spd officer pepper spraying older man on capitol hill nov. 27, 2020

Older Man Said to Be Veteran Suffering From PTSD Pepper Sprayed, Pulled to Ground by SPD Officer

by Carolyn Bick

An older man whom neighbors say is a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder is said to be recuperating at home, after a Seattle Police Department officer pepper sprayed and then pulled him to the ground, during a protest in Capitol Hill on the evening of Nov. 27. Posts on Twitter say that the man was trying to speak to the officers about how their actions and use of a loudspeaker were triggering for him.

One of the man’s neighbors, who declined to be identified by name when the Emerald later spoke with him, caught the incident on video, and posted it online shortly after. Though the video is marked as Nov. 29, someone else made the Emerald aware that this actually happened on Nov. 27. The video, which the Emerald has included below, shows the older man interacting with a Seattle Police Department (SPD) officer, who is pushing him backwards. The older man is carrying what appears to be a collapsible cane.

After pushing him backwards, the officer turns and starts to walk away, at which point the older man reaches out with his cane and whacks the officer. It is at this point that the officer turns and pepper sprays the man directly in the face. As the man turns away from the pepper spray, the officer reaches for the man and pulls him down to the ground. The officer then rolls the man onto his left side. Another officer comes over to assist this first officer, but it is unclear from the video whether they handcuff the man. The man remains on his side for the remainder of the video.

Video of the Nov. 27, 2020 incident in Capitol Hill.

The video shows that there is at most one foot of distance between them, when the officer pepper sprays the man. This would appear to put the man in danger of suffering from hydraulic needle effect, which, according to a 1997 SFGate article, occurs when “propellent pressure drives spray particles into soft tissue, risking injury to the eyes,” because it has been used in close range. Though a 2015 study meant to “collect the experiences of Iranian researchers about different types of tear gases and pepper sprays, effects, treatment strategies and also to provide a guideline for the prevention of abuse of these dangerous agents,” states that “[s]ome brands have addressed this problem by means of an elliptically cone-shaped spray pattern,” it is unclear if SPD officers use a brand that has addressed this problem.

The Emerald spoke with the man’s neighbor shortly after posting the original story about this incident on Dec. 2. The neighbor said that people were walking down the street, as part of a moving vigil centered around raising awareness for essential workers who have died in the current pandemic. 

The neighbor said that there was no property damage or any sort of destruction, and that the marchers and the cars accompanying them to keep the marchers safe from other cars were not blocking any traffic or an intersection. He also said that marchers were staying relatively quiet, since it was around 7:30 or 8 p.m., and people were starting to wind down for the night.

“It’s the kind of neighborhood, at the moment, where … if you’re going to protest, that’s fine, but loud noises? People are at an understanding here. … We know the protestors, we maintain positive relationships with them,” the neighbor said. “We just respect one another. So, the protests have never really been an issue coming through here, apart from … [Uncle] Ike’s.”

The neighbor also said that people are particularly mindful of making too much noise, because they know that people like the older veteran live in the area.

Given all this, it was unclear why SPD showed up. However, the neighbor said, when they did, traffic started to get backed up, when SPD officers showed up in a police SUV, booming “abusively loud” messages over a loudspeaker. The neighbor said that the police were telling marchers they were blocking an intersection — “the typical broadcast … everybody knows the script” — even though the marchers weren’t at an intersection.

“Before [the older man] even came out, the neighborhood was already pretty pissed off, because people were relaxing. They were trying to wind down for the night. … It’s not the time to be broadcasting [long-range acoustic device], and you’re also blocking traffic,” the neighbor said, referring to what he witnessed of the evening’s events and SPD’s actions. “A lot of people were already outside hollering at the cops, so it was already kind of getting loud, before he even came out.”

The neighbor said he imagines the police were “already on edge,” and that he could see backup arriving “in droves.” When the marches finally got to the police line, the neighbor said the marchers and cars were trying to get through to continue on their vigil path. The police car was still broadcasting loud messages. It was at this point that the veteran came out to see what was going on, and to talk with the police to tell them that he was upset.

“Their demeanor was very disrespectful, and so I guess he may have felt slighted. He kept pressing them, saying, ‘Hey, stop with the speaker, it’s upsetting,’” the neighbor said. 

The neighbor said that the officer started to push the man backwards from where he is standing in the middle of the crosswalk, but that “if their intention was to move and push him off, there was a better way to do it than shoving him.”

“So, they were pushing him back, as he was trying to say his piece about his trigger. … That is disrespectful. There is somebody that is trying to communicate a grievance with you. You are, you know, a public official,” the neighbor said. “This guy is a veteran. All he knows is bureaucracy. So, he’s trying to handle it at the lowest level.”

The neighbor confirmed that the man hit the officer with a cane, but that this didn’t necessitate the officer pepper spraying him and then pulling him to the ground. He also said that he watched the officer use zip tie handcuffs on the man, and “perp-walk” him to a waiting SPD car.

Though the neighbor was not a witness to what happened next, he is in close contact with the Northwest Bail Fund, who bailed out the older man two days after he was arrested and booked into King County Jail. 

According to the neighbor’s bail fund contacts, the man was charged with a misdemeanor failure to appear on “an old charge,” and may be charged with felony assault. The neighbor said he thinks that charge may be at least a decade old, but he could not confirm that. The misdemeanor carried with it a $2,000 bail.

The neighbor said the older man is well-known in the community, and “it’s well-documented that he’s a veteran.”

“He has an amazing hobby. He … collects Dremel,” the neighbor said, referring to a kind of power tool. “He’s a very niche person. We all know him. We love him. And we also respect the noise ordinances of the building, because of people like that.”

To the neighbor’s best knowledge, he believes there will be a remote court call about the possible felony charge.

In response to the Emerald‘s questions about what brand and model of pepper spray the department’s officers use, and whether SPD will be training its officers to better handle people who may have mental health issues like PTSD that may cause them to act aggressively, when triggered or upset, SPD Public Information Officer Randall Huserik said in a Dec. 3 email that he would not talk about the incident, because it was under investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA).

Huserik did confirm, however, that the older man “was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer the night of the incident.”

He also said that SPD officers use Defense Technologies pepper spray, and that it appears the officer in question was holding the First Defense MK-9 canister.

According to Defense Technologies’ webpage about the MK-9, it “utilizes a stream delivery method providing a target-specific, strong concentrated stream for greater standoff.” This would appear to mean it does not use the “elliptically cone-shaped spray pattern” meant to prevent people on whom the spray is used from suffering hydraulic needle effect. None of Defense Technologies’ reports on its Resources page appear to address the minimum safe distance for use of the MK-9, or mention hydraulic needle effect at all.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them on Twitter, and check out more of their work here and here.

Featured image is a screenshot from the video, and shows the officer pepper spraying the older man.

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