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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: How body-cam footage tarring a council member made its way to Fox News

Nov. 7, 2021 Updated Sun., Nov. 7, 2021 at 9:39 a.m.

Zack Zappone, then a candidate for Spokane City Council, and Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson celebrate early results during the election night watch party for Democratic candidates at the Ruby River Hotel on Nov. 2.   (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Zack Zappone, then a candidate for Spokane City Council, and Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson celebrate early results during the election night watch party for Democratic candidates at the Ruby River Hotel on Nov. 2. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

It’s an awfully weak case.

An odd, empty smear against City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson – accusing her of lacking enthusiasm in helping police solve a murder – reached Seattle talk radio and Fox News last week.

Someone in the Spokane Police Department helped foster the release of a snippet of body-camera video in which one officer tells another that Wilkerson had been “not too enthused” to release security camera video from the group home she owns in Browne’s Addition.

The video was obtained through a public records request by Chud Wendle, the leader of a group of downtown property owners who have been active in pressing the city on homelessness and public safety issues. Wendle said in an email Thursday that “we were made aware of a murder investigation where a council member obstructed with the investigation process.”

The video bounced around local political channels and then into the right-wing echo chamber, framed neatly as a red-meat story about a cop-hating, defund-the-police politician who doesn’t even care about solving a horrific murder.

But you can’t hear what Wilkerson says on the video, and she denies using those words or anything like them. Not until near the end of the officers’ interaction with Wilkerson do they tell her they are investigating a murder. She gives them her name and number, and one of her employees praises the police to the high heavens.

And, crucially, she did release the security camera footage, after they obtained a warrant.

“I couldn’t just release it without something official, because I have 14 people in that house with their rights,” she said.

Is asking for a warrant obstruction? Clearly it is, for some. Including, obviously, the people inside the department who helped bring it to light.

The release of the video, and the attempt to run it through the political spin cycle, is now the subject of a complaint by Wilkerson to the police ombudsman. The complaint will now enter the internal affairs process for an investigation.

The video involves two officers approaching Wilkerson on the porch of the group home in August 2020. They were investigating the murder of Mary Schaffer, which occurred nearby the day before. The suspect in that killing and another, Nathan O. Beal, is being held on a $1 million bond, awaiting trial.

SPD spokeswoman Julie Humphreys said the department releases bodycam video only in matters where the active investigation is concluded, and in this case it was, she said. State law governing body-camera footage says it shall not be released until after the “final disposition” of any civil or criminal litigation.

Of course, the matter of who requested it does not answer the question of who alerted that person to its existence. No one would know to ask for the footage unless they had been told about it. Wendle acknowledged that was the case in an email response to questions Thursday.

A former district director for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and executive director of the Hutton Settlement, Wendle heads the Spokane Commercial Property Owner Council, which has been sharply critical of the city’s response on homelessness and public safety downtown.

He wrote that he learned of the video while he and other members of the group were on their “education journey of exploring the complex homeless ecosystem as we felt that we were headed down a path that was leading to the current state of Seattle and Portland.”

This involved touring shelters, meeting homeless people, talking to elected officials, and going on ride-alongs with local police. He said it was during this process that he heard “from multiple sources” about the video.

“This is why a public records request was filed to determine whether the council member did obstruct the investigation of a horrific murder of a mother which we felt would paint a picture of that council member’s agenda as it relates to law enforcement policy,” Wendle said.

It’s safe to say the picture was painted very clearly.

It found a friendly home on the Seattle radio talk show of Jason Rantz, who identifies himself as “Seattle’s fresh, contemporary conservative voice.” Wendle said he didn’t send it to Rantz.

Rantz peddled the story on the air, adding “context” about Wilkerson having said, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, “Every day we wake up and worry about the safety of our family and friends at the hands of law enforcement.”

Wilkerson has not supported defunding the police, though she has said she supports more community services for addressing problems that often are left to the police. But in Rantz’s world, taking note of the undeniable fact that there are a disproportionate number of shootings of unarmed Black men makes you a cop-hater.

As for the incident itself, Rantz said, “It’s all caught on body camera.”

Actually, none of the supposedly damning stuff is. And what’s there doesn’t at all confirm the tale he told.

The footage shows the officers asking her about her security cameras, followed by long pauses in which she is speaking, but we can’t hear her. She apparently gives the officers her name and phone number, and information about her security camera system. It is late in their conversation when they mention it’s a murder investigation.

After they leave, one officer tells the other he doesn’t think she’s going to be too cooperative, and that she said she was “not too enthused” to help them.

“She’s a piece of work,” says the other officer.

In an interview this week, Wilkerson denied saying she was not enthused about helping the officers, or anything similar to that.

“That is not a word I would use,” she said. “That is not my vocabulary.”

As a proprietor of a state licensed home with residents who have disabilities, she said, she wanted to be sure to follow the formal legal procedures. The interview with the officers was on a Saturday; they came back Monday and got the footage.

“I did ask for a warrant, and when the officer produced it, I cooperated fully,” she said.

Leaks about body-camera footage have, in the past, raised great concern in the department, among brass and officers alike. When word leaked that a Spokane cop had threatened to kill a suspect repeatedly and then hoisted a police dog into the car he was trapped in as he was surrendering, the department rose up in outrage – at the leak.

That case is different in many ways. But it’s clear that the knowledge of this video originated from someone in the department hoping to smear Wilkerson, and was gobbled up by those eager to “paint a picture” of the councilwoman as blocking a murder investigation.

How much light the investigation will shine on all this will be interesting to see.

“I’m just disappointed as an employee of the city – all of us, police and myself – that this came into play,” Wilkerson said. “They politicized something that had no politics in it – a murder investigation.”

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