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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Meidl overruled top brass by firing officer who kicked handcuffed Black suspect in genitals

UPDATED: Thu., June 18, 2020

This frame grab comes from the Spokane Police body camera footage from Officer Kris Henderson, who was fired for kicking a suspect in the genitals last summer.  (SPOKANE POLICE BODY CAMERA)
This frame grab comes from the Spokane Police body camera footage from Officer Kris Henderson, who was fired for kicking a suspect in the genitals last summer. (SPOKANE POLICE BODY CAMERA)
By Jared Brown For The Spokesman-Review

Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl determined a since-fired officer broke the law when he kicked a handcuffed suspect, who is Black, in the genitals last summer and made false statements in subsequent reports and interviews about the incident.

“With no less than six officers in the immediate vicinity of (the suspect), an exceptional technique was not warranted with a handcuffed individual,” Meidl wrote in a letter to the officer. “The investigation supports the finding that this was an intentional kick to the groin of (the suspect) and that (the officer) intentionally made false statements when describing his intent.”

Meidl’s decision deeming the use of force excessive overturned a prior review by two police captains and three lieutenants. Assistant Chief Justin Lundgren also said the kick was excessive and the officer’s statements were contradictory.

The details of SPD’s internal affairs investigation were provided to The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday as part of a records request.

Those rulings came after an Internal Affairs investigation of former officer Kristofer Henderson’s excessive use of force, which followed a criminal review by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell’s office declined to charge Henderson with misdemeanor assault after the victim told sheriff’s detectives he did not want to participate in a criminal prosecution. That was despite the fact that senior deputy prosecuting attorney Mark Cipolla and Haskell believed there was ample evidence.

Henderson was fired at the end of April, but is appealing the decision through the Spokane Police Guild grievance process.

Henderson’s direct supervisor, Sgt. Stephen Arredondo, was sanctioned for inadequate supervision and executing a flawed review of the use of force. He had said Henderson’s kick to the victim, who was restrained by officers on both arms, was within Spokane police policy.

Arredondo received a letter of reprimand and a deferred one-day suspension, barring no other policy violations in the next year.

Police officials also determined Henderson’s kick, which he incorrectly described as a “Thai kick,” appeared to be an intentional and punitive “football punt to the groin area” of the victim based on body camera footage and statements he made immediately after the use of force. In Spokane police training, a “Thai kick” is synonymous with a lateral kick to the outside of a suspect’s thigh.

Henderson told three supervisors and one officer at the scene and Spokane County Jail that he kicked the victim in either the groin or genitals because he was resisting arrest and had kicked an officer. He only claimed in later reports and interviews that he missed his intended target of the victim’s inner thigh, which is not taught in Spokane police training.

Had the suspect been white, local advocates of racial justice and civilian police oversight said they are confident he would not have become a victim of excessive force.

“I think it would have been handled entirely differently,” said Rev. Walter Kendricks, who represents Spokane for the state Commission on African American Affairs. “No doubt.”

The Spokesman-Review obtained police reports and body-worn camera footage from the July arrest in December. Those materials detailed how police were led on a pursuit of Anthony L. Belcourt, now 24, to his home in north-central Spokane after a reckless driving incident.

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.

Within a few minutes, Belcourt exited the residence without a weapon. Henderson arrived as backup as Belcourt dropped onto his stomach and put his hands behind his back.

Belcourt – whom officers estimated to be close to 6 feet tall and 300 pounds – 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. One officer reported he was struck in the shin in court documents, but body camera footage shows Belcourt’s foot never left the ground.

Police then ordered Belcourt to stop resisting, and multiple officers were unsuccessful in an initial attempt to raise him to his feet. At one point, Henderson volunteered to use a Taser on Belcourt when another officer brought up the possibility of needing to do so.

As three officers pulled Belcourt up a second time, Belcourt twisted his body away from police and widened his stance, according to investigative documents and video.

Henderson then almost immediately put his hand on Belcourt’s head and kicked him in the groin area, striking him in the genitals.

When Belcourt yelled out in pain and went to the ground, Henderson said, “There you go,” and used an expletive in reference to Belcourt, according to video footage and police records.

Spokane police policy allows officers to kick assaultive suspects and does not delineate between handcuffed and unhandcuffed suspects, according to police documents.

“I’m just cringing,” said Jenny Rose, chair of the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission. “That is a good (policy) to be talking about.”

Police Ombudsman Bart Logue said he hasn’t had substantive conversations with police officials about the incident because of Henderson’s appeal. He said he plans to write a closing report about the incident, as he did with the case of an officer who Logue determined endangered himself and others during a February 2019 arrest involving a police dog.

Rose questioned apparent inconsistencies between the one-day suspension of that officer, Dan Lesser, and Henderson’s firing.

“I’m glad he got fired, but we need to do more of this,” Rose said. “We definitely have a problem.”

Henderson himself noted discrepancies in discipline in a letter to police officials in March.

“I am not the only one on this call who made comments like this and looking into many other uses of force you will find that officers make inappropriate statements during these highly stressful citations,” Henderson wrote. “There have been other highly publicized incidents where officers made inappropriate comments and they have not been punished nearly to the level I have. Some officers haven’t even been placed on administrative leave for statements far more inappropriate than mine. These recent incidents have also been reviewed by (top police officials) and punishment was very little if none at all.”

While on the ground, Belcourt told officers he couldn’t breathe and Henderson escalated the situation by saying, “You can breathe if you’re being an (expletive) like this,” according to police documents.

Henderson later said officers would drag Belcourt to a patrol vehicle if they had to and he hadn’t “earned any love.”

“How many times does that perspective echo through the voices of the law enforcement community local and nationally?” asked Spokane NAACP President Kurtis Robinson. “We’re dealing with a culture that thinks for some reason that it’s OK to treat any human being that way, especially if it’s a person of color.”

Police officials also noted how when Belcourt’s hysterical child, who was about 5 years old, asked Henderson if his parents were going to be arrested, he callously replied, “Yep, they’re going to go to jail. They made bad decisions.”

Rose said Henderson’s treatment of the boy made her sick.

“No wonder we have kids that are afraid of police officers when they see something like that,” she said.

Police officials said Henderson’s comments contributed to furthering the boy’s trauma and creating a more chaotic scene.

“This overall conduct indicates that Ofc. Henderson was not in control of his emotions during this incident,” a panel of police officials wrote. “His actions did nothing to deescalate the encounter and in fact had the opposite effect.”

That panel of officials – Capt. Dave Singley, Capt. Brad Arleth, Lt. John Everly, Lt. Bart Stevens and Lt. Troy Teigen – concluded that Henderson’s use of force was objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances because there was insufficient proof that his kick was punitive.

But they noted officers could have – potentially more safely – kicked Belcourt in the back of the knee and used a neck restraint to control him.

The panel only sustained findings of inappropriate demeanor and conduct unbecoming of an officer. It did not offer an opinion on disciplinary measures.

“Where is the disconnect from the top people to the next people that would say this is OK?” Kendricks asked. “There’s something wrong when the wishes and the desires of the leadership does not trickle down to the rank and file.”

“It goes all the way down to a rookie,” Kendricks added. “And those are the people that the message has to get across to.”

Henderson, who had been with Spokane police for about three and a half years following more than two years with Lakewood police, worked as a field training officer and member of a unit specializing in crowd management and civil disturbances.

His attorney, Rocky Treppiedi, said Henderson is appealing his termination with the Spokane Police Guild. The guild could not be reached for comment about the status of the appeal.

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.

He 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.

Belcourt, through his girlfriend, declined an interview with The Spokesman-Review in January. The phone number he was reached at was no longer in service on Tuesday.

“Meidl and some of the leadership are on board with reform, but the problem is far deeper than the top people,” Kendricks said. “The only way we’re going to be able to tell is through time.”

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