Investigation launched after Seattle police kept in break room mock tombstone of Black man they killed

Francis Akhalbey July 14, 2023
Seattle police kept a mock tombstone of Damarius Butts -- Left photo via Butts family | Right photo via McDonald Hoague & Bayless

The Seattle Police Department has come under scrutiny once again after a 2021 body cam video of a precinct break room showed officers had kept a mock tombstone of a young Black man they killed in 2017.

According to the Seattle Times, the footage in question was obtained by a lawyer in the wake of a lawsuit challenging the city’s graffiti laws. The lawyer, Braden Pence, gained access to the video via the civil discovery process in U.S. District Court. And though Pence said that portion of the video had nothing to do with the lawsuit, he said he decided to make it public “because the people of Seattle have the right to know their police department.”

In the video that was captured in the East Precinct’s bicycle repair room, an officer is seen passing by a mock tombstone with Damarius Butts’s name, age, and the day that he died inscribed on it. Butts, then 19, was killed after exchanging fire with Seattle police officers following a robbery at a convenience store. The teen was said to have brandished a handgun and demanded beer during the alleged robbery. After fleeing the scene, officers pursued him before the gun battle ensued. Butts died after he was struck 11 times while three other officers sustained injuries.

Butts’ family told KIRO 7 the video showing the deceased teen’s mock tombstone exacerbated their pain. “No, I’ve never seen that video,” an emotional Stephanie Butts said after seeing the video for the first time. “Like, you still gotta have a heart. You do. You gotta have a heart regardless. (I) just don’t know what to say about that.”

Besides the mock tombstone, a Donald Trump 2020 poster and a Black Lives Matter sign alongside what looks like a red hat are also seen in the footage. Per the Seattle Times, the display of the Trump flag likely violates state law and department policy surrounding the participation of officers in partisan politics while on the job.

And following allegations of Seattle police being biased and using excessive force, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell petitioned a federal court judge to end the 2012 SPD consent decree, KIRO 7 reported. “That erodes trust,” Harrell said. “When we’re trying to build trust with our Police Department and the community.”

Harrell also said he’ll “support an investigation to understand what happened, who knew about it, who should have known about it?” But it seems that won’t do anything to ease Stephanie Butts’ pain.

“I didn’t think officers would do something like this, the Seattle Police would do something like this,” she said. “It’s really shocking to me actually. It is.”

The department, however, said the East Precinct was the main point for the Black Lives Matter protests that ensued in the wake of George Floyd’s May 2020 killing, the Seattle Times reported.

“Protesters often placed items such as these commemorating subjects of the use of force locally and nationwide around the precinct,” the department said. “It would not be unexpected that items left at the precinct might land on a storage shelf until disposition.”

Former King County public defender, La Rond Baker, said authorities probably took the tombstone from a Black Lives Matter memorial for people who had died at the hands of police.

The department said the mock tombstone is “no longer there.” “I can’t express how hurtful it was to learn that SPD endorsed joking about the killing of my son by displaying a fake tombstone with his name on it,” Butts’ mother, Ann Butts, said in a statement through Baker.

Following the release of the video, the Seattle Community Police Commission asked Police Chief Adrian Diaz to publicly shed some light on the incident. Diaz will also be present at the commission’s meeting next week to answer questions, the commission said.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: July 14, 2023

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