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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Use of force expert calls Spokane deputy’s actions from August park arrest ‘excessive,’ ‘unreasonable’; FBI involved

This still from body camera footage shows Kevin Hinton shortly before he was severely injured by Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy Clay Hilton during an arrest. The case against Hinton was later dropped.

The Spokane County sergeant under investigation for the violent arrest of a man at Terrace View Park last summer used “excessive, objectively unreasonable” force, a use of force expert found.

Spokane police found evidence to charge Sgt. Clay Hilton, 50, with assault in February. Last week, through a public records request, The Spokesman-Review obtained nearly 2,000 pages of the investigative records police used to make that finding.

Hilton has been on leave since October when attorneys for Kevin Hinton, 62, brought body camera footage of Hinton’s August arrest to light.

Hinton was driving home from visiting his new baby granddaughter when he stopped in Terrace View Park to nap.

The sergeant told Hinton it was illegal for him to be in the park after dark and asked for identification.

When Hinton refused, the sergeant pulled him out of his car and violently arrested him, which can be seen in body camera footage of the incident.

Hinton was left with eight broken ribs, a punctured lung, severe concussion, shoulder injury and disfigured lip, according to the attorneys he hired, Tim Note and Josh Maurer.

Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels asked Spokane police to investigate.

The decision on whether to charge Hilton will come from the Yakima County Prosecutor’s Office. Prosecutor Joe Brusic said two of his deputy prosecutors are evaluating the case after a request from Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, who chose not to make a finding on the case to avoid a conflict of interest since his office works with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office frequently. Brusic said he hopes to reach a charging decision in the next several weeks.

“There’s obviously a lot of discovery, and we’ve been working on it diligently,” Brusic said Friday.

Additional agencies may be investigating as well. Records show the FBI interviewed Hilton in December, but the agency would not confirm whether they opened an investigation into the violent arrest.

Expert weighs in

Jeff Noble, who owns Noble Consulting and Expert Witness Services, was hired by Spokane police to evaluate Hilton’s actions. When investigating fellow law enforcement officers, it’s not uncommon to outside use of force experts.

Deputies are trained on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Graham v. Connor, that requires officers to balance the intrusion into an individual’s right with the government interests at stake, Noble wrote. They must consider the severity of the crime, whether the suspect poses a threat to officers or others and whether the suspect is actively resisting or trying to flee.

Hilton mistakenly believed that being in a Spokane Valley park after dark was a misdemeanor when in reality it was a civil infraction that does not warrant an arrest. Regardless, Noble found that Hilton’s “uses of force were objectively unreasonable and inconsistent with generally accepted police practices.”

Emails with court staff in investigative records show that the initial ticket Hilton wrote cited City of Spokane municipal code, which then was crossed out in favor of a county-wide ordinance. Hilton said he chose the county code because it’s a misdemeanor offense versus the Spokane Valley municipal code, an infraction. Court staff still could not process the arrest under the county code because it did not exist in their system and rejected the filing.

The sergeant did not engage in de-escalation tactics, including slowing down the interaction, the report said.

“Here, the violation was very minor, did not involve weapons or violence, and there was no need for haste,” Noble wrote. “Sergeant Hilton radioed for back-up deputies and while Mr. Hinton did not cooperate with Sergeant Hilton’s demand for identification, he did not present any imminent threat. Any reasonable officer would have attempted to engage in de-escalation techniques to slow the situation.”

Instead, Noble wrote, Hilton made comments to escalate the situation, such as telling Hinton he would probably end up in jail and that he was going to get hurt.

The sergeant said he used force on Hinton because he was scared the man was reaching for a weapon. Noble noted that Hinton never appears to reach for any kind of weapon in the video and did not make any verbal threats to the sergeant.

Hilton continued to punch Hinton after forcibly removing him from his vehicle.

“There is no evidence that at the moment Sergeant Hilton delivered those strikes that Mr. Hinton presented anything more than a low level of active resistance by not giving Sergeant Hilton his hands,” Noble wrote.

Hilton had no standing to make any arrest, Noble found, and therefore any force used would be excessive.

“Even if Sergeant Hilton was making a lawful custodial arrest, I am of the opinion that his uses of force against Mr. Hilton were excessive, objectively unreasonable and inconsistent with generally accepted police practices,” Noble wrote.

Noble’s findings are in contrast to the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office internal use of force review.

When deputies use force, they are required to submit a review to their commanding officer, who then is supposed to evaluate whether the force was reasonable.

Records show a form was filled out by fellow Sgt. Jason Hunt.

He indicated that Hilton made an attempt to de-escalate the situation, including allowing time and opportunity to comply, and listening and interacting in conversation. The force was used in response to Hinton’s aggressive posturing, attempt to escape or flee, not complying with direction and resisting being handcuffed or arrested, Hunt said on the form.

In the narrative of the incident, the use of force is described as a “closed fist strike to the left side of Hinton’s face,” along with “knee strikes to Hinton’s left side and close fist strikes to his face.”

Spokane Police investigators and Noble found that Hilton delivered at least eight strikes to Hinton’s head and torso.

Hunt wrote he reviewed Hilton’s body camera video and attached it to the use of force report.

Lt. Rich Gere reviewed the report and found Hilton’s actions were within policy, writing “the force used in this incident was objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances.”

The date of that review is not visible in the investigative documents.

Nowels told the Spokane Valley City Council in October, shortly after the incident was brought to his attention, that he plans to make changes to how uses of force are reviewed, including creating a new lieutenant position in the internal affairs division. Nowels has declined to make public statements on the investigation since October on the advice of legal counsel.

Chat logs

Hours before the arrest on Aug. 14, Hilton was messaging with another deputy, Louis Acosta, who asked Hilton whether he had done the duty to intervene training. The training, mandated by the Washington Legislature in 2021, lays out how law enforcement officers must step in to report if another officer uses unreasonable or excessive force.

Hilton responded “nope” and “hear its bad.”

“waste of time,” Acosta said.

In chats with dispatchers after the arrest, Hilton joked about the violence of the arrest.

The dispatcher, Sarah Hall, asked whether Hinton started fighting with the sergeant.

“Yea…He was a No Person. But I think he may have learned a leason…,” Hilton wrote. He then corrected his spelling of lesson.

Hall responded, “Oh I am sure he did lol.”

“Wait for his booking photo,” Hilton responded.

State of affairs

As Yakima prosecutors review the investigation, Hilton remains on paid administrative leave.

No other deputies were placed on leave related to the incident. Investigators interviewed the deputies and other first responders on scene, who all said they did not use force or see Hilton use force. The sergeant lived across the street from Terrace View Park at the time of the arrest, and investigators searched his home but did not recover footage from his Ring camera.

Hilton declined to be interviewed as part of the investigation. He has repeatedly declined requests for comment from The Spokesman-Review.

Hinton was interviewed by the FBI and Spokane police. He said he is scared of retaliation from deputies, so much so that he has been staying with family rather than returning to his Colfax home.

His attorneys have said they may file a lawsuit over the arrest in the future.