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

Spokane officer resigned from K-9 unit one day after controversial arrest; U.S. marshal raised concerns

This image, taken from Spokane police Officer Dan Lesser’s body camera, shows the Feb. 12, 2019, arrest of Lucas Ellerman. (Spokane Police Department)
By Chad Sokol and Jared Brown The Spokesman-Review

The day after he threatened to kill a suspect and unleashed a police dog into the cab of the suspect’s pickup truck, Spokane police Officer Dan Lesser gave up his position as a dog handler during a closed-door meeting with department commanders.

“The result of that meeting on 2-13-19 was that Officer Lesser resigned from the K9 unit,” Capt. Tom Hendren later wrote in a report. “His resignation was accepted and he has since been reassigned to patrol.”

Hundreds of pages of records from an internal investigation into Lesser’s actions, including Hendren’s report, were obtained late Thursday by The Spokesman-Review through a public records request.

Those records contained a number of revelations about the incident and the investigation into it, including that a U.S. marshal and police department supervisors raised serious concerns about Lesser’s actions, and that department policy for internal affairs investigations was not followed.

Lesser, who joined the Spokane Police Department in 1995, was found to have violated department policy by shouting death threats at the suspect inside the pickup truck. Among other things, Lesser told him, “I’m going to put a bullet in your brain.”

But none of the investigation records describe what happened during the Feb. 13 meeting or the terms of Lesser’s resignation from the K-9 unit. They don’t say whether he stepped down voluntarily, or if he was pressured to do so.

It’s that type of opaqueness that bothers police Ombudsman Bart Logue, who has been fighting for more oversight of the department’s internal affairs investigations. He believes every part of that meeting, as well as other conversations that took place during the investigation, should have been documented.

“There should be nothing off the record” in an internal investigation, Logue said. “Thankfully we don’t have these kinds of cases a lot. But when we do, it seems critical to have all of these things happen aboveboard.”

Body camera video / Spokane Police Department

Transparency, or lack of it, is only one issue.

Threats and other phrases that Dan Lesser used throughout the arrest raised red flags, Logue said – not only because they were vulgar, but also because someone might infer there was malice behind them.

“Force should never be used in a punitive manner,” Logue said.

After breaking windows and warning the suspect, Lucas Ellerman, that he would kill him if he didn’t start complying and surrender, Dan Lesser told his nephew, Officer Scott Lesser, to get his police dog from his SUV.

“I’m done f***ing with you,” Dan Lesser told Ellerman, as Scott Lesser brought the dog toward the vehicle.

The incident was recorded by the officers’ body cameras.

“I’m coming. Please, don’t,” Ellerman said after Dan Lesser warned him he was going to be bit by the dog.

“I’m coming. I’m coming,” Ellerman continued saying as he held his hands up while climbing from the back seat of the Chevy pickup over the car’s console. “I’m coming.”

As the dog neared, Ellerman paused and shifted his weight slightly backward.

“I don’t have a gun,” he said.

Then the two officers hoisted the dog into the truck and sicced it on Ellerman.

“Fass that guy,” Dan Lesser said, giving the German command to bite 6 seconds after Ellerman began climbing toward the front seat of the truck.

Internal affairs investigators believe Dan Lesser then said, “F*** you.”

The dog pushed Ellerman toward the back of the cab as Ellerman screamed in pain.

“I think at that point I’d already made a decision in my mind to already deploy my K-9,” Lesser told internal affairs investigators. “Based on all the factors. Based on his active resistance. Based on the crimes. Based on the threats. Everything that I was told, he was armed with a handgun.”

After he was arrested, Ellerman asked Dan Lesser why he hadn’t shot him. Police supervisors noted Lesser’s reply in their reports: “I just didn’t feel like killing someone today. Is that OK?”

Lesser also told internal affairs investigators that he had used profanity and warnings of lethal force to disrupt Ellerman’s decision-making process and de-escalate the situation.

Logue said that technique has some merit and is recognized as a way to prevent a suspect from reacting, giving an officer time to think. But the vulgar threats of death seem inappropriate, Logue said.

Even a vulgar phrase like “Don’t make me f***ing shoot you” might be acceptable in some situations, Logue said. “I’m not judging him on the F-bombs. It comes down to intent and actions.”

The investigation records also reveal that department supervisors – and a U.S. marshal – had serious concerns about Lesser’s actions.

Ellerman, who has a lengthy criminal record, was wanted by a Marshals Service task force focused on violent crime.

The marshal, who sought anonymity and is not named in the records, approached Logue and met with him in late June, expressing concern about Lesser’s decision to release the dog, which left Ellerman with multiple puncture wounds on his left leg that led to an infection.

The marshal also expressed general concerns about the police department’s Patrol Anti-Crime Team, according to Logue, who relayed the marshal’s statements to internal affairs investigators.

Both Dan Lesser and Scott Lesser were assigned to the PACT team as well the Marshals Service task force when they arrested Ellerman.

Sgt. Terry Preuninger, a spokesman for the police department, said internal affairs investigators responded to Logue’s account by conducting interviews with multiple Marshals Service officials who had knowledge of Ellerman’s arrest.

Before releasing records, the police department redacted many pages involving the Marshals Service, which is still reviewing the documents for material that may be exempt from public disclosure. Some marshals, whose names were redacted, told investigators they had seen nothing inappropriate in Lesser’s behavior.

After Ellerman’s arrest, Dan Lesser was faulted for his profanity-laced threats but exonerated for deploying the dog. Supervisors also faulted Lesser and a third officer, Mark Brownell, for failing to activate their body cameras at the start of the brief vehicle pursuit that preceded Ellerman’s arrest.

More than three months before the department’s internal affairs division was officially investigating the incident, Lt. Rob Boothe consulted an internal affairs investigator, Sgt. John Everly, for a second opinion on Dan Lesser’s use of force.

Boothe told investigators he was concerned he might be biased against Lesser because he had been involved in several prior disciplinary reviews involving the officer.

Boothe said he considered Everly “very honest and forthright” and consulted him “to make sure that my opinion was not compromised and was consistent with department policy and training.”

Within days, Boothe registered his decision that Lesser’s actions were improper.

“It is my belief that the suspect posed a potential threat of violence or serious bodily harm, but that threat was not imminent at the time of the application of the canine,” Boothe concluded in a report dated March 8.

That was after Sgt. Sean Wheeler, who supervises the K-9 unit, found that “the suspect’s threat of violence was not imminent.”

“Ellerman eventually put his hands up and stated he was coming out as he crawled toward the front seat,” Wheeler wrote eight days after the arrest. “This is when Officer D. Lesser deployed his K9.”

None of those supervisors filed an official complaint with internal affairs, as department policy mandated at the time, Logue said. Such a complaint would have enabled the ombudsman to sit in on interviews with internal affairs investigators.

Logue, however, first heard about the incident from Brian Breen, a retired Spokane police detective and blogger, who had been tipped off by an anonymous source.

Before Logue entered a complaint based on Breen’s tip, the investigation “was not being done correctly and in accordance with policy,” the ombudsman said.

Police Chief Craig Meidl told The Spokesman-Review on Thursday that, in order to trigger an internal affairs investigation from within the department, a use of force must involve malice or be “so far beyond reasonable that the officer should have known it wasn’t appropriate.”

Logue said that sounds more like the new policy the department put into effect on Oct. 4. The new policy says only egregious violations require immediate notification of a police captain, and the ombudsman doesn’t have to be notified until top commanders register a decision.

The ombudsman’s office hasn’t asked for an investigation into why three police officials did not file internal affairs complaints. Logue said the focus was on Lesser’s use of force.

“There is such a huge difference between an internal affairs investigation and a chain-of-command review,” Logue said. He said in another interview, “The case file now reflects all the facts, and nothing is going on behind closed doors.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that “fass” is German, not Czech.