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

Police Guild watches its watchdog, escalates protest against investigation into violent arrest

Bart Logue, Police Ombudsman for the city of Spokane, talks about his then-interim job Friday, Mar. 18, 2016 at his office in Spokane City Hall. JESSE TINSLEY (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Police Guild has escalated its longstanding opposition to an investigation into a violent arrest in February, filing a public records request for the communications of numerous city officials.

The request, filed last month, includes a call for a search through the personal and professional communications of the Office of the Police Ombudsman, whose participation in the investigation into the arrest of a 29-year-old man in February has sparked the ire of the police union.

The union and the ombudsman’s office have often been at odds over the best approach to providing oversight of the police department.

The latest dispute stems from who should oversee the investigation into a Feb. 11 incident in which officers Daniel Lesser and Scott Lesser arrested Lucas Ellerman, who was wanted on multiple warrants and fled from an attempted traffic stop. Believing Ellerman to have a gun, police reported that they wrestled with Ellerman inside the truck before lifting a police K-9 into the cab.

The dog bit Ellerman’s left leg, leaving a wound that required stitches, and a witness told police he allegedly heard “officers yelling ‘I’m gonna kill you!’” at Ellerman.

That use of force was publicly called into question months later when Police Ombudsman Bart Logue was notified of the incident by retired Spokane police detective and blogger Brian Breen, according to both men.

The Spokane Police Department’s Internal Affairs division was already investigating the incident when Logue caught wind of it, and the police guild believes Internal Affairs should remain in charge of looking into what happened.

Logue said he is not concerned about the guild’s public records request.

“(The ombudsman’s office) can’t be about transparency if we’re not willing to be transparent,” Logue said.

Logue noted that he filed a public records request in regard to the case himself, adding “a lot of us want to know some of the inner details” of how it was handled.

“I was more interested in why it wasn’t filed as a complaint,” Logue said.

Though Logue has sat in on the internal affairs investigation launched after he filed a complaint, the police guild ardently opposed his involvement, alleging that he violated ethics and ombudsman office policy by releasing confidential information to media outlets and viewing body camera footage of the incident before an official complaint was filed.

“Logue’s conduct brings into question his ability to serve as a fair and impartial presence to ensure a thorough complete objective investigation,” Guild President Kris Honaker wrote in a letter to the city officials, police officials and Logue earlier this year.

Logue’s ongoing participation, the guild warned, “will be a basis for the guild to object to the results of the investigation and any discipline that may result.”

Logue was not notified of the incident by police, but by Breen, despite the fact that the use of force “was of a serious nature” and warranted formal review, Logue wrote in a July letter to the Spokane Police Department.

“It took three months and an outside party before this case came to my attention, despite my being invited to Use of Force Review Boards,” Logue wrote.

In a letter filed with the ombudsman commission in July, Breen credited his knowledge of the incident – which includes police body camera footage – to “outstanding SPD officers who are extremely concerned about the culture that exists within SPD.”

Breen wrote that evidence of a “cover up” surfaced in April, when he filed a public records request to confirm that Officer Dan Lesser had been removed from the K-9 Unit.

When the entire record of the incident becomes public, Breen alleged, it will include proof of a meeting between Lesser and police command staff in which the officer “voluntarily resigned” his K-9 post.

“People will be able to decide for themselves if someone with his K-9 history and relationship with his K-9 would ‘voluntarily resign’ that position,” Breen wrote.

In an interview, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl dismissed accusations of a cover up.

“The ability to cover anything up, at least for the Spokane Police Department … it’s next to impossible,” Meidl said. “Body cameras are on, any access to any kind of software has an auditing trail that anyone can request.”

The use of force in this case – which Meidl has previously acknowledged included “policy violations” – was being investigated under standard department procedure through the chain of command until the Ombudsman’s Office made a formal complaint, according to Meidl.

“Brian Breen is an expert at taking a few little pieces of fact and sprinkling it into his story to try to make it sound more realistic,” Meidl said.

The case was not being swept under the rug, and was “already being investigated,” Meidl said. Once the internal affairs investigation is complete and information is publicly released, it will show “there was plenty of documentation before the Ombudsman even filed a formal complaint,” he added.

In response to the incident – or at least the way his office was notified of it – Logue has called for revisions to department policy. He wants Internal Affairs to conduct investigations in use of force cases, instead of sending it up the officer’s chain of command for review. The chain of command review is in contrast to administrative investigations, in which Internal Affairs directly reviews and investigates a case.

“In uses of force, the chain of command only looks at whether the force used is in policy. They are not required to report other misconduct they may encounter,” Logue wrote in a July 16 letter to the Spokane Police Department.

Those listed in the guild’s public records request include Mayor David Condon’s office, the Spokane City Council, the Spokane Police Department, and the City Clerk’s Office, the City Attorney’s Office, and the Office of the Police Ombudsman.

The request seeks emails, text messages, and a variety of other forms of communications – on both professional and personal devices – related to a use of force investigation and incident report.

The Spokesman-Review obtained a copy of the guild’s public records request through a public records request of its own. The Spokesman has decided to withhold the findings of the records search because the case remains under an active Internal Affairs investigation.

Less than six months after the February arrest, Lesser was involved in a police shooting and placed on administrative leave.

In an interview, Breen said he believes the guild’s primary goal in filing the records request is to find out his source of information within the department, which “they never will,” or to intimidate others who might speak out. He suggested the guild is also interested in finding evidence that the ombudsman or his office gave out information that it shouldn’t have.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart called the request a “fishing expedition.” He said he learned about the existence of body camera footage from Council Member Karen Stratton, who had learned about it through a citizen.

Had Logue called council members into his office and showed them the video, that likely would have violated policy, but “we actually approached Bart,” Stuckart said.

“We didn’t do anything untoward or unethical,” Stuckart said.

Stratton expressed frustration that the city council was unable to view body camera footage of the incident without consenting to a nondisclosure agreement, which its members declined to sign.

“We have worked really hard to build trust between our citizens and our police officers. You do everything you can to try to support the Spokane Police Department, but there’s also that transparency issue,” Stratton said. “When you start hearing things, in my good conscience, yes I had to say something, and I wouldn’t have done it any differently.”

Council Member Breean Beggs said said he “didn’t take it as anything personal” and noted that he used public records requests to obtain information prior to joining city government.

The police guild did not respond to multiple requests for comment.