“This was cold-blooded murder. Let me repeat: cold-blooded murder. Executed by the Seattle Police Department.” That’s how Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle/King County NAACP, described the death of Che Taylor.
On the afternoon of February 21, Seattle police shot and killed Che Taylor, a 46-year-old African American man. The cops initially claimed they were responding to a report of a “suspicious car” in the upscale, mostly white neighborhood of Wedgwood in North Seattle, but claimed in a subsequent statement that they were “conducting surveillance.”
At around 4:15 pm, four police officers approached a white Ford Taurus occupied by Taylor and two other passengers. As shown in dash-cam video released by the Seattle Police Department (SPD), two plainclothes officers approached Taylor from the opposite side of the car, as he was standing next to the open passenger side door with his hands in the air.
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A third officer (and perhaps a fourth officer offscreen) approached from the other direction with handguns drawn. The two plainclothes officers didn’t identify themselves as they approached Taylor with an assault rifle and shotgun drawn and aimed at him.
Taylor put his hands up right away. He was then ordered to “get down,” and then to “get on the ground.” He complied with both orders, despite the fact that he was standing in front of an open car door. As the first officer moved in toward Taylor, the second officer moved around the car and opened fire, shooting Taylor seven times.
Nine seconds elapsed between the initial contact between Seattle police and Taylor, and the seven shots that left him dead.
The SPD description of the events leading up to the shooting contradict the departmetn’s own dash-cam video.
According to the police, “Officers contacted the man who refused commands. Two officers fired at the suspect during the confrontation.”
Yet the video clearly shows that Taylor obeyed commands to put his hands up and two seemingly contradictory orders to get on the ground. Within seconds of Taylor getting down on the ground, one officer appears to reach down toward him – and then a second swings around the car and opens fire on Taylor, narrowly missing the first.
The justification for the shooting hinges on the police claim that Taylor reached for a handgun while he was on the ground. The video is unclear on what transpired in the four seconds Taylor was on the ground. It’s also unclear from the video whether the officer who opened fire could even see Taylor before he fired. How he could have even seen a “confrontation” and a gun being pulled is unclear.
The video leaves viewers with more questions than answers. Why did the two officers who approached Taylor not ask him to back away from the car? “You heard them say get down,” retired Washington, DC, police officer Ronald Hampton told the Stranger’s Ansel Herz. “He got down. He was following the orders. He was obeying what they were shouting.”
Why did police initially report that they were only responding to a call of a suspicious car, when they later admit they were conducting surveillance? Why were they armed with an assault rifle and shotgun, and dressed in plainclothes?
Conflicting reports claim that Taylor reached inside the car for a gun and that he reached for a holstered weapon. Which, if any, is true? Why would anyone prone on the ground reach for a gun with three or four officers, with guns drawn, surrounding them? Are there other videos from that day beyond what the SPD released? And why does the dash-cam video cut off after officers shoot Taylor?
Seattle Police officer Michael Spaulding has been identified as the cop who shot Che Taylor.
Spaulding has a troubled history with the SPD, including another shooting death in 2013 of Jack Sun Keewatinawin, a 21-year-old Native American man. Spaulding killed Keewatinawin, who suffered from mental illness, with a shotgun during a confrontation between family members at Keewatinawin’s home.
Spaulding was also one of 126 officers who signed onto a 2014 lawsuit against federally mandated reforms of SPD use-of-force policies. Spaulding’s history casts a shadow on his conduct and paints a picture of a trigger-happy cop, with a stated bias against even the limited efforts at reform by the Justice Department.
Before these critical questions had been answered, local media were quick to parrot information fed to them by the SPD that Taylor was a “known felon” who was “clearly armed.” Early reports even stated that he was a “wanted felon,” which was false.
Taylor was released in 2014 after serving 22 years in prison for rape, assault and robbery. Since his release, Taylor worked at an Amazon warehouse as a forklift driver and was going through what his brother described as a “redemptive process.”
It’s unclear that his prior convictions were at all related to what transpired on February 21, yet the SPD’s decision to include this in its initial reports – and the media’s decision to include this in their headlines from day one – was clearly intentional.
“What is the dynamic there? Why would the department choose to bring forth that type of information,” Enrique Gonzalez with the Public Defender Association told the King 5 News. “It’s almost like you’re putting them on trial in public.”
At a February 23 press conference, NAACP President Hankerson pointed out the similarities with how the media treated police shooting victims like Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and even the 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland:
There seems to be a pattern in the media when it comes to a Black man losing his life. The first thing you look for is his criminal history. Stop looking at him as a felon and start looking at him as a father. Stop looking at him as a gang member or a drug dealer or whatever you want to call him, and start looking at him as a son, or he somebody’s brother. It’s interesting how this becomes a pattern in our community. I won’t be surprised if they come up with a report that says he once smoked marijuana 10 years ago. That is absolutely irrelevant. Stop demonizing the victim and start holding the right people accountable.
It’s not surprising that the SPD would try to divert attention from its role in this shooting, which comes embarrassingly at a moment when it is supposed to be the poster child for police department reform.
Since 2012, the SPD has been under a consent decree by the Department of Justice, after the Feds’ investigation uncovered a longstanding pattern of police abuse and racism, including the police murder of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams, which sparked sustained protests in the city.
Since then, the SPD has worked hard to clean up its image, implementing new racial sensitivity and de-escalation trainings and even firing one officer, Cynthia Whitlatch, who arrested a 69-year-old African American veteran for walking down the street with a golf club he used as a cane.
Seattle’s new police chief Kathleen O’Toole has been praised nationally for her efforts to reform the department. President Obama invited O’Toole to his January’s State of the Union address and held a private meeting with her afterward. According to a White House press release:
Chief Kathleen O’Toole has led the Seattle Police Department in developing its approach to community policing, and her focus on improving officer morale, implementing new policies and optimizing department resources has received national attention. Under her leadership, the department tested a six-month pilot program for body-worn police cameras focused on public transparency, and the Department of Justice awarded the department a $600,000 grant to expand the program. Last year, the Seattle Police Department presented its policies at the White House Police Data Initiative as part of its renewed emphasis on accountability and transparency.
Conveniently, the police who shot Taylor weren’t wearing these much-lauded body cameras. And even before this recent shooting, this rosy picture was already showing cracks.
First, there was the unnecessary force and racist treatment against nonviolent Black Lives Matter protesters last winter. Then there’s the ongoing resistance to reform spearheaded by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, recently rated the worst police union in the country for its role in delaying investigations, erasing personnel data, disqualifying complaints and limiting civilian oversight.
In May 2015, two programmers filed hundreds of public records requests on complaints against the SPD between 2010 and 2013. “Of the 11 most-investigated employees – one was investigated 18 times during the three-year period – every single one of them is still on the force, according to SPD,” reported the Stranger. “In 569 allegations of excessive or inappropriate use of force (arising from 363 incidents), only seven were sustained – meaning 99 percent of cases were dismissed.”
In November 2015, nearly 50 community leaders signed a statement in support of the Community Police Commission, urging the city to pass legislation ensuring community oversight over police reforms, a process which Mayor Ed Murray has committed to verbally, but continues to delay in practice.
The same week as Taylor’s shooting, another SPD officer was suspended for a 2013 incident in which she used a racial slur, caught on dash-cam video, against a suspect.
Taylor’s killing has only added fuel to the fire of activists’ growing cries for police accountability. In the days following his death, Taylor’s family held nightly vigils to commemorate his life and demand justice. Some 100 protesters took to the streets on February 25, blocking morning traffic after a rally at police department headquarters downtown.
“We’re not going to walk quietly into the night,” Taylor’s brother Andrè told the Seattle Times. “We have to move with reason, thought, objective and purpose. We need everybody in Seattle to rise up.”
More protests are being planned in the coming weeks, and the NAACP has secured the James Bible Law Group to represent itself and the family in this matter, demanding that the city release all information regarding the shooting. As the NAACP’s Hankerson emphasized in the press conference:
I’m outraged. And I don’t know how long it’s going to be before we see this again, but you should be just as outraged as we are. The police are sitting in their homes right now, getting a big check, while they’re getting their narrative together to respond, because they knew we were coming. And yes, we are coming. But we hold every single city official accountable.
Everybody should be at the table talking about this, because this isn’t just an NAACP issue. This is a community issue. This is everybody’s issue. Because tomorrow it could be you, or me…Just like Tamir Rice. Just like Michael Brown. Just like Eric Garner. And now it’s our own here in Seattle, and the NAACP is done with this. We’re not taking this no more.