Seattle Officer to Be Punished for Taking Down Ax-Wielding Robbery Suspect

A mentally unstable man, later identified as James Ray Smith, walks into REI’s flagship store adjacent Interstate-5 in downtown Seattle. He removes an ice ax typically used by mountain climbers to penetrate deep into the snow as they ascent steep slopes.

As the man tries to leave REI without paying for the item, he threatens a store security employee with the ax and then leaves the store. Smith had just turned a probable misdemeanor shoplift into a felony armed robbery. Security calls the police. Seattle Police Department (SPD) cops arrive and confront the man outside the store. They demand he put down the ice ax. Instead, he refuses to comply, threatens officers with the ax, then turns and walks away.

Officers follow him for several blocks, shouting for him to drop the deadly weapon. He continues to refuse their orders and walks on. Another officer, Nick Guzley, arrives and joins officers following the man, demanding he drop the ax.

Eventually, the officers close-in on the man in a narrow, enclosed-on-two-sides walkway. They continue to order Smith to drop the ice ax, but he continues to be non-compliant. At one point, Officer Guzley sees his chance as the suspect turns away from them.

(Credit: YouTube/Police Network)

Guzley rushes the man and grasps him from behind (news reports described it as a “bear hug”), pinning the man’s arms and the weapon to his side. Other officers assisted in disarming and taking the suspect (oh, sorry…Seattle no longer allows officers to use suspect to describe people arrested for felony crimes)…taking the community member into custody with no reported injuries to the suspect—dang it!—community member, bystanders, or the officers.

Officers transported Smith to SPD’s West Precinct and later booked him into jail. The felonious community member was eventually convicted of robbery and is currently serving his prison term.

So, after such a harrowing story, I know what you’re thinking. Now, I’m going to regale you with stories about the pats on the back the officer got from his fellow cops and supervisors and the well-deserved honors the city bestowed on Officer Guzley for his heroic actions. I mean, he received a medal of valor or at least a commendation from the chief, right?

Wrong. Sadly, not even close. In a process that couldn’t have been better crafted if someone had specifically designed it to cause de-policing, rather than a reward, the department put Officer Guzley under investigation for “failure to de-escalate” the situation.

Like I’ve said before, if an incident goes bad, they always blame the cops and never the criminals. But in this perverse situation, things went right, but they still blamed the cop for “wrongdoing.” In what kind of world do we live where this happens? A leftist one.

Apparently, following a man who is holding an ice ax menacingly for several blocks, yelling repeatedly at this uncooperative armed robbery suspect community member to drop the stolen weapon, when he could have attacked an innocent bystander at any time, doesn’t rise to the level of trying to de-escalate a situation. Wait, I get it now. By de-escalating they mean an officer should wait until the community member (Ah, screw it! I’m going back to suspect)…the suspect actually injures or kills a cop or bystander. That way they can put even more blame on the officer—well, unless the community member kills the cop.

Having walked in that officer’s shoes, I was livid when I heard the department intends to discipline him with a two-day suspension. I tend to watch these kinds of police actions with the eyes of a field training officer (FTO). I ask myself what I’d say if one of my student officers had done what that officer did.

In this case, which was revealed in a recently-released video recorded by SPD officers’ body-worn cameras, since everything worked out well, my sole concern would have been with the officer putting himself at such immense risk to subdue a suspect armed with a deadly weapon.

This was obviously a lethal force situation. The officer could have shot the man and articulated many reasons it was necessary. Instead, he placed himself at grave personal risk to keep his fellow officers and the community safe from a violent suspect.

It’s easy to imagine the suspect attacking an innocent bystander with that ax. After all, he’d already used it to threaten a store employee while committing a robbery, and then he threatened responding police officers with the ax. Also, he could have stolen any item he could carry from the REI—boots, gloves, a jacket, etc.—but instead he took something that could be used as a deadly weapon.

Suspect wielding ice ax, repeatedly refusing to obey Seattle cops’ commands to drop the weapon, wields it as he strolls city streets.(Credit: YouTube/Police Network)

What do you think he was going to use the ice ax for, climbing the Space Needle or chipping ice for his mid-morning margarita? I wonder about the persons still alive today, who were outdoors in the neighborhood that evening, who Smith didn’t kill because of Officer Guzley’s extraordinary actions.

If you’re stunned by these events, just wait, it gets worse. It was one of Guzley’s own supervisors who filed the complaint against him. Reports have not identified the supervisor, but, in the SPD, the title normally refers to an officer’s sergeant.

I don’t know what was in the supervisor’s head when he or she filed a complaint, so it’s hard to understand how he or she interpreted what the officer did on that video footage as worthy of discipline. Many officers have commented on the incident and have come to a much different conclusion than that supervisor. Guzley was a hero. Seattle Police Officers Guild President Kevin Stuckey mentioned a victim bystander scenario similar to the one I described above had Officer Guzley not taken down the suspect.

And what would the response have been to the officer’s actions if Smith had buried the ice ax into some innocent citizen’s head? A man or woman, an elderly person, perhaps a child. I can hear it now: Police Fail to Prevent Violent Armed Robbery Suspect from Murdering an Innocent Bystander with a Stolen Ice Ax—”details at eleven.”

How are police officers supposed to process what is happening to Officer Guzley? The facts have been laid out through video evidence. How can anyone wonder why officers are de-policing, even leaving the profession, as qualified replacements are becoming harder to find?

This is not a defense of the reporting supervisor, but, as I’ve heard from cops and saw when I was still active-duty, supervisors are under tremendous pressure to file complaints against their officers because if they don’t, they could have charges filed against them for failure to report an officer’s misconduct to the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA). The situation is insane.

Seattle Police Office of Professional Accountability (OPA). (Credit: Seattle.gov/opa)

And, after reading the Seattle Police Manual’s description of “de-escalation,” I can understand, if not agree with, a supervisor being confused about whether to report a subordinate’s actions. And in law enforcement today, when in doubt, write a report.

From the Seattle Police Department Manual: 8.100 – De-Escalation: 1. When Safe under the Totality of the Circumstances and Time and Circumstances Permit, Officers Shall Use De-Escalation Tactics in Order to Reduce the Need for Force [emphasis mine].” But at what risk to officers and the community?

De-escalation is a long-winded, complex policy that, it seems to me, places the well-being of the suspect above officer safety, if, for nothing else, its long-windedness and complexity. The supervisor may have felt compelled, based on the wording of the policy, to file the complaint to avoid getting a complaint of his or her own. Today, many police departments put supervisors and officers into impossible positions when they attempt to comply with policies designed to make politicians and political activists feel good.

Officer Guzley will have one more chance to plead his case (which is an insult to him) on May 11th, to the interim police chief, Carmen Best, who is also a candidate to fill the permanent position. I served under Chief Best when she was a new sergeant. I enjoyed working for her, she took care of her officers, and I had no complaints. I hope she makes the correct decision in this case.

The situation in Seattle and many left-oriented cities has become not figuratively but literally Orwellian. Seattle’s leftist government has commandeered the language, law enforcement policies, and the unrealistic expectations that put law enforcement officers at risk. At what point does the pendulum begin to swing back toward sanity?

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Steve Pomper

Steve Pomper is an OpsLens contributor, a retired Seattle police officer, and the author of four non-fiction books, including De-Policing America: A Street Cop’s View of the Anti-Police State. You can read a review of this new book in Front Page Magazine and listen to an interview with Steve on the Joe Pags Show. Steve was a field-training officer, on the East Precinct Community Police Team, and served his entire career on the streets. He has a BA in English Language and Literature. He enjoys spending time with his kids and grand-kids. He loves to ride his Harley, hike, and cycle with his wife, Jody, a retired firefighter. You can find out more about Steve and send him comments and questions at www.stevepomper.com.

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