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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Use of K-9, incendiary threats in arrest show the need for outside oversight of Spokane police

The Supreme Court has ruled police officers must issue a warning, when possible, to a suspect before using deadly force.

That’s what Spokane Police Department brass say Officer Dan Lesser was doing when he screamed the following at a suspect inside a truck stuck in a snowbank in February – shortly before lifting a K-9 into the truck as the suspect tried to surrender.

“I’m going to f***ing kill you!”

“I’m going to f***ing kill you!”

“You’re gonna get bit by a f***ing dog!”

“I’m going to f***ing shoot you!”

“I’m going to f***ing kill you!

“I’m gonna f***ing kill you!”

“I’m gonna put a bullet in your brain!”

“You’re dead!”

Those threats, and others, flew out of Lesser’s mouth over about 35 seconds as the suspect mostly sat there smoking. There’s a lot to dislike about the newly released body camera footage of the February arrest of Lucas Ellerman, and Lesser’s violent, capo-style tirade is at the head of the list. The threats stand out even more given that the video release comes as Chief Craig Meidl is rewriting department policy to emphasize de-escalation tactics.

This was not that. This was verbal gasoline. The sound of roaring fury.

Meidl and Capt. Tom Hendren said at a news conference Wednesday that Lesser was issuing the required warning before using force – though they disapprove of the cursing and his manner. Lesser and other officers were responding to a suspect they believed to be armed, who had fled and was refusing commands, and who was sitting inside a truck with tinted windows. Then, when the windows were broken, he said he had a gun and climbed into the back seat, which officers feared meant he was going for said gun.

Lesser feared he would have to shoot Ellerman and was trying to avoid that, they said.

“We are required to give a warning of impending deadly force,” Hendren said.

Still, he added, “We don’t want our officers saying some of the things that came out of Officer Lesser’s mouth.”

The citizens of Spokane might say the same: We don’t want our officers saying the things that came out of Lesser’s mouth. And we – some of us, at least – are hoping that the price he pays in discipline, which has yet to be announced, is serious indeed.

The release of the body-cam footage follows months of controversy, which arose after it became public the case had not been assigned for an internal affairs investigation, nor had Police Ombudsman Bart Logue been notified that it existed.

Those steps were taken only after information about the video was leaked. It’s had the stink of a cover-up since.

Now that we’ve seen it, it’s impossible to imagine – despite whatever procedural explanations the brass can hang on it – that it should not have been an immediate matter for outside review. No way that the ombudsman shouldn’t have been alerted. No way that the department’s leadership should not have clearly understood that this would require something beyond self-defense for people to accept it as good policing and that it would not remain a secret for long.

This moment is precisely why the ombudsman’s office exists. The police department has essentially signed off on everything in the video but Lesser’s demeanor. But we’ve got to have more than their word for it.

Because it just doesn’t look right.

Police rolled out the video Wednesday in a press conference that included a long preface of the context in which the incident occurred. This context included Ellerman’s prodigious criminal record and the many reasons officers had for believing he was armed and dangerous. They included department honors and awards for the officers involved.

They included the fact that the officers were in a high-stress, fast-moving situation, and that we at the news conference were safe and warm and distant from such difficult decisions.

Reams and reams of context.

The longer it went on, the worse you knew the video was going to be.

It starts with Lesser sitting in a car, reporting that he has Ellerman pinned in his truck and that Ellerman is sitting inside and smoking. Lesser then rushes to the driver’s-side truck window and shatters it with his baton, and begins yelling the aforementioned threats in a rapid-fire manner.

Ellerman, bizarrely, lights a cigarette while sitting in the passenger seat, saying “I’m trying to show you,” as Lesser screams. Ellerman says he’s got a pistol, and then, when the window by his head is shattered by another officer, he ducks and climbs into the back seat.

Lesser starts talking about putting the dog into the truck, and Ellerman says, “I’m gonna smoke this cigarette.” Then, finally, 60 seconds after Lesser broke the window and went ape, Ellerman says he’s surrendering.

“I’m coming, please don’t,” he says. “I’m coming, I’m coming.” He begins climbing into the front seat, hands before him.

And that’s when Lesser – who earned a clean bill of health from the SPD for everything but the f-bombs – sends in the dog.

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