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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘I’m going to put a bullet in your brain’: Graphic video shows Spokane officer threatening wanted man before hoisting police dog into truck

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 Spokane Police Department on Wednesday released graphic body camera footage of a February incident in which an officer shouted an expletive and threatened to kill a suspect before hoisting a police dog into the cab of a pickup truck to subdue the man.

The arrest of Lucas Ellerman, 29, who is now serving time at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, triggered a citizen’s complaint and an impasse between City Council members and the Spokane Police Guild, which objected to the police ombudsman’s involvement in an internal investigation.

Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl and Capt. Tom Hendren, who leads the patrol division, presented the footage to reporters on Wednesday afternoon. They concluded that Officers Daniel Lesser and Scott Lesser had acted reasonably by pointing guns and using a dog to apprehend Ellerman, whom they believed to be armed and dangerous.

Police video / The Spokesman-Review

Department supervisors did, however, find that Dan Lesser’s statements – including “I’m going to put a bullet in your brain” and repeatedly saying “I will f***ing kill you” – were inappropriate and a violation of department policy, though Hendren noted that police have “an actual obligation of law to warn of impending force.”

“The manner in which he did it is concerning, obviously, with some of the things he said,” Hendren said. “But he is trying to convey that message.”

Supervisors also faulted Dan Lesser and a third officer, Mark Brownell, for failing to activate their body cameras at the start of the vehicle pursuit.

Meidl said Wednesday the officers weren’t yet informed of their disciplinary sanctions. He said the department would publicly disclose those sanctions later this week.

The officers arrested Ellerman near Fifth Avenue and Custer Road – just east of the city limits outside the East Central Neighborhood – after a brief vehicle pursuit on Feb. 12.

After pinning Ellerman’s truck against a snow bank, Dan Lesser drew his gun, got out of his vehicle and used his baton to smash Ellerman’s driver’s side window while shouting threats.

Sitting in the front passenger seat, Ellerman told Dan Lesser that he had a pistol, refusing orders to get out of the truck, the video shows. He apparently attempted to smoke a cigarette during the encounter.

Scott Lesser then smashed the passenger side window of the truck, and Ellerman climbed between the front seats into the back of the cab. Dan Lesser, a K-9 handler, asked Scott Lesser, his nephew, to retrieve the dog from his vehicle. In the video, Ellerman appears to be pulling himself back into the front seats when Dan Lesser lifts the dog through the driver’s side window.

“I’m coming,” Ellerman said. “I give up.”

The dog immediately bit Ellerman’s left leg, leaving a puncture wound that required stitches and prompting him to scream loudly. Officers then dragged him out of the window with the dog’s teeth still clenched to his leg, the video shows. Scott Lesser’s body camera footage shows him punching Ellerman several times in the head while Ellerman is being handcuffed.

Ellerman did not have a gun on his person or in the truck. In the video, he says he lied about having one because he wanted Lesser to shoot him. Meidl said Ellerman later feigned a heroin overdose in an attempt to escape from a local hospital.

Dan Lesser joined the Spokane Police Department in 1995 and has been involved in five police shootings. Scott Lesser joined the department in 2008 and has been involved in two police shootings.

Both officers belong to the department’s Patrol Anti-Crime Team, or PACT, as well as the U.S. Marshals Service’s Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force.

Earlier this month, the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office determined Dan Lesser was justified when he shot at a fleeing man on the lower South Hill in July. Lesser fired two rounds at 46-year-old Charles E. Jackson Jr. during a foot pursuit but did not strike him.

On Wednesday, Meidl and Hendren said the officers had reason to believe Ellerman was armed and dangerous. They noted his 11 prior felony convictions, which include second-degree assault and theft of a firearm, and said he was wanted for drug possession and illegal possession of a firearm.

Hendren added that a confidential informant had recently told police that Ellerman was in possession of a silver handgun and “was making statements that he was not going to return to jail.”

Before Ellerman’s arrest, PACT officers and U.S. Marshals had been surveilling a residence where they believed Ellerman was staying. They watched as a Chevy pickup left the area, Hendren said.

Scott Lesser and Brownell stopped the truck to question the driver and see if Ellerman was inside, and Dan Lesser arrived shortly afterward, Hendren said.

The driver complied and got out of the truck. But, unknown to the officers, Ellerman had been hiding in the back seat, Hendren said.

Scott Lesser told Dan Lesser after Ellerman’s arrest that he had seen the driver of the car putting things in the back of the car, which made him suspicious.

During the traffic stop, Ellerman climbed into the driver’s seat and drove away. Scott Lesser attempted several pursuit intervention techniques, or PIT maneuvers, before Ellerman’s truck slid into a snow bank and several vehicles at the “T” intersection of Fifth and Custer, several blocks from the residence.

The Lessers then boxed in Ellerman’s truck with their police vehicles – Scott at the rear and Dan at the driver’s side. Ellerman continued stepping on the gas pedal, rocking the truck back and forward in the snow, the video shows.

In their reports, Dan Lesser wrote that he feared Ellerman might have concealed a gun somewhere in the cab of the truck.

“It appeared to me that (Ellerman) was always calculating and looking for a way to escape and was feigning cooperation,” Lesser wrote.

Hendren said it was unusual, but not unacceptable, for Dan Lesser to ask Scott Lesser to retrieve the police dog.

Hendren and Meidl said other techniques might have been used to remove Ellerman from the vehicle, but the Lessers did not err by deploying the police dog. Hendren noted that both doors to the truck were blocked – one by Dan Lesser’s car, one by the snow bank – making it difficult to pull Ellerman out.

Meidl said the officers had to make quick decisions in a stressful, potentially dangerous situation.

In April, Ellerman was sentenced to 70 months in prison and a year of probation after pleading guilty to drug possession, unlawful possession of a firearm, two counts of attempting to elude a police vehicle and three counts of drug possession with intent to deliver.

Police brass already were reviewing Ellerman’s arrest, as they do with all major uses of force, when police Ombudsman Bart Logue learned about it months later from Brian Breen, a retired Spokane police detective and blogger. Logue filed a complaint that prompted an internal affairs investigation in May.

Two weeks ago, Logue criticized a change to the police department’s use-of-force review policy that removed language requiring supervisors to enter any allegation or concern about a possible use-of-force violation as an internal affairs complaint, triggering an investigation with oversight from the ombudsman’s office.

The new policy says supervisors should complete a use-of-force report to be forwarded up the police chain of command and that only egregious violations would require immediate notification of a police captain.

In a letter to Meidl asking him to reconsider the change, Logue said his concerns about improper use-of-force reviews peaked in May when it appeared the previous policy had not been followed.

He said it exacerbated his “concerns on interviews taking place off the record, improper investigations, and special treatment; as well as an absolute removal of an oversight mechanism.”

Meidl said Logue would have learned about the Ellerman incident when the use-of-force review was completed. Logue, meanwhile, has questioned why the department didn’t notify him sooner.

“The case file now reflects all the facts and nothing is going on behind closed doors,” Logue said Wednesday. “At the end of the day, we want our community members to trust our police officers.”

Jenny Rose, chair of the Police Ombudsman Commission, said she was shocked by the video, which each member of the commission has viewed.

“The behavior is disgusting,” Rose said. “The majority of police officers would not engage in this type of conduct.”

She said she worries how the incident would have been reviewed if not for Logue’s complaint.

“If the old policy had been followed, this incident would have been reported” to internal affairs, Rose said. The new policy, which would not necessarily lead to outside oversight from the ombudsman’s office, is “a regression instead of using this example to make it even better.”

The Spokane Police Guild – the union representing the department’s rank and file – objected to Logue’s involvement in the internal affairs investigation. City Council members declined the guild’s request to sign nondisclosure agreements in exchange for viewing the body camera footage before its public release.

“Over the past eight years, we have worked hard to improve transparency and accountability related to use of force and to continually refine our practices,” Mayor David Condon said in a statement Wednesday.

“While this incident removed a highly dangerous individual from our streets, the demeanor and disturbing language used by the officer in this incident demonstrates that we must continue to hold our officers accountable to the highest standards of conduct,” Condon said.

City Council President Ben Stuckart, who is running for mayor, said the conduct was unacceptable and the subsequent review process underscores the need for the ombudsman’s office to have more authority. He said the department’s new use-of-force review policy is unacceptable.

“The current process is broken,” Stuckart said.

Nadine Woodward, who is running against Stuckart for mayor, did not respond to a request for comment.

City Councilman Breean Beggs, a City Council president candidate, said he favors the previous use-of-force review policy and wants to negotiate with the police guild for the ombudsman to have greater access in these types of cases.

Lesser “took it too far,” said Beggs.

“It was obviously a violent and disturbing encounter,” said Beggs, who is looking forward to a report from Logue’s office about whether the use of a police dog was best practice.

Police dogs were used in 132 of 616 use-of-force incidents – 21% – from 2013 to 2018, according to the city’s use-of-force dashboard. A hundred of those incidents occurred in 2018.

Cindy Wendle, Beggs’ opponent for City Council president, said the language used during Ellerman’s arrest was “pretty troubling.”

“I’m glad there is a process in place for review, and I think we need to hold our officers to a high standard,” she said.

Wendle said she is open to reviewing police oversight mechanisms if elected.

“I do believe that transparency and building trust is the most important thing that we can do,” Wendle said.