BELLINGHAM - Three witnesses filed a complaint alleging a Bellingham police officer used excessive force when he shot a homeless man with a Taser last week on Holly Street.
Police continued to investigate the incident Friday, Feb. 21, to determine if the officer's actions were justified.
An unaffiliated Christian outreach group was feeding heart-shaped pancakes - dyed pink, for Valentine's Day - to homeless people around 11:30 a.m. Feb. 14 in front of the Horseshoe Café in downtown Bellingham.
One of the men, Robert Collins, 47, was cutting pancakes into pieces for a 2-year-old child, the son of a volunteer, when Officer Daniel Bennett approached and told the group it's illegal to sit on the sidewalk during the day. So everyone stood up.
The group spoke briefly with Bennett about the sidewalk law. According to witness statements, Collins chimed in from behind: "Are you really going to give these kids a hard time for feeding pancakes to the homeless?"
Bennett turned to Collins and asked if he wanted a ticket.
"Such a response was very sudden and unexpected," the volunteers wrote in their complaint, "because the mood of the whole scene was light and cooperative, so Robert got flustered and responded with words, but no real, coherent answer."
The officer asked for Collins' ID.
"What did I do?" Collins responded, according to the complaint. "This is (expletive) up."
What happened next isn't clear. One witness, Tim Potter, 22, said the two men argued at arm's length, with Collins repeatedly asking what he'd done. Another witnesses, Benjamin Shiflett, 32, said when Collins turned to walk away, the officer shoved him against the wall.
In Bennett's police report - which hasn't been released - the officer said Collins made a movement that he perceived as an imminent threat, though Bennett made physical contact first, said police spokesman Lt. Bob Vander Yacht.
It's undisputed Bennett fired his Taser, taking Collins to his knees. Collins didn't have serious injuries. He was taken to jail and remained there a week later, unable to post bond for obstructing a police officer, resisting arrest, sitting or lying on a public sidewalk and failure to appear on a past charge of disorderly conduct.
Police have been asking businesses in the area for security footage.
"That'd be golden," Vander Yacht said. "We'd love to have that, because it removes all of the opinion from it."
No video had been found as of Friday.
Bennett has worked for the Bellingham Police Department since 2005.
Becca Kennedy, the third witness who filed the complaint, praised city officials and the police department for taking the complaint seriously. She thinks the officer's actions were "blatantly unjust," but said it doesn't reflect local police attitudes toward the homeless.
Since October, Collins has been arrested five times on charges of disorderly conduct or obstructing police.
For example, he got an infraction for sitting on the sidewalk in the same block on Oct. 9. When he threw the citation on the ground, the officer warned him he could be cited for littering and obstructing, so Collins fled, according to police. Officers overtook him two blocks away.
The first name of Officer Daniel Bennett was corrected Feb. 23, 2014.
READ THE COMPLAINT
The following is a transcript of the complaint filed with Bellingham Police by Becca Kennedy, a witness to a Taser incident on Feb. 14 in downtown Bellingham:
On February 14th, 2014, myself, my friend and his son, and one other that is connected with our church outreach group were in downtown Bellingham eating pancakes with four homeless people, one being Robert, who was eventually tasered and arrested. We were all sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Horseshoe Café on Holly St. at about 11:30 am when an officer officer (Daniel) Bennett approached us. Now, when the officer entered the scene, the atmosphere was light-hearted and joyful, and Robert was feeding my friends two year old son pancakes. Officer Bennett informed us of the Bellingham law that states that sitting on the sidewalk between 7am and 9pm is prohibited. We all reacted by immediately standing up. A conversation started between my friends and the officer about alternate locations around Bellingham to continue our meal, when Robert said something like, "Are you really going to give these kids a hard time for feeding pancakes to the homeless?" Officer Bennett responded by asking Robert if he wanted a ticket. Such a response was very sudden and unexpected because the mood of the whole scene was light and cooperative, so Robert got flustered and responded with words, but no real, coherent answer. The officer demanded ID and pulled a box (which I later found out was a taser) out of his uniform. Then, Robert responded by saying, "What did I do? This is (expletive) up." Then Officer Bennett shot Robert with his taser gun. Robert fell to his knees and was in visible submission and pain. Witnesses from all around the area began to gather in shock. I immediately called the police because the action of the officer was blatantly unjust, and soon after another officer came. The other officer spoke with us to try to justify the actions of his fellow officer, and meanwhile, Robert was arguing and being generally uncooperative with the three officers who were arresting him. Eventually Officer Bennett joined our conversation with the other officer to try and explain to us his side of the story, but even then, minutes after the event, his details were wrong. He said that Robert had told him to "(expletive) off" and that Robert had not been cooperating prior to being shot with the taser gun, neither of which statements were true. My friend responded with a statement about proper use of authority and the injustice of the officers actions, and the officer said nothing, left, and drove off with Robert in the backseat of his car.
Officer (Daniel) Bennett violated multiple parts of the Bellingham Law Enforcements Code of Ethics. His actions were unjust and a disgrace to the suspect, community, and police department.