“Sue the Pants Off ‘Em!” Inside the Broken System of Police Accountability

by John Helmiere

I recently won a civil lawsuit against the Seattle Police Department. I felt varying degrees of satisfaction from: receiving the money, giving all the money away (Mothers for Police Accountability was a primary recipient), winning the lawsuit, and knowing that the officer who brutalized me would have a note in his file.

This all came almost five years after I was victimized by the Seattle Police Department while wearing my clergy collar and yelling “I’m a man of peace” during an Occupy protest. If you’re interested in reading more about that crazy story here is a link, but this article is about unveiling the messy reality of what can happen after suffering a violation by a member of Seattle’s Finest.

It seems that every week we hear at least one more story of police around this country killing Black men. The most recent victim was Reginald Thomas, a family member of one of the leaders in the church that I pastor. The response from city and police officials in almost all these cases is the same: “We are conducting a thorough investigation. We urge the community to withhold judgment until all the facts are in.”

For those removed from the situations, these words might seem reasonable. For those on the inside, or the receiving side of violence, the terrain is quite different. If you believe that checks and balances on police power function well, or you think that lawsuits are an easy option for those who have been harmed, perhaps the following narrative will change your mind.

For years, people have asked me: “Whatever became of that situation where the cops beat you up?” They wanted to hear a tale of triumphant redemption, or at least an old-fashioned revenge story. I was constantly advised to “sue the pants off ‘em!” 

I wavered for a long time, doubting a lawsuit would contribute to justice, and disturbed by the fact that lawsuit money comes out of the city budget, not from the paychecks of offending officers. I felt a need to do something. On a personal level, I wanted to confront, rather than passively accept, the abuse of power. On a social level, I felt obligated to add the “stubborn ounces of my weight” (to borrow the poet Overstreet’s phrase) to the mass movement for police accountability. So I started chasing justice.

These are steps I took and the obstacles I faced along the way. As you read these steps I took, it is crucial to remember that the majority of those assaulted and mistreated by police have far, far fewer social factors in their favor than I do. I struggled to follow through with many of these steps and I have all the cards in my favor: I’m an able-bodied white male pastor with two Ivy League degrees, plentiful connections, and a middle class salary to rely on, and still I faced obstacles at every turn. It is a miracle and testament to their courage and perseverance that folks fight these kinds of battles while facing skepticism of their trustworthiness and daily struggles of financial, housing, and other needs. My full respect to them. Now on with the story:

1: Media Skepticism, especially when lacking video evidence. The first, and most meaningful, action I took was to take a mentor’s advice who said: “your witness is not complete until you’ve told your story, spreading curiosity and dissent.” But since the actual beating was not recorded on video, many mainstream media sources like The Seattle Times ignored my story. So I posted my narrative on my church’s website. We had 40,000+ hits in the first two days, which was about 500 times more than average. The story then got picked up by outlets like Real Change, Yes Magazine, The Stranger, and Free Speech Radio. Yet, the police’s narrative carries such weight with the media and mainstream white America, that I was bombarded with personal attacks and accusations. The threat of public disbelief after experiencing trauma is one of the most vicious tools of the status quo.

2: Toothless Mediation. Next I filed a complaint with the SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA). They responded by calling to encourage me to participate in a mediation process. I was open to this until learning: (a) mediation did not guarantee that the officer himself would be present and they might simply send a “representative” from the SPD, and (b) choosing mediation automatically means the officer will face no disciplinary repercussions. I am actively involved in supporting restorative justice alternatives to criminal justice procedures, however real restorative justice is not just about “being heard.” Real restorative justice makes amends. The SPD’s mediation option may be helpful in some minor cases or miscommunications, but it is totally inappropriate as an alternative for more substantial harms.

3: Farcical OPA Investigation. Seattle’s OPA has a civilian head, but the actual investigations are done by SPD officers. Unsurprisingly, when cops investigate themselves they virtually always conclude they were in the right. In order to make my “excessive use of force” complaint I had to engage in the fantasy that members of the same group that bruised and bloodied me would turn around and support me. They did not.

Instead they called me on the phone out of the blue, said they were recording and began asking questions. Luckily I had the sense to say I would not talk to them over the phone and may want to consult a lawyer or other advisor first. I decided to go into the office, and my friend KL, an organizer for the NAACP, graciously accompanied me and helped me push back when they asked strange and leading questions.

After questioning me, OPA told me they’d get back to me no more than 6 months later with a verdict. Exactly 180 days later I got a letter from the OPA saying they found my case “inconclusive” and were closing the file. They also included a customer service survey! That is not a joke.

I decided to look up the percentage of cases that OPA dismissed and it appeared they did not bother to publish such easy-to-analyze numbers. I am a bit of a math nerd, so I decided to research OPA’s internal records myself. I was able to find annual stats from most years between 2006-2012. In that period, the OPA validated less than 1% of “excessive use of force” complaints. So, either more than 99% of people who subject themselves to the awful process of talking to the cops about their traumas are simply liars, OR… the OPA is a kangaroo court, an institution set up to provide a façade of justice that nearly 100% of the time sides with the police.

I am happy that some reforms have been introduced in the past couple years to the OPA, but we have an incredibly long way to go in fixing our primary check and balance on police power.

4: Prosecutorial Paralysis. People ask me if I “pressed charges” against the officer. It turns out that victims don’t press charges, only prosecutors can do that. So, prosecutors like City Attorney Pete Holmes, whose ability to do his job is dependent on maintaining a good working relationship with the police, chose not to act in my case, just as city prosecutors almost never choose to charge cops. Decisions to prosecute are highly political and prosecutors often tell media that they ought to wait until internal investigations from the OPA and similar agencies issue their findings.

Meanwhile mainstream sources like The Seattle Times collaborate with police-led character assassination attempts, as in the recent case of the police killing of Che Taylor, a man loved by his community, who some newspapers consistently refer to as “a violent armed felon.” The delays, and the mainstream media’s tacit legitimization of the police’s internal reports, serve to deflect public outcry long enough to reduce pressure on prosecutors to act when the reports finally emerge many months later.

5: Civil Lawsuit Challenges. When I finally decided to use all the tools available and file a civil lawsuit, I discovered that this is much harder than the “sue the pants off of ‘em!” folks realize. Even in civil court, it is notoriously difficult to win against the police.

I was told by numerous lawyers familiar with this work: “the cops will lie.” The laws are written to favor police—all they have to say is that they were afraid for their safety and if a jury believes them, then nearly any use of force is justified. Juries are predisposed to believe cops, and their practice speaking in courtrooms helps them to come across as comfortable and trustworthy. I was told that they would attack my personal integrity.

I also learned that even if a law firm takes your case on a “contingency basis” (meaning they get a percentage of your winnings instead of an hourly rate), you are still lawfully responsible for paying all legal and court fees. One law firm told me that the legal fees for taking my case to trial would probably exceed $20,000. If I won, the City would probably have to pay that, but if I lost or settled it would be my personal responsibility. That twenty thousand is not to pay the lawyers, that’s to pay deposition costs, expert witness fees, etc.

I did learn that a law firm can simply choose not to bill you for that, but the contract you sign must include a provision that you will pay the fees. The law is in place to reduce frivolous lawsuits. I was told that a case like mine, in which there is no video footage, no civilian witnesses of the beating, and no permanent impairment, was not likely to result in large winnings. So it was actually difficult to find firms willing to represent me.

Still, I decided to try, first calling the office of now city councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, who was then a lawyer famous for suing the SPD on civil rights violations. I reached out at least four or five times but never got a response of any kind. I received the same silence from other well-known firms.

I needed lawyers willing to take a case for reasons of social change, folks willing to hold the police’s feet to the fire whether or not they would be well-paid for it. I found that team with Carney, Gillespie and Isitt: a law firm whose social justice convictions have led them to take many cases against the SPD despite the challenges involved. They took my case to its unconventional end.

Midway through the lawsuit, after I got to witness the officer who beat me up lying under oath during a deposition, the city called to make an offer of settlement, which basically dismisses the case without a judgement but awards me money. I turned it down, but then the city called back with “an offer of judgement” which skips to the end of the court case and accepts a verdict in my favor. While the financial award accompanying this was lower than the settlement offer, I took it knowing that it would be part of the public record now that the City and police department accepted responsibility in this case. It has been frustrating that no news outlets have covered this verdict. See Step 1 above.

6: Movement Building. Changing the system will take a mass movement for police accountability. And this is happening as we speak! Police departments have been getting away with murder, literally, for so long now it is hard to imagine an alternative. But the movement is alive and growing. It has been transformative to engage in ongoing activism and organizing around police accountability via the Black Lives Matter Movement, Mothers for Police Accountability, my church Valley & Mountain, and the Resistance Choir (which is bringing music to the movement and the margins).

Ultimately, we will need more than new training manuals to bring the change we need. We need a revolution in how we think about and deploy peace-keeping and peace-making forces. People are hard at work on this now. But nothing will change unless those on the fence can be awakened to the miserable realities faced by many, many of our fellow citizens when they are mistreated by police. If you are one of those people, may you listen deeply, get upset, and become an agent of change.  

2 thoughts on ““Sue the Pants Off ‘Em!” Inside the Broken System of Police Accountability”

  1. Wow. This is a news story and this is a friend of mine, standing up for his rights and the rights of all Seattle citizens. Unsurprising what John found, but his story reflects the clarity of his intention and the love and compassion he exemplifies. Let this be a guide for all of us in all of our interactions with what seem to be horrible odds. Justice often does win, but it requires clear intention, compassion and the patience of, if not a saint, someone who knows what one is. Bravo John.

  2. Way to go John for standing for justice. The police have gotten away with this kind of stuff forever and it is way past time for them to be investigated and some much needed housecleaning. They need to remember they are paid to Serve and Protect, not terrorize and kil innocent people.