These Cops Killed a Man. Now They're Suing the Seattle Councilmember Who Called It a 'Brutal Murder.'

by | August 23, 2017

By Steve Miletich

The two Seattle police officers who fatally shot Che Taylor last year have filed a defamation lawsuit against City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, alleging she falsely declared they had committed a "brutal murder" before they were cleared of wrongdoing by an inquest jury.

The suit, filed last week in King County Superior Court, was brought against Sawant as an individual.

Efforts to reach Sawant for comment Tuesday were not immediately successful.

The highly unusual suit does not name the city of Seattle or the City Council as defendants, pointedly stating that Officers Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding "do not want one red cent of public money."

"This is a complaint seeking damages against one individual who, acting in her own capacity and only on her own behalf, defamed two good men," the suit says.

Miller and Spaulding "do a hard job for modest pay and little thanks _ realities they accept," the suit adds. "But what they do not accept, and what the law does not permit, is having their reputations ruined by an ambitious politician, doing so for personal gain."

Earlier this year, a King County inquest jury found that Taylor, 46, posed a threat of death or serious injury when Miller and Spaulding shot him on Feb. 21, 2016, while trying to arrest him as a felon in unlawful possession of a firearm.

The two officers, who are white, were conducting an undercover operation in search of another man wanted on a drug warrant when Taylor, an African American, arrived in a car, jurors were told during the fact-finding proceeding.

The officers testified that they recognized Taylor and knew he had a criminal history. Taylor had served a lengthy prison sentence, with convictions for rape and robbery.

Miller testified he saw a handgun in a holster on Taylor's right hip as Taylor left the car. Miller said he then informed Spaulding.

When they confronted Taylor, the officers testified, Taylor crouched and reached to his right hip, with his elbow bent in a motion consistent with drawing a gun.

Both officers said Taylor's body blocked their view of his hip, but they were convinced he was reaching for a gun.

Jurors unanimously agreed that Taylor showed his hands and moved downward after the officers gave him commands.

They also found Spaulding had reason to believe Taylor was drawing a gun, and six jurors concluded Miller thought Taylor was drawing a gun, while two answered "unknown."

Taylor, who was standing next to another car, had ignored commands to get on the ground, the officers said.

Taylor fell into an open door of the car after being shot, the officers testified.

All eight jurors found that a handgun was later recovered from under the seat.

Lawyers for Taylor's family raised questions about whether Taylor was armed when he was confronted and whether the gun found in the car had been there before the shooting. They also questioned whether Taylor was given conflicting, confusing and overlapping commands from Spaulding and Miller and other officers backing them.

The shooting came at a time of heightened scrutiny nationwide into the police use of deadly force against African-American males. The president of the Seattle King County NAACP called the shooting "coldblooded murder."

A Seattle police review board found last year the shooting fell within department policy and, after the inquest, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg declined to bring criminal charges against Spaulding and Miller.

The lawsuit against Sawant says that about five days after the shooting, Sawant appeared before a crowd and news media in front of the Police Department.

While her appearance was not official city business or a legislative function, Sawant "implied awareness of inside factual information," the suit alleges.

"With gravitas established, she went on to pronounce Che Taylor's death a 'brutal murder' and product of 'racial profiling,'" the suit says.

Her statements weren't qualified as opinion and she did not acknowledge the ongoing investigation, according to the suit.

"She, instead, tried and convicted the officers herself in the court of public opinion," the suit alleges.

Despite the inquest ruling, Sawant continues to refer to the shooting as a "murder" and publicly asserts the officers avoided "accountability," the suit says.

Sawant has not responded to the officers' request to retract her statements, the suit says.

(Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story, which contains information from Times archives.)

(c)2017 The Seattle Times