Arrow-right Camera


Addiction defense used successfully once before

Get a job with a badge and a gun.

While catching drug dealers, start smoking pot and snorting coke. Just to fit in. Find yourself going a little further than your undercover duties require. Snort some more cocaine, then smoke it. Then smoke it. Then smoke it.

Take paid leave to go to treatment, turn in your badge and gun – and sue the city of Spokane for $2 million, for getting you hooked on crack cocaine.

If you thought the Brad Thoma case was something new under the sun, think again. A quarter-century ago, Spokane was rocked by a case with unmistakable similarities: an addicted cop, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, and a City Hall that doesn’t want to settle … except it also doesn’t want to lose a lot of money in court.

We don’t know the end of the Thoma case, yet. The City Council is showing some backbone, Thoma is suing, and the case will doubtlessly drag on for a good long while.

I hope the city hangs tough and we never see Thoma in blue again. But standing your ground is always easiest in the short term. Eventually, the risk-reducers and loss-cutters tend to win the day.

In the case of Dan Newlun, that led to a disability pension and a $120,000 settlement.

Newlun was a Spokane native, Shadle Park grad and Air Force veteran who joined the Spokane Police Department in 1973. By 1980, he made detective. In 1983, he joined the undercover narcotics team, and soon he was making more arrests than anyone else in the unit.

“He was a hero,” said his attorney, Greg Staeheli. “He was a great cop.”

He was also doing drugs. It was something he felt he had to do, Staeheli said, and something his bosses knew about and endorsed.

In testimony before the police pension board in 1986, Newlun said, “The dealers on the street liked to play a game of ‘If you’re not a cop, you’ll do the dope with us, and if you are you won’t.”

Federal drug agents at the time said they didn’t subscribe to that policy – at one point, they refused to work with Newlun because they believed he could compromise their investigation. But it was legal for an undercover officer to use drugs in the course of duty, and though the SPD would eventually prohibit it, it had not formally done so yet.

Newlun first smoked crack in 1985. He claimed his experience was just like the scare tales of the time – instant addiction.

More than one drug dealer would later come forward to describe free-basing with Newlun. One of them recounted one evening this way: “We sat around and drank whiskey and Scotch and free-based crack for three or four hours. … Basically, he was doing the same thing I was doing. He was using city money to get cocaine, and he had the habit just as bad as me.”

The dealer said he and Newlun smoked crack together, and with other undercover officers, at least a dozen times in the fall of 1985. Meanwhile, the narcotics unit seemed adrift – a later investigation would find that no intelligence records whatsoever were being kept.

Eventually, Newlun took a paid leave to go to rehab in Arizona in March 1986. Upon his return he resigned. A month later, he sued the city, alleging his supervisors had failed to properly train and supervise him. He also sought a disability pension for his addiction.

City officials fought the case. The case of the “cocaine cop” made a lot of headlines, drew a lot of outrage, inspired a newspaper cartoon or two. Then the wheels of justice began turning. And turning. And turning.

The pension case pingponged all over the place: A local pension board approved it; a state official reversed that decision; a judge recommended that the reversal be reversed; a higher state official refused to do so; Newlun kept appealing.

Eventually, he won a monthly pension benefit. Meanwhile, the city was tiring of the legal bills associated with the case. On Aug. 3, 1990, the city called a news conference and announced it would pay Newlun $120,000 to avoid further litigation.

Staeheli, 22 years after the fact, makes a good case for his client: Newlun’s supervisors sent him out to catch drug dealers; they knew that he was using dangerous drugs; they kept him on the beat too long; ignored a consultant’s report advising ways to prevent such problems.

“They gave absolutely no training to Dan Newlun about the dangers of doing this,” he said.

But didn’t everyone know that cocaine was addictive? I was still a teenager when Dan Newlun started smoking crack, and I’d heard how atrociously addictive it was. Surely Newlun wasn’t merely an innocent victim.

Staeheli said the state board that decided whether Newlun got a disability pension felt the same way at first. Eventually, everyone on the board voted to give him the pension.

“It was 100 percent for him,” he told me. “They started with the same attitude that you did.”

OK. Maybe so. I think people who lack empathy for addicts are wrong by about the same margin as those who want to hold addicts utterly blameless. But the problem is, we never hear police officers making these arguments on behalf of those they arrest: They couldn’t help it. They were hooked. It’s a disease.

Remember the drug dealer who partied with Newlun? He was hooked on freebase, too.

Newlun “got to go to a high-class treatment place,” the dealer said at the time, “and I went to jail.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


There are 12 comments on this story »