Tuesday.
Seattle police held a news conference Tuesday to show dashboard-camera footage of the Oct. 6 incident in the Central Area. The man's lawyer, James Egan, also was present and gave his permission for the footage to be made public.
Egan previously had received a copy of the footage as part of discovery in the criminal case against his client, Leo Etherly, but said court rules barred him from making the video public. He received a second copy of the footage through a public-disclosure request.
Sgt. Sean Whitcomb told reporters the officer's use of force raised concerns with the officer's acting captain, who referred the incident to OPA investigators within days of Etherly's arrest.
The OPA has not yet issued a ruling as to whether the force used was excessive, or if it was "necessary and reasonable," he said.
Because the police investigation is still "active and ongoing," Whitcomb said, by law, the department could not release the video to the media, though it moved to respond to Egan's public-disclosure request in an effort to be open and transparent.
Tuesday's release of the dash-cam footage came after Egan filed a public-records lawsuit against the Police Department, claiming the department dragged its feet on releasing the footage. Egan said he will proceed with the suit.
In the video, Etherly can be seen ignoring officer commands to keep his hands on the hood of a patrol car and yelling at them not to touch him. When an officer asks his name, Etherly responds: "Don't worry about my name. What's your name?"
The officer tells Etherly to turn around and place his hands behind his back, but as three officers move to handcuff him, Etherly yanks his left hand free, at which point one officer puts his hand to Etherly's neck and pushes him back onto the hood of a patrol car.
When Etherly complains of being choked, the officer responds: "I'm not choking you. I'm getting your head away from me."
Egan said Etherly was breathing in his own saliva and didn't mean to spit on the officer. But in the video, it appears Etherly turned his head and directed his spit at the officer's face. A second officer can be seen recoiling from the saliva. It was at that point that the officer used his forearm to strike Etherly in the head, as Etherly continued to resist being handcuffed.
The three officers take Etherly to the ground and are mostly out of the camera's view, but it appears the same officer delivered a second punch to Etherly's head as he and the other officers worked to get the 34-year-old into handcuffs.
The Department of Justice recently asked the city for information on the incident, as well as three other confrontations since June in which Seattle police used force. The request came after a July settlement agreement between the Justice Department and the city that included reforms to reduce the use of excessive force by police.
Whitcomb said the Seattle City Attorney's Office initially charged Etherly with hit-and-run for allegedly striking a female bicyclist and misdemeanor assault for allegedly spitting on officers. But the detective in charge of the case asked for those charges to be dismissed so the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office could review the case for possible felony assault charges.
Prosecutors declined the case, saying the evidence did not meet filing standards for a felony, and the case was sent back to city attorneys, who again are reviewing it, Whitcomb said.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or email@example.com
Seattle Times staff reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this report.
SEATTLE POLICE DEPARTMENT
A Seattle police officer swings at suspect Leo Etherly during his arrest in October in this police-cruiser dashboard video which is now public.