Will the Pepper-Spraying Westlake Security Guard Be Punished?
Last Week’s Incident Involving an Innocent Bystander Wasn’t the First Time This Security Company Has Been Accused of Racial Profiling
On August 9, as you may already know, since the story made national news, a security guard at Westlake Center pepper-sprayed the wrong dude. It began with a shirtless white man accosting pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the busy intersection of Fourth and Pike in downtown Seattle, according to witnesses and photos. The unidentified man was shouting in their faces, calling them names like “towel-head” and “sand nigger” and “picking fights” with the protesters, according to witnesses and a police report.
Twenty-five-year-old Raymond Wilford, who is black, was walking by on his way to meet a friend at the Westlake Center mall. The shirtless man spit at him, Wilford said, and the two squared off but didn’t throw any punches at each other. Then a Westlake security guard appeared.
"The security guard was like, ‘Stop,’" Wilford said in an interview. "The white guy was still yelling and walking towards the security guard. I was like, ‘Why are you pointing your Mace at me? He’s the one being aggressive.’ And then he [the mall cop] pepper-sprayed me." According to witnesses and a police report, the spray blew into other people’s faces and left them with red eyes.
Alex Garland, a local photojournalist, caught it all on camera. The story was so egregious that national outlets like the Huffington Post and Gawker picked it up. Garland’s video of the guard’s awkward attempt to detain Wilford after he pepper-sprayed him racked up hundreds of thousands of online views.
As the terrifying police crackdown on protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, continues to play out in front of a national audience, the incident at Westlake Center represents yet another example of law enforcement brutalizing a young, unarmed black man. The pepper-spray incident also raises a bunch of questions: Why was a private security guard using force on and then detaining someone who’d done nothing wrong? Does mall security have a right to police what happens on a public sidewalk? (According to photos, the incident occurred between a Starbucks and a street curb, rather than inside the mall or close to the entrance.) Why didn’t Seattle police, who were assigned to the pro-Palestinian protest, intervene earlier? Why weren’t they doing anything about the belligerent shirtless man? Why, for that matter, wasn’t the mall security cop? And who was the security guard who pepper-sprayed Wilford in the face, anyway? Will he be held accountable for his actions?
Let’s start with that last question. Valor Security, the nation’s 11th largest security firm, is paid to keep the peace at Westlake Center by General Growth Properties, the mall’s owner-operator. Both companies refused to tell me the name of the Valor employee in question. They would not say whether he was still working or had been suspended or fired. Kelly Zenz, Valor’s Westlake security director, would only say that the incident is under investigation.
But if one zooms in on a photo of the guard grabbing Wilford’s arm in the moments after Wilford has been maced, a name tag on the guard’s shirt is clearly visible. “S. HINDS ASST. DIRECTOR,” it says. The guard is wearing a wristband that says in capital letters, “STOP. THINK.”
During a visit to the Westlake Center food court last week, I spotted Hinds, dressed in the same white uniform and wide-brimmed blue hat, standing and talking with someone, apparently working. I saw his name tag. I took a cell-phone photo of him from a ways away. But as I got closer to try to speak with him, he abruptly turned and disappeared around a corner. (I don’t know whether he saw me.)
That evening, Wayne Peck, a private security guard at a retailer in Everett, contacted The Stranger to say that he and his friend had recognized the guard in the photos as Stuart Hinds. Both had worked with Hinds at Everett Mall in the past. Peck’s friend, another longtime security officer, asked not to be identified by name.
Valor Security refused to confirm or deny that the S. in S. Hinds stands for Stuart.
"When I worked with him, he was all by the book," explained Peck’s friend in an interview. "He was not a hothead… I can’t wrap my head around why he would do this." He suggested that Valor Security should suspend him immediately and then transfer him to a different location. "It’s not safe or applicable for him to be working anymore at Westlake Center."
Both men said Hinds had been fired by the Department of Corrections from his corrections officer position at a Monroe state prison. DOC records show that Stuart Hinds was terminated in May 2013 after just one week of employment, but they don’t say why.
"No one ever gives any of these guys any respect while they’re out doing their thing," Peck told me, referring to security guards. "From what I saw on video and heard from eyewitnesses, I think he made a mistake deploying the pepper spray."
"We are all human, and I don’t think Stuart meant to turn this into a racial thing," Peck said. "But then again, I don’t know him that well."
Earlier this week, Seattle police completed their investigation into the incident and turned over the results to city prosecutors for review. Last week, I asked SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb what kinds of use-of-force guidelines apply to private security guards. “They have the same rights and restrictions as anyone else,” he said. “If this person [Raymond Wilford] says he’s been assaulted by security, that’s something we would investigate, and are investigating.” Whitcomb said whether the pepper-spray incident took place inside the mall or outside the mall on public property is irrelevant.
"It was definitely an assault," said Wilford. He’s considering filing charges against the Westlake security guard.
This is not the first time a Westlake assistant director of security has been accused of racial bias and assault. According to municipal court records, Andrew MacDonald, who said he worked at Westlake for Valor for three years and served as assistant director, asked some Seattle police officers for help on February 10, 2013, saying he’d been assaulted by a man near the Starbucks.
Police found Sean Altheimer, who is black, and arrested him. City prosecutors charged him with assaulting the security guard. But in an April 2014 trial, Altheimer insisted he acted in self-defense and was unanimously acquitted. He testified to being on his lunch break from his own security job at Tiffany and Company, the jewelry store. He was wearing a suit and taking a walk when he spotted a friend of his (also a black man) at Westlake.
Suddenly, “the security guard told me to get the blank off of his property,” Altheimer testified, referring to MacDonald. “I began to ask him why and continued to ask him why and for what. I told him it wasn’t his property and that Westlake mall didn’t own the sidewalk. And I could stand here as long as I choose to talk to my friend.”
Altheimer tried to pull out his iPhone to take MacDonald’s photo, but MacDonald knocked the phone out of his hands three times, according to testimony from both men. “He assaulted first,” Altheimer said under questioning from a city attorney. “After the third time, then I decided to swing at him.” The punch didn’t connect, he said. MacDonald claimed it did. According to court records, MacDonald believed Altheimer and his friend were engaged in some sort of drug deal because of the way they were shaking hands and hugging.
Macdonald “mistakenly assumed that [Altheimer’s] shake of hands and hug was an illegal transaction of some sort of contraband,” Matt Hartman, Altheimer’s attorney, told me.
According to Altheimer’s account, the two men were just greeting each other. The jury sided with Altheimer. Last week, Altheimer sued MacDonald and Valor Security for damages, alleging that the company discriminated against him.
Valor Security and General Growth Properties had no comment on the lawsuit. Altheimer declined to speak directly with me, but Altheimer’s attorney said that between his client’s case and the pepper-spraying of Raymond Wilford, Westlake security guards could be engaged in a pattern of racial profiling. “They have a commonality of minorities being targeted where it doesn’t appear they were involved in any criminal conduct,” he said.
There are also serious questions being asked of the Seattle police officers, who are under a consent decree after engaging in a pattern of excessive use of force and racially biased policing. “Officers were in abundance” at the pro-Palestinian demonstration, said the SPD’s Whitcomb. At least two officers were specifically assigned to the protest. But according to Officer Ronald Hylton’s police report, “when we were finally able to figure out what occurred,” police learned that Wilford had already been maced. A search for the shirtless white man proved fruitless.
"This is exactly why we staff demonstrations," Whitcomb explained, "to make sure that people can exercise their First Amendment rights without fear. You’ve got this belligerent individual apparently trying to pick fights. Stopping him, contacting him, finding out what his business is—that’s our job. At this point, we don’t know why that was handled by Westlake security as opposed to our own personnel."
In Garland’s video, a Seattle police officer appears a few minutes after the pepper-spray incident and stands between Hinds, the Westlake security guard, and protesters. The protesters are yelling, “You maced the wrong guy!” and trying give Wilford water to wash out his eyes.
"Let him do his job!" the policeman barks at the demonstrators, apparently referring to Hinds, who cuffs Wilford and leads him away, inside the mall.
"You guys are supposed to protect us," one demonstrator pleads, her voice anguished. "Why are you doing this?"