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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

After George Floyd’s death, witness of March arrest in Spokane speaks out about apparent use of controversial tactic

Seattle resident Eddie Westerman took this photo while she was in Spokane on a business trip in March. The arrest is now under an Internal Affairs investigation by Spokane Police.

A police officer appears to apply pressure with his knee to the neck of a man who is lying face down on the ground.

A bystander with a cellphone captures the moment, and hears the plea:

“I can’t breathe.”

This was the scene when George Floyd died last week in custody of Minneapolis police – and it felt familiar to Eddie Westerman, who said footage of Floyd’s arrest reminded her of one she saw March 2 in Spokane’s Riverfront Park.

The incident, now under review by the Spokane Police Department, bears similarities to Floyd’s arrest in Minneapolis, but also obvious differences: Westerman took photographs of the arrest, not video. The man appears to be white, while Floyd was Black. The circumstances leading to the Spokane man’s arrest are unclear, and he did not die.

But according to Westerman’s account, the arrests share at least two basic factors: a man in distress telling officers he can’t breathe, and police on top of him.

Westerman had stayed mostly silent about what she witnessed in Spokane until Floyd’s death on May 25, which has sparked protests nationwide over the past week, including in Spokane.

“After the murder of George Floyd this week, I thought about his mother and I decided it was better to send this, even if you don’t pay attention, than not to send it at all,” Westerman wrote last week in an email to city officials, including Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl.

Westerman, a Seattle resident who regularly visits Spokane on business, told The Spokesman-Review in a phone interview on Tuesday that she saw the man struggle with a park ranger as she walked near her hotel.

Multiple Spokane police officers arrived to assist the ranger and quickly took the man to the ground, she said. He lacked the physical strength to resist, and while already under restraint, officers placed their weight on his body and neck area.

In photos Westerman posted to Facebook and that have been shared more than 600 times, at least one Spokane police officer is seen with his knee on what appears to be the man’s neck, while others also are engaged in his restraint.

“The guy starts saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ ” Westerman said. “That triggered me.”

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl declined to comment on the incident, citing an open inquiry.

Julie Humphreys, a police department spokesperson, said an internal affairs investigation has been launched into the incident. The department did not release the names of the officers involved in the arrest, but said none had been placed on leave.

“We take all complaints seriously,” Humphreys said.

The man’s identity was not immediately clear on Tuesday. He did not file a complaint following his arrest, according to Humphreys.

On Sunday, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said he had seen the photographs and questioned the use of force.

“It’s unclear why they would be putting the force of their body weight on his neck. That seems very dangerous for little gain,” Beggs said.

Prior to Sunday’s protests in Spokane, Beggs said he had already planned for the City Council to lead a public review of the city’s policies regarding chokeholds and restraint methods like that used on Floyd.

Police Ombudsman Bart Logue, Spokane’s civilian police watchdog, said his office was informed of the incident, assigned it a case number and flagged it to Meidl for further review on Sunday.

Logue said he wants to view body camera footage of the arrest.

“It’s one of those things that if you do the control technique correctly, you’ve got a knee on the upper back, most of the weight on your heels, there’s not a lot of questions. In Minneapolis, none of those things were taking place,” Logue said.

Such restraint techniques are allowed in Spokane, as long as the officer’s knee is not on the neck of the person being arrested, according to Logue. The objective must be to restrain the person in handcuffs, after which point they have very little ability to inflict harm on an officer, he stressed.

“I don’t have an issue with control techniques to put somebody in handcuffs, nor should anybody. That just makes sense. I think we should look very closely at anything that involves the neck and restricts air,” Logue said.

In the wake of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, policing experts have widely condemned officer Derek Chauvin’s use of his knee to pressure Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter last Friday.

“No police academy that we know of teaches a police officer to use their knee, to put it on their neck,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which analyzes police practices and policies, told The Associated Press after Floyd’s death. “That’s just not taught, because that can impact their breathing and their carotid artery (a crucial vessel that supplies blood to the brain). So when police look at that video, they are shocked that those tactics were used.”

Westerman shared 11 photographs of the incident with The Spokesman-Review: 58 seconds elapsed between the first and last photographs, in which it appears an officer’s knee may be on the man’s neck, according to the time stamp embedded in the files by her iPhone. But she said officers were still on top of the man when she stopped taking photographs and left the scene.

Eyewitness account

Westerman is regularly in Spokane for her job with the Washington Education Association. After work on March 2, she left her room at the Centennial Hotel and took a stroll through Riverfront Park, as she typically does while staying in Spokane.

“I love Spokane, because it reminds me so much of Denver when I was growing up,” Westerman said.

Not far from the hotel, she saw a man who appeared to be, if not homeless, destitute. He was hanging from a bridge a few feet above the ground, with a park ranger’s hands around his legs.

The ranger circled around the bridge, grabbed the man by the wrists and implored him to climb over the bridge, but he was physically incapable. The man fell to the ground, got up and ran – but made it only a short distance before the ranger caught up and apprehended him from behind, Westerman recalled.

“The ranger had him, and (the ranger) was much stronger,” she said.

When police arrived, they quickly took the man to the ground.

“It seemed excessive, but I totally get it, because they didn’t know if he was armed,” Westerman said.

The man, who Westerman estimated to be about 130 pounds and appeared too frail to resist the arrest, was lying on the ground and under control as one of the officers apparently held his knee to the man’s neck.

“That guy was not struggling at all. I’m not a policeman, but there was absolutely no reason for that guy to have a knee on his neck,” Westerman said.

The man told officers he couldn’t breathe. Westerman said she yelled at officers, and one turned to her and explained that if the man could talk, he could breathe.

Meidl did not answer questions about the March arrest on Tuesday, but in addressing the death of Floyd in Minneapolis, Meidl told The Spokesman-Review last week that Chauvin appeared to place too much weight on Floyd’s neck.

“Once you get the handcuffs on, things change,” Meidl said. “You have to adjust your level of force or restraints based on the actions of the individual that you’re dealing with.”

Referring to Floyd, Meidl said, “Once he was proned out on the ground and controlled – and, especially, you can see he’s not resisting – that’s when you need to get off of that person.”

Logue said police have to understand when “enough is enough.”

Last month, the Spokane Police Department fired Officer Kristofer Henderson for kicking a handcuffed man in the groin, which prosecutors – who declined to file criminal charges – described as “retaliatory.”

Westerman isn’t sure how long the officer’s knee was on the man, but noted it was long enough for her to take multiple pictures.

The man was still on the ground when Westerman left the scene.

“I was flipped out because I was in tears already and took a couple more pictures, and I walked away, because I’m an idiot. I should have stayed, but I didn’t,” Westerman said.

Westerman told friends about the incident. She even recounted it to someone on the plane ride back home. She planned to report it to police. But she read a story in The Spokesman-Review about Meidl’s response to officer conduct at protests outside Planned Parenthood, and decided “he’s not going to listen, so I’m not reporting it to him.”

“I did nothing, because I was flipped out,” Westerman said.

She changed her mind on Friday, emailing her account of the event to Meidl and a number of other city officials, as well as posting it to Facebook.

“As a white woman who does not have to fear for her own safety while talking to police, I can’t begin to imagine what might have happened if I were black or brown and, much worse than that, I can’t begin to imagine what might have happened to that young man if he had been a Native American or had black or brown skin,” Westerman wrote on Facebook.

City Council resolution

The death of Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old developmentally disabled man, at the hands of Spokane Police in March 2006 sparked major police reforms in the city, including the eventual creation of the ombudsman’s office. Beggs, a private attorney at the time who represented Zehm’s family in its subsequent lawsuit against the city, noted that Zehm also was restrained on his stomach by officers.

Zehm’s arrest was different from the one flagged by Westerman in many ways, including surveillance video.

“The part that it has in common is that after Otto Zehm was handcuffed and hogtied, he certainly wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t posing a danger to anyone,” Beggs said.

On Monday, the Spokane City Council passed a unanimous resolution that urged the Spokane Police Department to “ invest substantially more time and resources to implicit bias training and de-escalation strategies, as it is critical to ensuring that the use of force is a last resort.”

It also called for investigations into use of force to be transparent.

If and when it embarks on a more thorough review process, the review could include input from police leadership, the police ombudsman and an outside expert with experience in law enforcement who is well-versed in police tactics. The public should have a say in how “risky force is used in less dangerous situations,” Beggs said.

He’s not only interested in examining the department’s policies on knees to the neck, but on chokeholds – referred to as lateral neck restraints in law enforcement terminology – and the use of K9s to bite people.

“What I would like to do is have a public process examining some of these physical force tactics to find out whether they’re outdated or not, because different departments have different standards,” Beggs said. “Most of the tactics have some potential serious side effects on people, but sometimes the risk is justified because of the danger.”