Getty Images

For the past week, courtesy of a video on YouTube, it's been the punch thrown 'round the world: On June 14, during an arrest for jaywalking and a fracas that resulted from that arrest, a Seattle police officer punched a teenager in the face after she shoved the officer while being arrested.

The teenager who did the jaywalking, Angel Rosenthal, was apparently wrong as two left feet, and she admitted as much to the arresting officer, Ian P. Walsh, in a private meeting on Friday (the same day she was charged with third-degree assault). Rosenthal's friend, Marilyn Levias, 19, was arrested for obstruction of justice for coming to Rosenthal's aid and briefly tussling with the officer. The Seattle Police Officers Guild has rallied to Walsh's defense. The Seattle Police Department is investigating the incident internally and reviewing its training procedures.

The physical aspect of this likely case of police self-defense has troubling antecedents in Seattle's history of police-minority relations. The punching incident and another highly visible occurrence, eight weeks earlier, are reminders of the sometimes poor state of those relations in a city that prides itself on cultural tolerance and a laid-back lifestyle.

Seattle police gained earlier global YouTube visibility after an April 17 encounter. In that incident, a police detective used a racial slur and stomped on the hand of a Hispanic man being questioned in a robbery case while lying prone on the ground. ''I'm gonna beat the f***ing Mexican piss out of you, homey, you feel me?'' the detective said. Another officer, who stomped on the man's leg seconds later, was part of a group of officers who severely beat and Tasered a homeless man in Seattle's Belltown district in 2003. The Hispanic man was later found to have been mistakenly identified and released.

Seattle's minority communities were outraged. Estela Ortega of El Centro de la Raza, a social-justice advocacy organization, said the April arrest pointed to ''a culture of acceptance of the brutality and violence that is obviously now being waged on the Latino community.'' In May, James Bible, head of the NAACP chapter in Seattle, said the organization would ask county prosecutors to have the incident classified and investigated as a hate crime.

Advertisement

The interaction between Seattle police and minority citizens is one of the subtexts in the city's current (and hotly debated) search for a new police chief. Seattle police have been under fire from civil rights groups over previous incidents. Bible said the punching incident is indicative of an old relationship between blacks and the police. ''This is the relationship that people of color have with law enforcement,'' he declared. ''This is the relationship that needs to change.''

Another incident remains seared in the conscience of black Seattle. On April 13, 2005, Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes was savagely beaten by three cops after arguing with a police officer because his friend had been held for littering outside a Capitol Hill nightclub.

Later, two of the officers were exonerated by Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, who also let the 180-day union contract deadline for disciplining the third officer expire. The civilian director of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which presides over internal police inquiries and which called for disciplining the officers, was rebuffed. The OPA determined that two of the officers were guilty of excessive force and that all three had violated department rules of conduct.

Advertisement

It would be tempting, almost comforting, to look at this small cluster of recent events as the extent of the issue. But the friction between Seattle police and blacks and minorities has a long chronology, revealing a disturbing historical trend that runs through black and minority life in one of America's most tolerant cities.

From available historical evidence, documented in numerous scholarly reports, that friction goes back generations.

Some of the worst cases:

—In November 1966, Eddie Ray Lincoln, an unarmed black man, was shot to death by a Seattle police officer when he ran from what the officer said he believed was an attempted car theft. The officer was cleared of wrongdoing after a coroner's inquest the American Civil Liberties Union called ''a parody of a judicial hearing.''

Advertisement

—After a fight between two white police officers and two unarmed black men in the city's Central District, one of the officers shot and killed Robert Reese in June 1965. Despite conflicting testimony and evidence that the cops had been drinking before the incident, the jury decided that Reese's death was a justifiable homicide. The case led to a concerted drive for independent monitoring of the police department, most notably community-based ''freedom patrols'' created for that purpose.

—In a much earlier case, Berry Lawson, 28, an African-American hotel waiter, was arrested for loitering in the lobby of the Mt. Fuji Hotel in March 1938. Less than an hour after his arrest, Lawson was dead. At a coroner's inquest, the arresting officers testified that Lawson fell down a flight of stairs while resisting arrest.

—The officers were cleared in the case; Lawson's death was ruled an accident. But later evidence determined that Lawson had been beaten to death, and that the officers found a false witness to testify that Lawson fell on his own. This case, taken up by the NAACP and other groups, resulted in convictions of second-degree manslaughter for the three policemen. Even that judicial victory was bittersweet: Months later, two of the officers were pardoned by the governor.

Advertisement

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is currently evaluating two finalists for police chief: Ron Davis, the African-American chief of the East Palo Alto Police Department, and John Diaz, the Seattle department's interim chief, who is Hispanic and a 29-year veteran of the force. Diaz became interim chief when Kerlikowske went to Washington to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy for the Obama administration. A third candidate dropped out on June 9.

Both Davis and Diaz have been questioned extensively about their perception of racial profiling and other social and policy issues. The Seattle Police Officers Guild believes that Davis, who directs a 39-member department in California, lacks the experience for the position in Seattle, which has about 1,300 officers.

McGinn reportedly plans to make his choice sometime in June, a choice that must be confirmed by the city council. But late last week, in the wake of the jaywalking case, a majority of council members called on McGinn to reopen the search process. One top city official, City Attorney Peter Holmes, publicly urged McGinn to ''rectify the leadership void'' by going outside the department, the Seattle Times reported.

Advertisement

Bible also opposes Diaz' permanent appointment as chief. ''People are denying the plight of poor people, the plight of people of color, the plight of anybody that's different that comes in contact with law enforcement,'' Bible said last week. ''A change needs to happen.''

But the mayor's choice could be a matter of negotiating relations between the city's black and Hispanic constituencies. Ortega of El Centro supports Diaz. ''He is very serious about his work. You hear about how he manages, very detail-oriented. I think he will continue in the same style,'' she told KIRO-TV in May.

In a statement late last week, Diaz sought to calm the waters, taking his cues from the cordial Friday meeting between Rosenthal and Walsh—the principals in the jaywalking incident. ''We hope that this meeting will take the focus off the video clip and place it where it belongs, the need for the renewed commitment to a conversation about race and social justice in this city,'' Diaz said.

Advertisement

One can only hope Diaz's call for that ''conversation'' is in earnest, as Seattle officials and law enforcement seek a new chief for a police department with a long and tragically tarnished history on matters of race.

Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root. He blogs on politics and current affairs at Short Sharp Shock. His book on the Obama campaign and presidency, American Bandwidth, was published in October.