By The Herald Editorial Board
A verbal exchange and then arrest of an Everett resident by an Everett police officer — and the following dismissal of a charge of obstruction against the 45-year-old woman who recorded the exchange with her phone — offer some guidance to both citizens and law enforcement officers as such recordings have become commonplace.
That’s been especially so after the murder of George Floyd in police custody by Minneapolis officers in May 2020, a death recorded on a bystander’s phone that proved key in both the conviction of officer Derek Chauvin the following year on murder and manslaughter charges, charges against other officers, and in the protests that followed nationwide.
As reported Tuesday by The Herald’s Maya Tizon, Molly Wright, a resident of the Bluffs at Evergreen apartments on West Casino Road, heard shouting outside her apartment on Aug. 10, grabbed her phone and approached a parked patrol car on a driveway of the complex where Officer Ryan Greely was in the process of arresting a man for trespassing.
Video of the exchange — Wright’s own recording and Greely’s body-cam video, which Wright obtained through a public records request and posted to her own YouTube channel — shows Wright approaching the patrol car and keeping a distance of 20 to 30 yards for the first five minutes of her recording, without eliciting a response from the officer.
When she approached the front of the patrol vehicle, however, Greeley — with the man arrested for trespassing already handcuffed and seated in the vehicle’s back seat — stood from the vehicle’s driver’s seat and asked if he could help her.
“Can you please step back?” Greely continues, “Or you’ll be arrested for obstructing.”
Wright, continuing to walk around to the rear of the vehicle, replies that “obstruction requires a physical act.”
“I cannot continue my investigation with you coming up to my car,” Greely tells her.
Wright moves from the rear of the vehicle then stands on the driveway’s curb about 10 feet from the vehicle and continues recording.
Greely gets back into his vehicle with the door halfway shut, at which point Wright narrates to the video, “We’ve got a scaredy-pig.”
Greely stands again and motions for Wright to return to where she had started recording the arrest. Wright refuses.
Although mostly in calm tones from both, the situation escalates as Greely tells Wright that he doesn’t have “cover,” in other words, another officer present.
“You’re fine; I ain’t going to hurt you. I’m not even armed,” she replies in the video.
“Yes, you are; you’ve got a knife,” Greely says, at which point he approaches Wright, turns her around and cuffs her hands behind her back, with Wright still holding the phone until the officer removes it from her and places it on the ground. Wright later confirmed to The Herald that she was carrying a knife and a canister of pepper spray.
When a second officer arrives, the man arrested for trespassing was placed in a second patrol car, and Wright was placed in the back of Greely’s vehicle.
Clearly, Greely and Wright have different definitions of “physical obstruction.” Wright maintained she wasn’t preventing Greely from completing the man’s arrest, but Greely objected to Wright that he couldn’t enter information into his laptop in his vehicle and protect the arrested man’s privacy as she recorded from where she stood.
From the video itself, it’s difficult to see how Wright would have been able to view the laptop screen from her vantage point, but Greely also had responsibility for the safety of the man he’d arrested and that of Wright, as well. Asking her to return to where she originally stood would not have prevented her recording the arrest.
As well, Wright doesn’t show herself as a unprejudiced party. With a camera turned to her in the back of the patrol car, she’s seen wearing a sweatshirt with two images showing a tank top and an officer’s uniform shirt; the first labeled as a tank top, the second as a “wife beater.” Wright, who told The Herald she’s the daughter of a police officer, named her YouTube channel, “A Pig’s Daughter.”
The security guard that had reported the original trespass, also told Greely that Wright had recorded video of him a few months prior and “put me all over YouTube.”
A spokeswoman for the Everett Police Department has defended the arrest, but said the agency understands the public’s right to record the actions of officers.
“We only ask that the filming occurs at a distance where it is not interfering with our duties or putting our officers in a place where they need to be concerned about their safety,” Officer Ora Hamel said Friday.
That concern for the safety of officers and the public during arrests should be clear to any Everett resident, particularly in light of the March 25, 2022, line-of-duty shooting death of Everett Officer Dan Rocha, who was gunned down in a coffeeshop parking lot on North Broadway after confronting a man he had seen moving firearms between two vehicles. Richard Rotter was sentenced this April to life in prison for Rocha’s murder.
Everett Municipal Court Judge Amy Kaestner, in a Aug. 23 hearing, parsed the issues here with clarity, finding that there was probable cause for Wright’s arrest on the obstruction charge, but dismissing the charge itself without prejudice, meaning a charge could be refiled at a later date. Kaestner also rejected the city’s request for an exclusion order that would have barred Wright from her own apartment, noting the city in seeking the exclusion order might have confused Wright’s arrest with that of the man arrested for trespassing.
Greely, with the Everett department since June 2015, was not disciplined after the arrest. From the perspective of what Wright’s and the department’s videos show, his superiors should be left to review the incident with him regarding how the encounter was handled and the necessity of the arrest.
Our phones have become powerful and vital tools, in particular in protecting the interests of the public in cases of abuses of police power.
Two witnesses in the March 3, 2020, in-custody death of Manuel Ellis during his arrest by Tacoma Police Department officers have provided cellphone recordings that have been significant during the current trial of three officers on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.
The availability of that tool needs to be protected as much through law enforcement’s understanding of the role and necessity of those recordings as by the public’s judicious use of that tool. Requests to keep a safe distance — while still allowing a reasonably unobstructed recording of the actions of officers and of those in their custody — should be respected.
The same goes for the necessity of respect between public and law enforcement.