A Spokane police officer’s kick to a handcuffed suspect’s groin appeared to be “retaliatory,” “intentional” and not for the protection of himself or others.
That’s according to a letter a Spokane County deputy prosecutor penned to explain his decision not to pursue criminal charges against the officer for the assault, despite the fact that investigators appeared to provide sufficient evidence of a crime.
The letter, which The Spokesman-Review obtained through a public records request, says the deputy prosecutor’s determination not to file charges was based on what he characterized as the victim’s request that he not do so.
The prosecutor also noted statements from police Officer Kris Henderson to investigators were “inconsistent” with body-worn camera footage.
The Spokesman-Review published in December body camera footage of the kick, which occurred after a July 12 reckless driving incident.
The July incident led police on a pursuit of Anthony L. Belcourt, 23, to his home in north central Spokane, according to court and investigative documents. Belcourt abandoned his vehicle in the middle of the road, then ran into his residence and barricaded himself inside while cursing at and insulting officers. He also claimed to have weapons inside.
But after about three minutes, Belcourt exited the residence without a weapon, and Henderson arrived as backup as Belcourt dropped onto his stomach and put his hands behind his back.
Belcourt was jerking his body around, trying to pull his arms free and kicking at officers while they tried to put him in handcuffs, according to investigative documents. Police ordered Belcourt to stop resisting, and multiple officers were unsuccessful in an initial attempt to raise him to his feet.
As three officers raised Belcourt to his feet a second time, Belcourt twisted his body away from police and widened his stance, according to investigative documents and video.
Henderson then kicked at Belcourt’s groin area, striking him in the genitals.
When Belcourt yelled out in pain and went to the ground, a voice that sounds like Henderson says, “There you go,” and used an expletive in reference to Belcourt, according to video footage.
Henderson later told investigators he aimed the “Thai kick” at Belcourt’s upper thigh to disrupt his balance. He claimed Belcourt “donkey” kicked an officer in the leg and was flailing around, so he wanted him to stop. The officer reported he was kicked once in the shin in court documents.
Later, while in a police vehicle, Belcourt apologized for his actions, according to investigative documents and video. An officer who responded at the jail to investigate Belcourt for DUI said the suspect smelled of alcohol and his eyes were bloodshot, according to court documents.
Belcourt was charged with reckless driving, along with obstructing police, resisting arrest and assaulting an officer, court records state. His case has since been referred to therapeutic drug court. He has no prior adult criminal record in Washington.
Henderson almost immediately reported the use of force on Belcourt to a police lieutenant at the scene, saying he had kicked him in the genitals, according to video footage.
An initial Spokane police internal affairs review was halted when investigators determined the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office should look at the case for potential charges against Henderson first. Prosecutors declined to file charges in September.
Police ombudsman Bart Logue said he certified the since-resumed internal investigation at the end of November but could not provide further details. Police spokesman Sgt. Terry Preuninger said Henderson remains on paid leave pending the outcome of the internal investigation.
A panel of police officials will review the facts provided by investigators and make potential disciplinary recommendations, which police Chief Craig Meidl will use to make a final decision.
Henderson told sheriff’s office investigators that striking a handcuffed individual is an exceptional technique, but he believed the action was reasonable under the circumstances.
A senior deputy prosecuting attorney Mark Cipolla, who handles criminal cases, argued to the contrary.
After the kick to the handcuffed suspect, “Officer Henderson then made a remark to Belcourt which indicates the kick was not done in performance of his duty or for protection of himself or others. The statement appears to indicate the kick was retaliatory and intentional,” the prosecutor wrote in the Sept. 18 letter declining to prosecute the officer for fourth-degree assault, a misdemeanor.
That letter came the day after Belcourt told sheriff’s investigators he wanted to move on from the case and not cooperate with a criminal prosecution of Henderson. A partial transcript of that conversation did not include statements specifically asking prosecutors not to file charges.
Belcourt, through his girlfriend, declined an interview with The Spokesman-Review, and his attorney in the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office declined to comment. Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell did not return requests for comment.
Local defense attorneys, including a former prosecutor, read into Belcourt’s statements and the prosecutor’s decision not to file charges differently.
Spokane civil rights attorney Jeffry Finer said the prosecutor’s office likely had plenty of evidence to move the case forward, including other witnesses and body-camera footage from several officers.
“So either there are additional circumstances that we’re not privy to, or this case has departed from the standards that I’m familiar with,” Finer said, noting the opportunity for an internal police investigation. “I’m not sure why this case gets a pass.”
Spokane defense attorney Chris Bugbee, who worked as a deputy prosecutor for six years and ran for elected prosecutor in 2010, said he likely would have made the same decision if he were the prosecutor.
“I think they would have taken into consideration involving a witness in a public case who doesn’t want to be involved,” said Bugbee, who has previously represented Spokane police officers facing prosecution, including Nathan Nash and Doug Strosahl.
And with a finding of probable cause, Bugbee said, prosecutors likely know the officer will face internal discipline from the department, which could be a factor in the decision not to prosecute.
Center for Justice staff attorney Cam Zorrozua said Bugbee’s rationale makes sense, given how people who have had violent interactions with the police might fear retaliation.
“I would not blame any individual for not coming forward, for self preservation,” Zorrozua said.
Finer said people have described to him multiple videos of suspects in handcuffs being subjected to aggressive physical restraint, punishment and beatings that have led to injuries. But Finer couldn’t think of a single prosecution of an officer who used force on a handcuffed suspect.
In Henderson’s case, Finer said probable cause for assault would likely be the same if Belcourt weren’t handcuffed.
Handcuffing the suspect reduces the risk of harm by the detainee, Finer said, meaning Belcourt didn’t have as much of an opportunity to fight back.
The Spokane Police Department’s public use-of-force policy does not specifically mention physical strikes to a handcuffed individual. The policy says use of nonlethal chemical irritants, such as pepper spray, are prohibited on handcuffed individuals unless they are engaged in “active aggression” and a threat for imminent harm.
Now, Zorrozua said she wonders what Meidl will decide and what example it will set for young officers. Henderson himself graduated from the basic law enforcement academy in 2014 before joining SPD as a transfer from Lakewood, Washington, in 2016.
“I think there’s this pattern of escalated behavior, unprofessional conduct that has been allowed, just through practice from senior members of the police department,” Zorrozua said. “And more than that, there have been high-level efforts to keep that information from reaching the public.”
Zorrozua contrasted Henderson’s case with that of Officer Dan Lesser’s last February, where he let loose a flurry of lethal threats before siccing a dog on a suspect.
The public, including the ombudsman’s office, did not become aware of that case until former detective and blogger Brian Breen inquired about it.
Lesser received a one-day suspension for his actions. And given the rarity of prosecutions of police officers for use of force, Zorrozua said she was surprised to hear about the decisive language in Cipolla’s letter regarding Henderson’s kick.
“Even with all of that, will Chief Meidl do anything about it? And if he does, how does he reconcile that with past situations that were elevated?” said Zorrozua. “We need Chief Meidl to be the one to send this message.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.