An investigation has been launched into the disturbing display of a mock tombstone for a young Black man shot by officers that was recently discovered in police body camera footage at a Seattle Police Department precinct.
The January 2021 police video shows a mock tombstone of Damarius Butts taken from a Black Lives Matter memorial prominently displayed above a microwave next to a refrigerator in an East Seattle Precinct break room. The Seattle Office of Police Accountability (OPA) says it has opened an investigation into the display that also revealed a Donald Trump 2020 flag, first reported by the Seattle Times.
The videos were recorded on Jan. 1, 2021, as Seattle police officers left the breakroom to arrest young people for writing political expressions such as “peaceful protest” and “BLM” outside the precinct in chalk. The video was released by lawyers for the Seattle firm MacDonald Hoague & Bayless as part of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city’s graffiti laws.
The lawyers say the videos captured an unguarded moment in a breakroom as a police officer body camera shows a room adorned with disturbing trophies and iconography, and what the attorneys claim is an honest glimpse into the department’s typically hidden political expressions and internal culture.
“In pride of place, SPD flew that flag alongside a ‘never die’ mural,” the lawyers said in a statement. “On adjoining walls, SPD displayed trophies, including a protester’s sign pleading for SPD to ‘Stop Killing Us.'”
“In context, these elements contain a theme: a police department that seems to believe it is in a life-or-death struggle against the community it is supposed to serve,” the statement continued. “Casually displaying the tombstone of a person you killed in your breakroom is disgusting. The Butts family is owed a deeply felt apology for the horrific disrespect shown by SPD.”
The lawyers said the East Precinct breakroom hints at a deeper problem than a “few bad apples.”
“Precinct leadership either tacitly approved or willfully ignored what was happening in the breakroom,” they said. “It is profoundly disappointing that, after more than a decade of federal oversight, the coming and going of mayors and police chiefs, countless press releases and public relations campaigns, and millions of tax dollars spent on reform, that SPD’s internal culture remains so grim and antagonistic towards the community.”
Damarius Butts’ mother, Ann Butts, said in a statement through her attorney, La Rond Baker, that she can’t express how hurtful it was to learn the police department endorsed joking about the killing of her son by displaying a fake tombstone with his name on it.
“My son Damarius was a loving son, brother, and father,” the statement said. “Every day, we miss him. I didn’t think SPD could take more from me. I was wrong.”
Butts was killed by police in an exchange of gunfire on April 20, 2017, while fleeing a robbery at a 7-Eleven in downtown Seattle where he and his sister allegedly stole beer and other items, and he flashed a gun. Butts was shot 11 times in a loading dock area of a federal building. Three officers were injured, one seriously. The shooting was deemed justified, and the officers were cleared of wrongdoing.
In a statement on Thursday, the Seattle Police Department said the images captured on the video show inappropriate items inside a room at the east precinct.
“While we do not know the origin of the items in question from 2 1/2 years ago, there is no doubt they are inappropriate,” the statement said. “We recognize the hurt and disappointment this has caused.”
The agency said much has changed since the footage was recorded in 2021, including the department’s relational policing initiative, focusing on community engagement.
“We know it takes time to build trust, and trust is fragile,” the statement continued.
The agency said it’s reviewing policies and procedures on the maintenance and use of facilities. The chief has instructed commanders to conduct thorough inspections of the precincts and office space to “ensure any décor is appropriate under City standards and aligns with our core values and mission of public service.”
They vowed full support to ensure the OPA has “all it needs for a thorough and complete record.”
The statement said that in 2020-2021, the precinct was a focal point for protests and riots and that protesters often placed items around the precinct that would wind up on a storage shelf until discarded. The agency said the Trump flag has been removed.
Baker, the legal director of the ACLU in Washington, said in a statement the organization is “extremely horrified by the behavior of the individual SPD officers responsible for this demonstration of deep disrespect of Damarius Butts’ life.”
“We are even more disturbed that SPD allowed such a culture to flourish so openly in its ranks and in its precinct facilities,” the statement continued. “Seattle deserves so much better from an agency sworn to protect Seattle residents.”
While working at the Department of Public Defense, Baker represented Butts’ mother in the inquest into his death.
“The family is just trying to get through the shock and pain of the fact that SPD acted with such disregard to Damarius’ death,” Baker added.
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell called the display an alarming and unfortunate setback “that is simply unacceptable as we work to build and repair trust between our Seattle Police Department and the community.”
“It reflects poor judgment and a lack of sensitivity from the officers involved and from the officers who observed and allowed these displays to remain,” the statement said. “It does not reflect the values we expect of our officers who serve the public. We support OPA’s investigation and believe it’s crucial to understand who was responsible, how long these displays remained in the break room, why police supervisors didn’t recognize the problem of allowing these items to be displayed in a City facility, and how we prevent it from happening again.”
The Seattle Community Police Commission was horrified and disturbed by the open display of contempt and disrespect toward a young black man who Seattle police shot and killed.
“The culture that allows such displays and violations of policy and law have no place in any police department,” Commission spokesperson Megan Clark said in a statement.
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