Meridian Police Chief Tracy Basterrechea said the officer who punched a 31-year-old man at least a half-dozen times acted “within policy.”
Donald Heida, who joined the department in April 2021, was captured in a video repeatedly striking Colt James Seward in the face and head as Heida and another officer, Sean McDonald, detained and arrested Seward. The video was posted on Twitter by a Boise-based Black Lives Matter group.
The officers were identified in a probable cause affidavit, which was filed with the Ada County Courthouse and obtained by the Idaho Statesman. Basterrechea previously told reporters at an April media day that his department doesn’t divulge officers’ names during an investigation.
When asked by the Statesman on Thursday, Basterrechea confirmed that both Heida and McDonald were involved in the arrest, and that Heida was the one who struck Seward.
Basterrechea in a statement said he supported the officer’s actions and emphasized that “these incidents don’t happen if the suspect cooperates.” In a follow-up email, Basterrechea clarified that both Heida and McDonald didn’t violate the department’s policy.
The suspect was pinned to the ground and underneath Heida when the officer repeatedly punched him.
“The Meridian Police Department is dedicated to providing the best service we can, but we need the public’s cooperation and assistance to make this happen,” Basterrechea said.
Police chief gives more details of arrest
At around 5:15 p.m. May 16, police said they located Seward in his 2014 Dodge Challenger “passed out in traffic” near the intersection of North Ten Mile Road and West Ustick Road in Meridian.
Basterrechea said Seward — whose vehicle was on — was unconscious with the driver’s seat reclined, the car in gear and his foot on the brake. Basterrechea alleged that Seward was “clearly under the influence of drugs.”
Seward was arrested and later charged with driving under the influence, along with other drug-related counts, battering a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest and unlawful possession of a firearm by someone with a prior felony conviction. Police found a .40-caliber handgun in the locked glovebox of Seward’s vehicle.
While Heida was searching Seward, Heida said in the affidavit, he also found a bag that he suspected contained methamphetamine and Xanax.
Once Seward was in the back of a police car, officers alleged Seward slipped off his handcuffs under his legs to the front of his body. Heida then asked for McDonald’s help to put the handcuffs on Seward again.
Basterrechea alleged that as McDonald took the handcuff off Seward’s right hand, Seward “threw an elbow,” hitting Heida in the chest and knocking his body camera to the ground.
The officers then forced Seward to the ground. In the 25-second video — which was taken from someone’s car and zooms in on the officers — Heida was seen striking Seward in the head three times and pinning his knee on Seward’s body, while Seward was on the ground. After a brief pause, Heida hit Seward in the face three more times.
Basterrechea didn’t dispute the use of force. In his statement, Basterrechea said that when Heida struck Seward the first three times, he was asking him to place his hands behind his back. He said that after Heida struck Seward three more times, Seward rolled, which allowed the officers to handcuff him again as he had an “unsecured handcuff” on his left hand.
“A handcuff attached to only one wrist is essentially a weapon for a suspect to utilize against an officer,” Basterrechea said.
Neither of the officers involved in Seward’s arrest was placed on leave or given administrative duties. Neither was injured.
Seward ‘took advantage of our officer’s kindness’
When Heida initially handcuffed Seward, he placed him in two sets of handcuffs because Seward has broad shoulders, according to Basterrechea. But that also made it easier for Seward to slip the handcuffs to the front of his body. Typically, when two handcuffs are used, officers place one cuff on the individual’s wrists and the remaining cuffs are linked together, creating a longer chain.
Basterrechea said that while every use-of-force incident is “unpleasant” and “complicated,” what prompted this use of force was Heida’s “empathy” for Seward because he used the two handcuffs to minimize Seward’s discomfort.
“In other words, this suspect took advantage of our officer’s kindness,” Basterrechea said.
A mugshot photo of Seward posted on the Ada County Sheriff’s Office website showed extreme swelling to his right eye and blood on his face. He also had several lacerations on his forehead.
Seward was taken to a local hospital for treatment of the injuries, according to police, before being booked into the Ada County Jail. The affidavit said Seward was taken to St. Luke’s Meridian Medical Center, where his blood was also drawn.
Basterrechea said officers can use several options to detain individuals who are resisting, including hitting them, but it’s “not encouraged.”
Former Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney, who now consults for other law enforcement agencies, said generally officers can strike someone in the head when the suspect is resisting and assaulting the officer. He added that officers need to have a “reasonable fear” they will be injured if they don’t control the suspect.
“Unreasonable force is either too early, too much or too long,” Raney said.
Basterrechea noted in the statement that the department plans to adjust its training tactics after this incident to encourage officers to deploy additional officers when they’re dealing with a noncompliant suspect who is trying to slip off handcuffs.
Basterrechea added that officers can place resisting individuals on their knees before handcuffing them so the suspect is at a “greater disadvantage,” or use a temporary full-body restraint, known as the WRAP Restraint System.
“We will also continue to emphasize other techniques rather than striking to gain a suspect’s compliance,” Basterrechea said.
The Statesman has submitted a public records request for the police report on the incident. Basterrechea said the body camera footage from the arrest won’t be released until after Seward’s criminal case is finalized.