A fight at Ferris High School, in which a resource officer put his knee to a student’s neck, is drawing scrutiny about why Spokane Public Schools hired a former deputy with a history of violent conduct.
Former Deputy Shawn Audie was about to be fired when he quit last year as part of an internal investigation into an allegation of excessive force, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said.
Confrontations involving Audie prompted three federal lawsuits, including a case in which a man died after Audie placed him in a chokehold.
Audie now faces new questions after photos have surfaced of him pushing his knee on the neck of a Ferris student he was trying to detain Jan. 24. A video posted online by a witness also shows Audie pressing his forearm into the student’s throat.
Nobody from the school district called Knezovich for a reference when the school district hired Audie as a school resource officer.
“They didn’t ask us any questions,” Knezovich said. “I don’t know if they even did a background check.”
Asked what he would have told the school district had they called, the sheriff replied: “Exactly what happened. They could have read the files. That’s the whole reason you do proper background checks.”
School spokesman Brian Coddington said Audie has since been transferred from Ferris to North Central High School. Knezovich said it’s his understanding that Audie is under investigation by Spokane police.
“We just became aware of this information this afternoon after he completed his shift,” Coddington said Friday. “He’s currently an employee of the district.”
Coddington said the district performed a criminal background check before Audie was hired and found nothing.
Federal court records show three civil cases against Audie for using excessive force, including one in which he was accused of killing a man with a chokehold.
“The criminal background check didn’t turn up the civil cases,” Coddington said.
In addition, a Google search reveals several pages of published news accounts of allegations against Audie. Coddington said a Google search was “not part of the standard process.”
Coddington said the school district spoke to one of Audie’s former supervisors, but Coddington couldn’t remember the supervisor’s name.
“We never spoke to the sheriff. That’s correct,” he said. “We did speak to Shawn Audie’s former supervisor. He gave a good recommendation.”
Questions about Audie surfaced after three Ferris staff members reportedly were injured and three students arrested following a fight Jan. 24.
Police arrested two students for assault and a third for malicious mischief, Coddington said last week.
Asked what had happened, Coddington on Friday instructed a reporter to seek the police reports.
“That would give you a pretty good picture of what happened,” said Coddington, who refused to summarize what those reports said. “Federal law prohibits me from discussing student conduct.”
Tayona Allen, a student at Ferris, witnessed the fight. On Tuesday, she posted on Facebook that Audie slammed a student to the floor after another student put his hands on him, Allen said.
Audie “was on his neck,” Allen wrote. She added that the student couldn’t breathe.
The post included pictures of Audie on top of the student and showed the officer’s forearm wedged into the student’s neck while the student is making an obscene gesture.
About 30 students protested Audie’s actions on Tuesday during a walkout at Ferris, according to KREM 2. Allen was among the protesters who held a Black Lives Matter sign.
Audie is white, and the detained student is black.
“This mean(s) we have a voice and we can speak up because this is a worldwide problem that needs to be stopped,” Allen told KREM 2.
Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said he and other community leaders “are deeply concerned over what was on the video and what it implies.”
Spokane attorney Jeffry Finer in 2010 represented Richard Howley, then a 75-year-old Korean War veteran, who suffered a baton strike to the head after Audie came to his home to investigate a call of potential domestic violence.
The incident occurred on March 30, 2008, when Audie responded to a report of a possible fight between Howley and his son.
Howley’s dog approached Audie, who apparently thought the dog was a threat. The deputy twice struck the dog with a baton.
Audie, according to the lawsuit, ordered the elder Howley to control his dog. But when Howley walked past Audie, the deputy struck him in the head with a baton, knocking him down a flight of stairs.
Howley’s son then yelled for help: “He’s trying to kill my Dad,” according to court records.
Finer said the county settled the case with the family, but he could not remember the amount.
“Howley got very ill and he could not withstand the rigors of litigation,” Finer said. “But he got badly hurt and was treated very poorly.”
After the case was over, Finer said he remembers issuing a warning about Audie’s demeanor.
“I told his attorney that (Deputy) Audie was going to hurt somebody. I didn’t mean to predict when,” Finer said. “Only a few months later, someone died while being detained. It was very distressing to me. I kept feeling like that he was not in good control of his anger.”
In that case, Audie and another deputy responded in 2013 to a disturbance call on the South Hill. During the struggle, Audie placed William Berger in a lateral vascular neck restraint. Berger later died.
The jury in that case eventually exonerated Audie, but the jury sent a cautionary note to the judge.
“While the jury exonerates Deputy (Shawn) Audie and Deputy (Steve) Paynter from the charge of using excessive force during William Berger’s arrest, we have reservations regarding the actions of Deputy Audie on June 6, 2013.”
Finer said he was surprised Friday to learn that Audie had been hired to work around high school students.
“I don’t know how they select resource officers,” Finer said. “But it’s a special population they are supervising. I would not have thought it was a good job for someone who has demonstrated issues in the past.”
Efforts to reach Audie for comment Friday were unsuccessful.
Knezovich also questioned the decision to hire Audie to work around youths.
“Let’s just put it this way,” he said. “I’d recommend that the school district do better background checks.”
This story has been updated to accurately state witness Tayona Allen’s comments.
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