[UPDATE: On Monday afternoon, I received a copy of the police report about the pepper-spray incident. According to Toomey’s account, he approached Harris’ car after two people approached him and “explained that there was a person [Harris] parked in a vehicle … and possibly doing narcotics.” At that point, Toomey told the officers, he approached Harris’ car and found him sleeping, knocked on his window, got in a verbal altercation with Harris, and left to call 911 “to report the suspicious incident.” (That incident being, so far, the presence of a man sitting in his car in a legal parking spot.) then, Toomey told the police, Harris drove up behind him, got out of his car, and “attempted to grab” him twice before Toomey pepper-sprayed him, pushed him onto the hood of Harris’ car, and handcuffed him before calling 911 again.
Toomey’s account differs from Harris’ in a few respects. He claims Harris tried to “grab” him and does not mention knocking Harris’ phone, which SPD officers found shattered underneath Toomey’s Hummer, to the ground. He also doesn’t mention attempting to open Harris’ car door, which Harris claimed he did. Finally, he claims to have only pepper-sprayed Harris once, “striking him in the face,” whereas Harris says Toomey actually chased him back to his car while spraying him–an account that is consistent with Harris being shoved and cuffed on the hood of his own car, rather than the Hummer’s.]
Two days ago, on a quiet residential street in Magnolia, a private security guard employed by Central Protection, a company hired by Magnolia residents to combat what they view as an epidemic of crime in their neighborhood, pulled his blue-and-white Hummer over behind a parked car owned by Magnolia resident Andrew Harris. Within the next five minutes or so, the officer, James Toomey, had pepper-sprayed Harris in the face and, reportedly, knocked Harris’ Android phone out of his hand, sending the phone’s face, body, and battery scattering in different directions.
According to Harris’ account, he was sitting in the car before his shift at the local 76 station, where he’s a longtime employee. (He also works at the Spirit of Magnolia liquor store across the street). Here’s what Harris, whom I reached during his afternoon shift at the 76 station yesterday, says happened next: The security guard approached him and demanded to know what he was doing parked on the street. (Harris says he was parked in a legal, public parking spot with no time limitations). Harris rolled his window up and refused to respond. At that point, Harris says, the security guard opened his door and demanded that Harris get out of the car.
After initially refusing, Harris says, he got out, walked over to the guard’s Hummer, and asked if he could videotape the conversation. He says Toomey told him “Yes.” When he turned on his camera, though, Harris says the security guard slapped the phone out of his hands hard enough to send it under the Hummer, where he knelt to retrieve it. At that point, he says, the guard began pepper-spraying him in the face and chasing him to his car, where Harris says he pinned him up against the door. After Toomey sprayed him again–in Harris’ account, telling him, “You’re going to jail!” Harris continued to confront him, demanding that he call EMS to treat his injuries. Harris says the guard slapped police-style metal handcuffs on him before telling Harris he would “lie to the police and tell them I assaulted him.” When officers arrived, they took statements from both Harris and Toomey, and ultimately decided to let Toomey go.
Harris says he was unable to recover his phone, which he says disappeared from the place it had fallen next to the Hummer. “I think he took it” to make sure no videotaped evidence existed, Harris says.
“I consider myself an upstanding member of this community,” Harris told me yesterday. “I live here, I work here, and even though I may disagree with the use of private security patrols around here, this guy didn’t have any reason to assault me.” Harris says the sergeant who ultimately responded told him SPD would send the incident information to the King County prosecuting attorney’s office, which would decide whether to press charges against the security guard.
Harris admits that he got short with the officer–“I said, ‘what the fuck are you doing?'”–but insists that he did nothing to provoke the use of force, which he says continued as the officer chased him back to his car, “pepper-spraying me the whole way back. … It still hurts” physically, Harris said more than a day later.
Central Protection didn’t return calls for comment, which is why right now, I (and other media) only have Harris’ side of the story. The police report should shine some light on Toomey’s version of events.
According to the website for the Magnolia Patrol Association–the private group that pays for Central Protection to patrol the neighborhood with homeowner contributions–the group believes that private security are (unlike police) allowed to stop and interrogate anyone at any time for any reason if they view that person as suspicious.
“The police are not allowed to speak to anyone unless they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime may be afoot. Further, they must be able to articulate this suspicion in clear language,” the MPA website says. In contrast, “Private security can interact with anyone at any time. Because they do not represent the Government and [sic] the Constitution does not apply to private security.”
A police report shedding some light on Central Protection’s version of events should be available later today. I also have a call out to SPD, whose spokesman, Sean Whitcomb, told me yesterday that he is gathering information on the incident before commenting on what happened.
However, the Magnolia Patrol Association does not deny that one of their officer pepper-sprayed Harris. In an email, MPA president Joe Villarino told me, “We are sorry that the incident occurred to a long time employee of Magnolia 76 Gas Station. No other comments from MPA will be made until our full investigation are completed.” Villarino referred me to the neighborhood blog Magnolia Voice, which quotes Villarino as saying, “I did receive the [Central Protection] report and all I can tell you is it’s a different version of what happened. There’s no witnesses, so that’s why I think [SPD] decided to forward the report to the prosecutors about [Harris’s] version of being pepper sprayed and handcuffed. Our policy is ‘observe and report.’ Our understanding is that [Tonney] observed and reported and then called the police.”
On the neighborhood social media site NextDoor, where Harris initially reported the incident under the headline, “Thanks for the pepper-spray, Magnolia!,” most responses have been sympathetic. A few, however, have suggested that Harris’ account is suspect because he openly opposed the private police force and “has strong opinions on RVs” counter to the prevailing view in the neighborhood, which is that they are an eyesore at best, a menace at worst. Many on the site subsequently pointed to Harris’ “clear potential for bias” and what they felt were inconsistencies in his account.
I’ll update this post with more details from SPD when I get them.