Police chief apologizes over jaywalking 'bust'

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Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske apologized yesterday to a group of Asian Americans, who claimed an officer stopped some of them last week for jaywalking and then harassed them because of their race.

"I've told you how sorry I am that something like this occurred," said Kerlikowske, who said he is looking into the incident.

The police chief and Mayor Paul Schell attended a community meeting at the Asian Resource Center to try to ease tensions and better understand the community's frustration. In addition to about 50 people, a majority of the City Council attended.

While they appreciated the chance to tell their story, the 14 students who were stopped said they weren't satisfied with the meeting's outcome and plan to file a complaint with the police.

"We're not very satisfied with the chief's responses," said Andrew Cho, a program instructor who was stopped. "We feel he avoided many of our questions instead of answering them directly."

The incident occurred about 1:30 p.m. July 9 at Fourth Avenue South and Main Street as the students, who are part of a summer leadership program sponsored by the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation, were walking to Pioneer Square.

Police say they were jaywalking, endangering themselves and creating a traffic hazard.

Using his patrol car's loudspeaker, Officer Jess Pitts warned the students they were jaywalking. He eventually detained the 14 for 45 minutes, lining them up single-file against a wall. The students claimed they couldn't hear Pitts' initial warnings because of a passing train. But police say some of them became aggressive. Two more officers came. Eventually, just one student received a $38 jaywalking ticket.

Pitts allegedly asked the students repeatedly if they spoke English. When one said yes, another officer allegedly told him he had an "attitude problem."

Pitts also reportedly told Cho, "I've been to your country before, when I was in the Army." Cho, who is Burmese-American, said he felt insulted by the remark, which he thought was a reference to Vietnam.

Police say the misunderstanding stemmed from the number of foreign tourists visiting Seattle for the All-Star Game. Officers were told to watch for those who might need help.

Schell, who shook hands with the students before the meeting started, called for unity and condemned racial stereotyping. He said face-to-face meetings are one way to resolve prejudice and said he is taking the incident seriously.

"We came to listen," he said. "Don't judge the whole Police Department based on this one incident."

Kerlikowske added: "We don't target people. We don't want to be accused of stereotyping people."

But attorney Yvonne Kinoshita Ward, who is representing the students, said they plan to file an official police complaint as early as today.

While she thought Kerlikowske listened, she said, "I have no idea what the mayor said. I heard words come out of his mouth, but no substance whatsoever."

One reason why the Asian-American community is upset about this is because people believe this type of alleged harassment is not an isolated incident and has happened before, several speakers said.

The meeting grew tense at one point when state Rep. Velma Veloria, D-Seattle, who represents the International District, stood up and said, "They (the students) didn't do anything wrong. What kind of policies do we have? It's an issue of targeting the Asian-American community."

The community also is asking for an independent investigation of the incident, strong disciplinary action against Pitts, a public apology and cultural-sensitivity training for Seattle officers in general.

Brad Wong can be reached at 206-464-2750 or bwong3@seattletimes.com.