The Inlander’s request for “all complaints, record of internal investigations and any disciplinary actions” against Welton revealed a stack of 832 pages some four inches tall.
The complaints against him in the file number close to 30 — though this count is imperfect, due to the redaction of all identifying information. Against Welton, citizens complained of excessive force, harassment, demeanor, racial profiling, failure to provide medical assistance, unprofessional conduct and improper entry.
Here are just some of the complaints filed against Welton. (Again these are only allegations and internal reviews did not sustain any of them.)
- He told someone, whose wife had filed a complaint against Welton a year earlier, that he “knew who you are” and he was going to “beat his ass.” (Read the complaint here.)
- When Welton came across some children throwing apples at passing cars, he told them, “Your mom should whip your ass more often; maybe it might help.” He called their behavior “f---ing bullshit.”
- Welton told another man, who allegedly threw a rock through his ex-wife’s window, that he should “go back to England.”
- While off-duty and driving his personal vehicle, Welton accidentally cut someone off. Responding to the near miss, Welton flipped the guy off twice and mouthed the word “pussy.” At a stoplight, the other driver walked toward Welton’s car. Welton threw his door open and “drilled me with his door” and told the man, “Dumbass, get in your car.” Welton flashed his sheriff’s baseball cap and told the man he would be arrested if he didn’t pay for the damage done to his car door. (Read the complaint here.)
- Welton blew up at other deputies, yelling, “Why couldn’t you follow simple directions? What was so hard about that?” And, “Where the f--- is your head? … Are you f---ing stupid?”
- After pulling over a vehicle, he detained a man who was watching from down the street. The man had his hands in his pockets, so Welton pulled his firearm and told him he was going to “shoot him with 50 thousand volts” and started counting down to zero. After cuffing the man and calling him a “punk idiot,” Welton took the cuffs off and released him with no charge. (Read the complaint here.)
- After pulling over a car for failing to use a turn signal, Welton and his partner pulled a black passenger out of the car and handcuffed him. They repeatedly called him “n-----” and asked him if he was getting “smart.” They told the man, “Hey n-----, you’re going to jail now,” and “Woohoo … we takin’ your n----- ass to jail now.” The man was charged with resisting arrest and obstructing. (Read the complaint here.)
Michael Nault, a former King County police captain who worked the Green River Killer investigation, was commissioned by Strange’s attorney to write an expert report for the case. In it, he writes that between January 2001 and April 2008, “there were 42 excessive force complaints against the entire patrol division” of the Sheriff’s Office. Of those, 13 were against Welton alone.
“In the last two years, I don’t think he’s had that many complaints at all,” Knezovich says, defending Welton. “Part of that is his supervisors have been working very diligently and I think that he’s become a very strong officer. … But let’s face it. Sometimes it comes down to how you interact. You might think you’re fine, and other people think you’re rough. It comes down to a certain amount of perception.”
Knezovich adds that the nature of law enforcement creates tense confrontations.
“We deal with mostly angry people,” he says. “You do your best to treat people with respect. There comes a point where you can only treat people with the amount of respect they allow you to. There comes also a point where you have to make sure you don’t lose control of that situation. When you lose control of a situation, it becomes much worse.”
Regardless, when one deputy racks up almost a third of the excessive force complaints from an entire division, a red flag is raised, says Schultz. “He has a flag sticking out of his ears.”
The lawsuit against Welton alleges the county “maintains a custom and policy deliberately indifferent to the rights and safety of citizens by failing to identify, monitor, discipline, reprimand and weed out Deputy Welton.”
In his expert report, Nault concludes Welton did use excessive force against Strange. “Deputy Welton’s historically recorded propensity to hostile demeanor, his use of force record, and his demonstrated dubious credibility, all lent significantly to this conclusion,” Nault writes.
According to The Inlander’s review, Welton has never been disciplined for any of the citizen complaints. (He has been disciplined twice for “improper handling of evidence,” and for failure to “operate a departmental vehicle in a safe and skillful manner” after he wrecked his patrol car.)
According to the sheriff, Welton has been investigated a total of 12 times, five of which were for excessive force. In three of these investigations, he was exonerated. Twice the excessive force complaints were not sustained. All 12 investigations took place between 2001 and 2006, and Welton has not been investigated since.
Beyond Welton, the Strange suit continues, the county “has no process or procedure for monitoring force complaints against particular officers who generate numbers of complaints.”
Asked to put Welton’s conduct as a deputy in context — specifically, how his professional record compares to his peers — the Sheriff’s Office of Professional Standards fell back on RCW 42.56, the public records law, claiming the agency’s database was outdated and unable to handle such a request.
“We do not keep a list or document with this information and are not required by law to create documents to fulfill this request,” reads their response.
Knezovich says his office has a process in place to watchdog bad officers: the chain of command. People on the force are supervised by their superiors. If supervisors identify a bad apple, the sheriff says, they take care of that person. Additionally, Knezovich says, the internal investigatory process will weed out bad cops.
“You rely on sergeants and lieutenants and everybody to be taking a look at instances,” he says. “Unless there’s something really egregious that actually hits a certain level — investigation — I wouldn’t run into that.”
But, Knezovich concedes, their statistical database is highly flawed.
“We are developing dashboard systems to better track everything within the Sheriff’s Office,” Knezovich says. “I think it’s important to have the ability to pull things up. Quite frankly, technology has not been invested in over the years to the level we need to.”
When asked if it worried him that outdated technology was preventing his office from compiling statistics of his deputies’ activities — and therefore missing the opportunity to gain a better understanding of what’s happening on the streets — the sheriff says he has confidence in the system, even if it is in need of an upgrade.
“That’s why we’re buying a new system. We want to be a little bit more thorough and a little more able to push a button and find out what’s going on,” he says. “Am I concerned? No, because I have great faith in the sergeants. If they have a problem, they’ll be identifying that.”
In 2009, the sheriff began receiving more comprehensive semi-annual reports. In them, the number of times his deputies used force is compiled, as is the number of complaints against the office.
Knezovich points to the last quarter of 2009 as an example of his process’ effectiveness. In that time, deputies reported using force 56 times. Also in that quarter, the sheriff adds, there were no complaints lodged.
The Sheriff’s Office’s willingness to release records, however imperfect the database, is consistent with many other agencies in the state (aside from the Spokane Police Department, of course).
According to Craig Adams, a Pierce County deputy prosecuting attorney who provides legal counsel to that county’s sheriff, Pierce County releases the entire investigatory file, including the guilty deputy’s name, when a complaint is sustained.
If the complaint is unsustained or the deputy is exonerated, the file is still released, but the deputy’s name may be omitted, depending.
“We don’t have a blanket rule,” Adams says. “We might release names, probably not. But we will release the investigation.”
Adams says it’s the same for all the Puget Sound counties: King, Bellevue, Everett, Snohomish, Whatcom.
“The public records law says you give out what you can give out,” he says. “There are very, very few categorical exceptions.”
Local attorney Breean Beggs, who is representing Otto Zehm's family, says transparency is key to a safe community. [Photo: Young Kwak]
“It’s not that the city’s forced to keep [investigative reports sealed],” says the local attorney Beggs. “It’s up to the city. They can easily open it up. … If the city wants to be a good, transparent city, they could open them up.”
Besides, Beggs says, according to the department’s own internal investigations, the city’s officers are stellar. Why not open the records?
“They almost never make of a finding of misconduct, so what’s the problem?” Beggs asks. “What are they so afraid of?”
Which, again, brings up more questions: Why do the vast majority of citizen complaints end in silence, without sustained findings and discipline? How many more stories of police misconduct are out there, unknown to everyone but the handful of cops who investigate the claims, find nothing and seal the files?
Is this how we want our Police Department to work?
Meanwhile, Kaitlyn Jellison doesn’t trust police officers anymore, let alone police investigations into their own members. She knows the father of the officer who took her down was a lieutenant on the force. She worries that the familial connection could influence the investigative process even more.
And if she never sees the results of the investigation, she’ll trust it even less. Regardless, Jellison will always have one record of that evening.
As she followed her father to the squad car, wanting to say goodbye, she called her sister to tell her what was happening. There, recorded on her sister’s voicemail, is Jellison gasping for air, with an officer on top of her.
“Next message sent Friday, May 21, at 6:04 pm, Pacific time: ‘I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! Get off of me! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! Get off of me! I’m not resisting, I can’t breathe! Are you f---ing kidding me! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! Are you going to let me f---ing die?”
The Inlander is committed to exposing miscarriages of justice. Send tips and story ideas to injustice[at]inlander.com or call the news tip line at (509) 325-0634 ext. 264.