SEATTLE -- A Seattle police officer has been caught on tape talking about "making up" evidence while two wrongly arrested men sit in jail. It's the latest shocker uncovered by a KOMO 4 Problem Solver investigation into the Seattle Police Department's vanishing dashcam videos.
Josh Lawson and Christopher Franklin filed a claim against the city today for excessive force and wrongful arrest.
The two were arrested at gunpoint on November 16, 2010 and said the incident changed their lives forever.
"I thought I was gonna die," Lawson said about that night.
Franklin said it was "the most terrifying thing I've ever experienced."
Both men said they suffered facial bruises and swelling after one was kicked and the other man-handled into the pavement while being arrested. But then listen to what an officer says on an audio recording after he takes the two to holding cells: "Well, you're going to jail for robbery that's all."
You then hear Franklin ask, "for robbery?" And the officer responds, "Yeah, I'm gonna make stuff up."
Franklin believed him.
"He showed me that he has the power to do whatever he wanted that night," he said. "He has a badge, and all we can do is nothing."
We watched the partial video of their arrest together with Lawson and Franklin. Neither man has a criminal record and they were not charged with anything after the arrest. They both work full-time and go to school. But the night of their arrest they were in the neighborhood near Seattle Center, several blocks away from where an assault was reported.
In a 911 call, a witness described those assailants: "It was two tall, skinny African Americans."
Lawson is six feet tall, and Franklin is just five feet nine inches tall.
The person who called 911 to report the attack told a dispatcher the assailants "were both wearing jeans."
But in police booking photos Lawson is wearing white sweat pants.
A booking photo shows that Franklin's jeans are allowed to fall to his knees after his shoes are taken away, and at the scene an officer pulls Franklin's hood up over his head.
"I felt like he was making me look like the part," Franklin said.
"These guys are guilty of being black in Seattle," said attorney Lizanne Padula, who represents Lawson and Franklin. She believes if they'd been white "I think the most that would have happened with those kids police officer would have rolled down his window and said, 'hey, were you guys over in this area?'"
But Officer Brad Richardson, the arresting officer, never questions the two about an assault. Instead, Richardson makes what's called a felony stop, taking cover behind his car door with his gun drawn.
In a "Use of Force" report filled out after the arrest, Richardson wrote, "both males ignored his commands to stop and continued walking right toward him."
Franklin and Lawson say that's crazy -- that there's no way they'd keep walking toward a cop who had a drawn gun.
"We got on the ground and we froze," Franklin said.
Lawson said he was terrified. "I thought I was gonna be murdered in cold blood."
We showed Seattle Police Sergeant Sean Whitcomb the arrest video, and he admits the 'make stuff up' comment was inappropriate. But he says the department's Office of Professional Accountability investigated the complaint and exonerated the officer.
"I can tell you we take (complaints) seriously but people have to believe that and they have to trust the system they have to trust the process," Whitcomb said.
Another problem: none of the arrest is caught on tape -- only the aftermath, once the two are on the ground in handcuffs, with Lawson's angry questions of why Officer Richardson kicked him in the face, which Richardson disputes saying he only "kicked him in the chest."
For more than a year the KOMO 4 Problem Solvers fought to get access to the Seattle Police Department's video database, knowing that dash cam videos could play a critical role in citizen oversight of the troubled department. We are now suing SPD for what we believe is a violation of the Public Records Act. Our investigation uncovered, among other things, that the department had lost tens of thousands of dash cam videos.
Attorney Padula contacted us, wondering if her clients were among that group.
"It wasn't really until I was able to communicate with you and your knowledge of what's out there and what the videos mean and your investigation that it was like 'oh, wait, there's not just one video that we don't get - there's more.'"
We discovered at least three other dash cam videos exist of the Lawson/Franklin arrest. But none show Officer Richardson during the critical time period, when he had Lawson and Franklin at gunpoint and later kicked Lawson.
We asked Whitcomb if the department was going to hold officers accountable when dashboard cameras aren't turned on.
"We do, we actually do, look at our OPA reports," Whitcomb said. But when we reminded him it didn't happen in this case, he said, "well maybe not in that case, but there's other cases."
Attorney Padula's take on the lack of dash cam video? "I think it's reprehensible, to me there's no excuse for that."
We've learned that the arrest video could have been salvaged from the hard drive in Officer Richardson's dash cam system, but wasn't.