Seattle, WA

SPD problem cop not punished for off-duty mall brawl he initiated

Justin Ward
North Precinct Officer Rob Mahoney on crowd-control duty during a protest outside the East Precinct.(Justin Ward)

Officer Rob Mahoney was walking in a mall in plain clothes off duty one day in 2019 when he stopped to look at his phone. A man who was trailing behind him bumped into him. What exactly happened next is disputed, but moments later, the two men were grappling on the ground. Though the whole thing was captured on security cameras and Mahoney was the aggressor, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability chose not to sustain misconduct allegations, according to a report released earlier this year.

In his interview with the OPA, the man said he merely brushed up against the officer after Mahoney stopped suddenly in his path. Mahoney then turned around and became “enraged,” according to the man’s statement. After some words were exchanged, the security camera showed Mahoney suddenly rush the man and put him in a headlock.

When Mahoney’s supervisor Sgt. Angela Atkinson arrived on the scene, she interviewed the man and asked what he thought Mahoney’s motivations were. The man, who is Black, said “He was maybe racist or in anger, or something. A bad day. I did him wrong. Something like that.”

Atkinson didn’t document this allegation of bias and was given a slap on the wrist — a written reprimand — according to the report.

Speaking to the OPA, Mahoney fell back on a common police rationale for using force — he said that he thought the man was reaching for a weapon.

Mahoney claims the man put his hands in his pocket, so he decided to take him down to the ground.

The OPA pointed out that there were a number of actions Mahoney could have taken to de-escalate the situation, such as identifying himself as a police officer or simply letting it go. Instead, the security camera showed Mahoney “took affirmative steps towards the Complainant and re-initiated the conflict when the Complainant was walking away,” according to the report

Sgt. Atkinson approved the man’s arrest even though Mahoney initiated physical contact first. In addition to ignoring the man’s allegations of racial bias, Atkinson turned a blind eye to the inconsistencies in Mahoney’s report and presented the facts “in the light most favorable to [Mahoney].”

OPA quotes Atkinson’s report at length:

[Ofc. Mahoney] was on vacation and was at the mall texting on his phone when a suspect who has a history of mental illness suddenly approached and bumped into him hard from behind. [Ofc. Mahoney] did not know the suspect and had no prior interactions with the suspect. The suspect then got in his face and took his glasses off and put them in his pocket as if to challenge [Ofc. Mahoney] to a fight. [Ofc. Mahoney] did not have time to id himself. The suspect then started reaching in his pockets and [Ofc. Mahoney] feared he was likely to produce a weapon…[Ofc. Mahoney] was attacked from behind.

Rather than present the facts and evidence on hand, Sgt. Atkinson unnecessarily included lots of details that were unknown to Mahoney at the time — such as the man’s supposed “history of mental illness” — to undermine his credibility and justify Mahoney’s assault, according to the OPA.

The OPA noted that much of this was contradicted by the video, such as the statement that the man bumped into Mahoney “hard.” OPA writes that the security camera showed that he merely “brushed” Mahoney on his left side, which is consistent with the man’s account.

Atkinson’s comments about the man looking like he was about to “challenge Ofc. Mahoney to a fight” reflect a common theme in policing. Police often refer to so-called pre-attack indicators as a justification for force.

However, OPA writes that this “totally disregards the video evidence indicating that [Ofc. Mahoney] had squared up to the Complainant and the Complainant’s account that he felt [Ofc. Mahoney] was acting
aggressively towards him.”

‘Reckless disregard for the truth’

In addition to the inconsistencies with the video evidence, Mahoney’s well-documented history calls into question his credibility. The Seattle city attorney in 2009 said Mahoney “demonstrated a consistently reckless disregard for the truth.” Other words the city attorney used to describe Mahoney include “vindictive,” “aggressive” and “predatory.”

The city attorney was referring to the investigation into an incident in which a teenaged intern with SPD’s Explorer program alleged that Mahoney tried to tongue-kiss her. According to the city attorney, Mahoney lied throughout all of his interviews.

He was suspended for 30 days. The chief wanted to fire Mahoney but didn’t. Even though most people regarded the young woman’s testimony to be more credible, there were no independent witnesses.

Mahoney had also faced allegations of domestic violence from an ex-girlfriend, who said Mahoney dislocated her arm during a dispute. He threatened to kill her and her fiance, according to her petition for a restraining order. Court records show that multiple people submitted affidavits in support of Mahoney’s ex, testifying that he frequently harassed her at work, calling her a “cunt” and a “lying whore.”

His more recent disciplinary shows that Mahoney was investigated for use of force 10 times between 2014 and 2019. Several of those cases were stops for violations of city bike helmet laws that escalated.

According to publicly available data, nearly 20 percent of Mahoney’s reported uses of force were against Black people — only 7 percent of Seattle’s population. One-third of his Terry stops were Black or multiracial.

A self-described “force advocate,” Mahoney spearheaded a crowdsourced lawsuit challenging limitations on police use of force mandated under the federal consent decree.

OPA changes its findings

Despite Mahoney’s history and the clear contradictions between his testimony and the video evidence, OPA didn’t pursue allegations of dishonesty, which carries a presumed penalty of termination, nor did it question his use of force.

OPA only looked at whether Mahoney violated the law or acted unprofessionally. The agency argued that the evidence was “insufficient” to prove that Mahoney committed criminal assault.

The OPA director wrote:

While [Ofc. Mahoney] re-engaged the Complainant, who was walking away at the time, and caused the physical altercation when he grabbed the Subject, put him in a headlock, and tried to take him down to the ground, OPA cannot prove that acted with the intent to assault the Subject, rather than to defend himself as he indicated.

OPA initially sustained allegations of unprofessionalism. Aside from missing mandatory training or accidentally failing to turn on one’s bodycam, this is one of the lowest offenses an officer can commit. But ultimately, the agency was convinced by command to revise even this finding.

At a hearing, Mahoney was presented with video evidence showing that he made an “affirmative step” toward the man as he was walking away. Mahoney said that this was “instinctual.”

That was apparently good enough for OPA, which concluded that it “cannot conclusively prove that [Mahoney] deliberately moved towards the Complainant to create a conflict, as opposed to simply reacting, albeit aggressively, to an external stimulus.”

Mahoney was given a training referral with a warning that “future similar decision-making will result in OPA investigations and the potential imposition of discipline.”

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Justin Ward is an investigative reporter specializing in police accountability as well as local politics, housing and homelessness.

Seattle, WA

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