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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council members seek arrest footage, reject nondisclosure agreement

A body camera that has been used by the Spokane Police Department is shown in this January 2016 photo. The Spokane City Council voted Monday, December 16, 2019, to upgrade its camera equipment. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane city lawmakers and the police department are at an impasse over access to body camera footage of a February arrest that prompted the agency’s civilian watchdog to urge a formal investigation.

The Spokane City Council declined on Thursday to sign a nondisclosure agreement that would have allowed them access to the video, multiple lawmakers said. Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl confirmed Friday that the video of an arrest of a 29-year-old man fleeing police contained evidence of “policy violations” but denied suggestions his agency was attempting to downplay the incident.

“The mere insinuation that there’s a cover-up, again, puts me in a position where I want to be able to address that, because that is inflammatory, and it does a lot of damage,” said Meidl in an interview Friday. “It doesn’t matter what I can say, until I can say, here’s everything else.”

That can’t happen, Meidl said, because of an internal affairs review of the case that was initiated by a private citizen through Spokane Police Ombudsman Bart Logue. Logue has reviewed the footage, and urged in an email to members of the Spokane Police Ombudsman Commission and top police brass last week to “thoroughly investigate and document the steps you’re taking” in reviewing the case. The email prompted involvement from the Spokane City Council, which requested access to the body camera video in a letter sent the following day.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said he’s disturbed by what is reportedly on the video, but no member of the City Council was comfortable signing a nondisclosure agreement before reviewing it. Stuckart has not yet viewed the footage.

“I talked to everybody beforehand, and we decided we’re not going to sign that,” Stuckart said. “I’ve never heard of elected officials having to sign it.”

The incident occurred Feb. 11 and involved two Spokane police officers involved in earlier lethal-force incidents. The City of Spokane denied a records request for the body camera video Friday, citing the ongoing internal affairs investigation. Meidl said in the interview he, too, could not release the video, citing the need for due process for the officers involved.

Police incident reports that were released show that Lucas Ellerman was stopped attempting to flee a traffic stop just south of Interstate 90 and east of the city limits, at Fifth Avenue and Custer Road.

Officers Dan Lesser and Scott Lesser arrested Ellerman, who was wanted on multiple warrants and who officers reported had attempted to conceal himself as a passenger in the truck they were tailing that night, before revealing himself and speeding away from the stop. Officer Scott Lesser wrote in his report that Officer Dan Lesser yelled several times that Ellerman had a gun while the officers wrestled with him in the cab of the truck, and a police dog was lifted into the cab in an attempt to get Ellerman to comply with commands.

The dog bit Ellerman in the left leg, causing a puncture wound that required stitches. Officer Scott Lesser also reported “2-3 closed fist strikes towards his head area” as they removed Ellerman from the car. A witness later told police that he had heard officers yelling, “I’m gonna kill you” to Ellerman during the incident.

Police searched the car after the altercation and found three cellphones, but no guns, according to a return on a search warrant filed in Spokane County Superior Court.

Lindsae Nelson, who identified herself as Ellerman’s sister in a Facebook message to City Council members and in an interview Friday, said the 29-year-old is still receiving treatment for an infection caused by the dog bite and might lose his leg. He is currently imprisoned at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton after pleading guilty to charges in April and receiving a 29-month sentence.

“When it first happened, he was arrested or whatever, he was giving up,” said Nelson, disputing the account of the officers on-scene.

“I understand he was wanted on some drug charges. They were acting like he was El Chapo,” Nelson continued, referring to the Mexican drug lord captured and extradited to the U.S. in 2016. Nelson added that the family was meeting with an attorney to discuss potential legal action tied to civil rights complaints.

The two officers involved in the arrest have been participants in previous uses of lethal force. Officer Scott Lesser was one of several officers involved in the shooting death of a man revving a truck toward the Salvation Army shelter off Indiana Avenue in August 2013, and Officer Dan Lesser fired the shots that killed a man during a police standoff in September 2011, one of three fatal shootings within a span of five years.

Meidl said the two officers are working patrol while the internal affairs investigation continues. He called the offer for the council to review the footage after signing a nondisclosure agreement “a compromise” that was proffered by the Spokane Police Guild in an effort to provide a fuller picture of the event to lawmakers without trampling the rights of their members.

“One of the things that I’m trying to do, is avoid the Spokane Police Department from being a political football,” Meidl said. “The challenge is, some other people can go out there and talk about it, and they can talk about it with the information they have, which may or may not be accurate.”

Logue said he was simply performing his office’s duties in alerting members of his civilian commission about the potential misconduct case, then responded to subsequent inquiries by the public and city lawmakers about his actions.

“It’s a hard job,” Logue said of working for the department. “The (Office of the Police Ombudsman), we’re not here to poke fingers at that. We have to recognize that. We also have to recognize things that might break processes, and might seem weird, if we think it’s weird, the general public is definitely going to think that’s weird.”

Stuckart said the council will wait for the release of the video to the general public but he expressed concern about the way that case has been handled.

“That’s totally unacceptable, we represent the people,” Stuckart said.

Meidl said he intends for that release to be public, through the media, after the internal affairs investigation is complete.