Spokane police brass should have looked more critically and with greater transparency at an officer’s use of his police dog to apprehend a fleeing suspect in a trapped truck in February 2019, a report from the department’s civilian in charge of oversight found.
The 50-page report from Spokane Police Ombudsman Bart Logue includes nearly two dozen recommendations for the department following its handling of a use-of-force investigation into the actions of Officers Dan and Scott Lesser. Those officers used a police dog in the arrest of Lucas Ellerman last year in an incident that drew Spokane City Council scrutiny and concern from some in the department about the tactics and language used by the officers in the arrest. Dan Lesser is the uncle of Scott Lesser.
The recommendations, which were unanimously approved Thursday by the commission overseeing the work of the ombudsman, call for changes to training to ensure officer safety, random audits of body camera footage to gauge an officer’s public demeanor, a more specific policy on the use of police dogs and changes to the way Internal Affairs conducts its investigations into officer conduct, among other changes. Logue also found that Lesser’s use of the dog, and the officer’s approach to the trapped vehicle, put themselves and the K9 unit at risk.
“This case was an outlier, and we want to do everything we can to make sure cases like this remain an outlier,” Logue said in an interview Friday.
Sgt. Terry Preuninger, a spokesman for the department, said Friday morning that the department had received the recommendations and would be looking at them to see if there were areas the department could improve.
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl found in October that the officers had acted reasonably but punished them for their use of inappropriate language. Dan Lesser apologized for the language used during the arrest and received a one-day suspension .
Logue is precluded under city law from recommending discipline or commenting on the chief’s disciplinary decisions, but he can make policy recommendations that the department can choose to employ. City Council President Breean Beggs, as part of a larger proposal of police reforms , has suggested that police dog bites should only be used as a justified use of lethal force.
In this case, Logue said the administrative review panel, a group of rotating captains and lieutenants that review internal affairs investigations for thoroughness and objectivity, did not look critically enough at the lead-up to the dog being hoisted into the car, or Scott Lesser’s use of punches once Ellerman was outside of the vehicle and before he was handcuffed.
The ombudsman’s report says that the police panel’s review of the incident relied on the officers’ reports as “the ultimate facts.”
“The memo did not address disputed facts in the officer narratives, nor did it evaluate the officers’ tactical conduct,” Logue’s review says.
The report cites potential disputes of fact, including whether the officers swore at Ellerman immediately before putting the dog in the car and Scott Lesser’s explanation for the punches. The officer said Ellerman was reaching for his waistband, but the report notes the video is inconclusive.
The commission, in approving the report’s recommendations, noted that Logue’s findings indicated the officers put themselves and the dog in harm’s way when approaching the truck.
“This is really all about officer safety, and you did a great job expressing that,” said Ladd Smith, an ombudsman commission member, during deliberation Thursday night. “These officers could easily have been injured or killed in the way they interacted with the suspect.”
Logue said the initial report was ready to release in February, but had been delayed due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. He said the report that he delivered this week went further than what he would be able to do under a new proposed contract between the city and the Spokane Police Guild .
“It shows City Council that this is something you would be giving up if we went with the current language,” Logue said. “I have to go with what’s in the contract and what’s in the law.”
Ellerman is in custody in the Airway Heights Corrections Center, where he’s serving a 29-month sentence.
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