The Spokane City Council wants to see a video from a controversial arrest, but the police department has so far kept it under wraps

click to enlarge Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl says the video sought by the City Council will be released after an internal investigation is completed. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl says the video sought by the City Council will be released after an internal investigation is completed.

The Spokane City Council is demanding to see a video purportedly depicting a violent arrest made by Spokane Police officers. But so far, city officials and the police guild have only agreed to let them view it if they collectively sign nondisclosure agreements — a demand that the council refused in a meeting with city officials last week.

The footage depicts an arrest from last February where several officers apprehended a suspect inside of a stopped car by using "extremely aggressive" tactics, according to a person who has reviewed the video. (The person requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the contents of the footage.)

The officers purportedly used profanity and made numerous threats to kill the suspect while outside of the vehicle, including making a statement along the lines of "I'm going to put a bullet in your head," according to the source's recollection. They also smashed the windows of the car with a baton and lifted a police dog into the vehicle where the canine attacked the suspect. The suspect had his hands up and said that he was coming out moments before the dog was deployed, the source recalls. (A second person has confirmed the contents of the footage to the Inlander.)

In an affidavit narrating the incident that was authored by one of the involved officers, Scott Lesser, there's no mention of any threatening statements. (Lesser asserts in the report that he feared that the suspect, Lucas Ellerman, was reaching for a firearm before the dog was lifted into the car.) However, an addition to Lesser's report filed by another officer states that a witness said that they heard officers shouting "I'm gonna kill you" at Ellerman. And the original report doesn't state that a gun was recovered from the scene.

Reached by phone at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Ellerman recounted the arrest to the Inlander. (He's currently serving a prison sentence after pleading to drug possession and eluding an officer.) He says he got into a car chase with Spokane Police officers and was eventually pinned. It was after that that the verbal threats and the dog attack ensued.

"He threw the canine in there and the dog just ate me," he says. "It was just me and the dog fighting. I was fighting for my life with that dog."

Ellerman adds that he made statements like "I give up" and "I'm coming out" before Lesser put the canine through the car window.

So far, the Police Department has declined to release the footage or comment on its contents, citing an active Internal Affairs investigation into the incident. Members of the City Council requested access to the footage — after getting notified of its existence last week — only to be told by City Attorney Mike Ormsby that they would have to sign nondisclosure agreements before viewing it, Council President Ben Stuckart says.

Marlene Feist, a city spokeswoman, says that the nondisclosure agreements were a requirement of a special agreement recently negotiated with the Spokane Police Guild, SPD and the city to allow the council to view this particular footage.

And, so far, none of the seven council members are willing to sign nondisclosure agreements. "I talked to every member of council today and nobody is in favor of signing an NDA," Stuckart told the Inlander last week. "I'd like to just see it and be able to discuss it freely, whether that's with the public or the press, and I've never heard of the council ever having to sign an NDA.

"I don't understand why the police union is dictating what the City Council can see or not," he adds. "That's fairly crazy to me. This is about police oversight."

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, who declined to comment on the specifics of the footage, says that the offer to allow the council to view the footage if they signed NDAs was a compromise since department policy limits who can access video that is evidence in an ongoing investigation.

"In my mind this was a win-win," he says. "I provided what I felt like was an avenue to give them an opportunity to see and hear everything and [for us] to hear their concerns.

"We do not want this thing being tried in the court of public opinion until the investigation is done and all of the facts have come out," Meidl adds.

Ellerman's sister, 34-year-old Lindsae Nelson, a Spokane Valley resident, tells the Inlander that the dog attack on her brother during the February arrest has led to a serious infection in his leg that he is currently receiving treatment for while in prison.

"His infection from the dog bite got worse and worse," she says. "He may lose his leg."

She adds that Ellerman has struggled with heroin addiction since 2012 and has been in and out of jail. (His past criminal record includes convictions for domestic violence, theft and drug possession.) He was most recently wanted on numerous warrants.

"He would do better and then he would get high," she says. "It kept going like that."

In the months following the actual arrest, knowledge of the incident stayed within the department. While a standard chain-of-command review of the use-of-force tactics employed during the arrest was conducted, no Internal Affairs investigation into potential misconduct was initiated, and Police Ombudsman Bart Logue — SPD's official watchdog — wasn't notified.

Police Department spokesman John O'Brien says the use-of-force review process is already complete, but declined to give specifics on any findings. Chief Meidl declined to comment on the specifics of the department's use-of-force review of the incident.

Logue first watched the footage on May 22 after getting tipped off about it by Brian Breen, a local blogger, who heard about it from his sources inside SPD. After reviewing the footage, Logue fired off an evening email to Meidl and Jacqui MacConnell, SPD's director of strategic initiatives, calling on the department to conduct an Internal Affairs investigation into misconduct and notifying them that he would be filing a formal complaint for excessive force.

"I watched this video today, I'm curious as to exactly why there isn't an IA potential misconduct case on this," Logue writes in his May 22 email. "It appears there could/should have been a formal IA Internal Investigation initiated in this matter."

He also raises the issue of why he, as the police ombudsman, was not notified of the incident directly by SPD staff and, instead, became aware of it through a third-party blogger: "I should have been apprised of this issue much earlier than I was, and certainly should have been apprised by SPD, and not Mr. Breen."

Logue goes on to claim that, in his interactions with SPD staff regarding the incident, the significance of the officers' behavior during the February arrest was downplayed.

"Each person I talked to seemed to downplay the potential significance of this event (that includes you all the way through Chief Meidl)," he writes. "This gives me pause to consider whether or not SPD may have deliberately chose to circumvent the normal complaint process, and therefore, undermine oversight of this matter."

Meidl denied that he waved off the severity of the arrest or had knowledge of the contents of the body camera footage when he spoke with Logue about it.

"That is an inaccurate representation of that conversation," he says. "I hadn't even seen the body camera footage."

Meidl adds that the department brass was working to address the officers' conduct prior to Logue filing a formal complaint: "It was being investigated through the normal process that we use for use-of-force investigations," he says.

Members of the City Council quickly got involved as well. After Councilwoman Karen Stratton was contacted independently by Breen, and after she and Stuckart communicated with Logue regarding the video, they sent a letter to Meidl last week requesting to view the footage.

"[Logue] said he had just viewed the footage the night before, was disturbed by it, and that he hoped we were able to see it because we needed to, as elected officials," Stuckart tells the Inlander.

He adds that what he heard of the video made him "sick to his stomach."

SPD spokesman O'Brien says an Internal Affairs investigation was opened after Logue filed his complaint. He also cited the active probe as reason to keep the footage confidential for now.

"Once the OPO filed a formal excessive force complaint, all processes were stopped," he writes. "After any concern of tainting the Internal Affairs investigation has concluded, SPD will work to release the body camera footage."

Stuckart criticized the fact that the ombudsman and, subsequently, the council didn't get notified of the incident prior to Breen, a private citizen, contacting Logue and Stratton.

"That they didn't open an IA investigation, that's outrageous," Stuckart says. "It shouldn't take, in our system, a citizen calling in who has heard something from the Police Department for council members or the ombudsman to hear something like this."

Councilman Breean Beggs says that the fact that Logue wasn't notified of the incident stems from the fact that the ordinance governing the ombudsman's office only requires that the ombudsman be contacted if SPD opens an Internal Affairs investigation. In this case, an Internal Affairs investigation was not opened into the incident, so Logue wasn't contacted about it until Breen reached out to him.

"From what I've heard about the video, it sounds like it's serious enough that the ombudsman should've been informed about it," he says.

"The good news is that our ombudsman is doing his job," he adds. "If we didn't have an ombudsman, we would not be here and there would be no investigation." ♦

An early version of this story was published on Inlander.com on May 30.

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About The Author

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle.