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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane police officer who shot machete-wielding man outside downtown bar cleared of wrongdoing

Charlston Harper, who was shot during a standoff with Spokane police outside a downtown bar, holds legal documentation of his mental illness during an interview at the Spokane County Jail on Monday, April 24, 2017. (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)

Charlston Harper says he doesn’t remember much from the night, almost a year ago, when a Spokane police officer shot him with a rifle outside a downtown bar.

It was May 1, 2016. Officers went looking for Harper, then 34, after a pair of bouncers reported he was brandishing a machete and threatening people near Borracho Tacos and Tequileria on North Division Street.

One officer found Harper in front of Zola, another bar on West Main Avenue. He tried twice to immobilize Harper with a Taser, but that failed. The SWAT team was called in. Officers surrounded the bar and patrons were evacuated through the rear doors.

Harper was acting erratically and telling the police to shoot and kill him, police said. They feared he would take a staircase near the bar entrance to access some second-floor apartments.

They ordered him not to go inside, but after a standoff that lasted roughly 15 minutes, he turned and opened the door.

At that time, at least three officers fired “less-lethal” beanbag rounds at Harper. Only one officer, Scott Lesser, used regular bullets.

Lesser shot four rounds from his M-4 rifle, one of which struck Harper in the right side and remains lodged near his spine.

The Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office announced Monday that the shooting was justified and no criminal charges would be filed against Lesser, who joined the force in 2010.

“Less lethal force (the Taser) had been tried and failed,” a news release states. “There is no indication that Officer Lesser acted out of malice or lacked a good faith belief in the correctness of his actions.”

Harper spent several days recovering at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center after the shooting. He remains in the Spokane County Jail on charges of harassment and armed burglary, with bond set at $500,000 and a trial scheduled in July.

In an interview at the jail Monday, Harper said the night of the shooting is a blur to him. It’s one of many episodes he attributes to severe mental illness.

“I remember bits and pieces,” he said. “I remember getting shot, and that kind of woke me up, but I slipped right back into it.”

Harper said he has been diagnosed with bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder and hears voices constantly. He receives medications in jail, but they do little to block out the voices, he said.

“I can never get a lone moment in my head,” he said. “Everything I think, I think everyone around me can hear it. It’s like this 24/7.”

Harper said he doesn’t understand why Lesser decided to use deadly force, noting that the bar had already been evacuated and he wasn’t close enough to hurt anyone.

“No one was in there. It was empty,” he said. “If 15 officers shoot me with beanbags, I’m going to drop the knife.”

Harper also believes that, rather than jail, he should have been sent to a mental hospital for treatment. He showed documentation from a previous case in which a judge ordered him to a “less-restrictive alternative” just two months prior to the shooting.

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment Monday evening. Body camera footage of the shooting has not been released.

Harper was one of three men shot by Spokane police within five days last spring.

Harper was charged with assault in 2006 after throwing a knife at another man during a fight in Riverfront Park. In 2015, he was accused of kicking and biting firefighters who attempted to treat him after finding him unresponsive on the Maple Street Bridge.