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Updated Monday, January 7, 2013 at 11:46 PM

City to pay $75,000 to settle suit alleging excessive force in arrest

By Mike Carter
Seattle Times staff reporter

A civil-rights lawsuit brought by a man hit so hard during his 2008 arrest that his head bounced off the hood of a Seattle police patrol car has been settled, with the city agreeing to pay $75,000.

The Police Department and Officer Kevin Oshikawa-Clay defended his actions, claiming he struck an unsuspecting John Kita as part of a department-approved "distraction technique" designed to give an officer a tactical advantage when trying to quickly subdue a resisting suspect. Kita was arrested for an alleged domestic-violence assault.

From Kita's viewpoint, he was cooperating when Oshikawa-Clay unexpectedly hit him so hard in the back of the head that his head bounced off the patrol car's hood.

Nearly two years ago, a federal judge in Seattle denied the city's motion to throw out Kita's lawsuit, siding with his claim that the incident provided evidence of excessive force and that the Police Department supports a "local custom" of abuse by police. A panel of judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year let stand U.S. District Judge John Coughenour's order, paving the way for the suit to go to trial.

Assistant City Attorney Brian Maxey defended the settlement as financially responsible and a relatively small amount of money, given that the case had been extensively litigated since it was filed in 2010, including the trip to the appeals court.

Oshikawa-Clay argued that Kita, 49 at the time, was intoxicated and physically resisted him after the officer saw him assaulting a woman in a parking lot beneath the Interstate 5 overpass at Sixth Avenue and Cherry Street on Feb. 2, 2008. The incident was captured by Oshikawa-Clay's dashboard camera.

After getting out of his patrol car, Oshikawa-Clay ordered Kita to walk to him and place his hands on the hood of his patrol car.

Coughenour, in his 2011 order, wrote the next portion of the footage shows that Oshikawa-Clay "suddenly strikes [Kita] in the back of the head with the heel of his hand. [Kita's] head bounces once off the patrol car's hood. [Oshikawa-Clay] then uses both of his hands to grab [Kita's] right arm and drag [Kita] across his own body and onto the ground."

The city disputes that Kita's head hit the hood of the car, saying it made no sound on the video.

The footage then shows Oshikawa-Clay placing his knee in Kita's back and striking him twice. The officer then forces Kita's right arm behind his back and waits for backup.

Kita was never convicted of a crime and argued he complied with every one of the officer's orders, and was struck anyway.

The lawsuit also revealed that while Kita was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, a Seattle police sergeant — in an apparent effort to counsel the man against resorting to violence — was recorded explaining that "women are bone-headed ... You can't make a woman do a ... thing," according to court documents.

Maxey said the sergeant's intentions were good, although his choice of words "was probably not great."

Court documents indicate the arrest was reviewed both by Oshikawa-Clay's superiors and a department training officer, who praised the arrest and concluded the officer used the "minimum force" necessary to arrest a noncompliant and aggressive suspect.

The settlement is among several involving Seattle police and allegations of excessive force in recent months.

In September, the department paid $42,000 to settle a claim by 17-year-old D'Vontaveous Hoston, who was kicked by an officer in a Belltown convenience store in 2010 during a melee involving an assault on an undercover officer.

In November, the city paid $90,000 plus $40,000 in attorneys' fees to settle a lawsuit filed by Naita Saechao, who was beaten by four officers in a case of apparent mistaken identity.

City Attorney Pete Holmes said the city, since curtailing its longstanding practice of hiring outside attorneys to represent police, now has better control over police-abuse cases and — unlike contract lawyers — no financial incentive to drag out litigation that could be settled earlier.

"The previous attitude had been for outside counsel, being paid by the hour, to tell plaintiffs' lawyers to pound sand and fight these to the bitter end. They understood that if you settle early, the case is over and no more fees," Holmes said.

Holmes said that taking cases in-house relieves the financial pressure to drag a case out and allows his office to assess the city's exposure and settle cases that have merit or might be legally problematic.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com


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