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A Seattle Police Officer’s Jokes About an Indian Woman’s Killing Are Sparking Outrage

6 minute read

Jaahnavi Kandula harbored hopes of graduating from an American college after her mother took on substantial debt to send her from her home in southern India to Seattle to pursue a master’s degree in information systems at Northeastern University. “She was a brilliant student with a promising future,” her family said in a statement to TIME. But in January, the 23-year-old student with a “radiant smile and bubbly personality” was tragically struck on a marked crosswalk by a reportedly speeding police car.

Eight months on, Kandula’s death has snowballed into a diplomatic incident, with Indian officials expressing concerns after disturbing bodycam footage from the Seattle Police Department was released and went viral on social media in recent days. It appears to show the vice president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, Daniel Auderer, laughing about the incident and saying Kandula “had limited value.”

The disturbing comments have led Indian officials in the U.S. to demand action from Seattle and Washington state authorities, as well as Indian-American lawmakers to speak out against the Seattle Police Department. The Consulate General of India in San Francisco weighed in on Friday, posting that it had taken the matter up with senior officials in Washington State and D.C.

The incident has also stirred outrage amongst members of the Indian-American community, as well as India, many of whom continue to express outrage under the hashtag, #JusticeforJaahnavi, on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. In Seattle, community groups also took to the streets on Thursday. 

Why is there outrage over the police bodycam footage?

In January, Seattle police officer, Kevin Dave, hit Kandula in January while driving 74 mph—at about three times the speed limit, according to the Seattle Times.

Body-camera footage later released by the city shows Auderer, joking about Kandula’s death while on the phone with the Seattle Police Officers Guild union’s president Mike Solen. Auderer says in the recording about Kandula’s death the city should “just write a check” for $11,000. “She was 26 anyway,” Auderer said, incorrectly stating Kandula’s age. “She had limited value.”

A conservative radio show host on KTTH-AM said that, in a written statement, Auderer told the city watchdog agency investigating the incident that his comments were targeted towards lawyers and “the ridiculousness of how these incidents are litigated” and that the comment was “not made with malice or a hard heart,” the Associated Press reported.

The Community Police Commission—a police oversight organization established under a consent decree after the federal investigation of a fatal 2010 shooting by Seattle Police—said in a statement that the incident was “heartbreaking and shockingly insensitive.” The organization added that the incident speaks to concerns repeatedly raised about the police department’s culture and resistance to accountability measures.

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Joel Merkel, co-chair of the Community Police Commission, tells TIME that the video starts with Auderer “minimizing the need for an investigation into the collision” and implying the officer was going slower than reports suggest he actually was. “What that speaks to is just a callous disregard for police accountability systems,” he says.

Jahnaavi Kandula
A photo of Jaahnavi Kandula is displayed with flowers on Jan. 29, 2023 in Seattle, at the intersection where she was killed by a Seattle Police officer.Ken Lambert—The Seattle Times/AP

The Indian community's reaction to the incident

Auderer’s reaction to Kandula’s death has raised questions over how the police may devalue people of color, immigrants, and women, sending shockwaves through the Indian community in the U.S. and wider diaspora, as well as in India. It has also prompted an investigation by authorities.

Ashok Mandula, Kandula’s Houston-based uncle who had to make arrangements to send her body to her mother back in India, told the local Indian press: “I wonder if these men’s daughters or granddaughters have value. A life is a life.”

Kandula’s family said in their statement her death had left an“unfillable void.” 

“She had a natural ability to connect with people from all walks of life,” they wrote. “It is truly disturbing and saddening to hear insensible comments on the bodycam video from an SPD officer regarding Jaahnavi's death.”

The incident has also touched a nerve among Indian students studying in the U.S. who relate to Kandula’s personal story. “She shares similar goals, hustling far from family,” X user Sai Siddartha Maram posted, “On another day could have been any of us and we would have never known we were worth 11k USD or had little value or just a regular person.”

On Thursday, the Seattle Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (SAARPR) held a rally with hundreds of protesters to call for action against the relevant police officers. “The officer's comments indicate they think they're invincible. They think they can keep getting away with this forever,” SAARPR told TIME in a statement.

“We're going to change that by winning political power for oppressed communities,” the organization said. “We need an all-civilian, democratically elected council to make sure when cops abuse their power we can take them off the streets ourselves.”

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The National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA), based in Maryland, passed a unanimous resolution on Thursday urging authorities to “prioritize the investigation” and “respect for the rights and dignity of all individuals affected” by this incident.

NFIA President Raj Razdan told TIME that the Indian American community was “very saddened” by the incident, adding that the officer’s comments were “very disheartening.”

“Imagine a mother hearing in India that her child, who came to school here, is no more. It's very painful,” Razdan said. 

What is the official response to Kandula’s death?

Responding to the community outrage, the Indian Consulate General in San Francisco called for a “thorough investigation” into Kandula’s death on Wednesday. 

“Recent reports including in media of the handling of Ms Jaahnavi Kandula’s death in a road accident in Seattle in January are deeply troubling,” a post from the consulate’s account on X stated.

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The Office of Police Accountability, a city watchdog, has opened an investigation into Auderer for his comments, while the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has opened a criminal review into the crash. Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell also sent a letter to Kandula’s family to offer his condolences.

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, an Indian American whose district includes Seattle, also posted about the incident on Thursday. “I’m sick to my stomach. This is exactly what happens when we normalize xenophobia and racism. It needs to stop,” she wrote on X.

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According to reports from the Indian news outlets PTI and Indian Express, Senior Biden administration officials have also provided reassurance to the Indian ambassador and the Indian government that they will closely monitor the investigation, emphasizing their deep concern over the incident. 

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Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com and Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com