A judge is expected to rule Friday whether the King County Sheriff's Office deliberately withheld information on use-of-force concerns about a deputy who in 2009 shoved a man into a wall, leaving him permanently disabled.
A judge is expected to rule Friday whether the King County Sheriff’s Office deliberately withheld information on use-of-force concerns about a deputy who in 2009 shoved a man into a wall, leaving him permanently disabled.
The family of the injured man, Christopher Sean Harris, sued King County and reached a $10 million settlement — the largest individual award ever paid by the county — days into a civil trial in 2011.
But Harris’ attorneys now contend the Sheriff’s Office and county withheld emails that document concerns within the Sheriff’s Office over other use-of-force incidents by the deputy, Matthew Paul. They are asking a judge to sanction King County for failing to disclose the information before the civil trial and order it pay an additional $3.3 million.
The case is being heard in Pierce County to avoid a conflict of interest.
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“Had we had all the documents, which basically show that King County knew [Paul] was a loose cannon, there is an unbelievably good chance we would have had an excellent civil-rights case,” said Sim Osborn, an attorney for Harris and his family.
A civil-rights lawsuit would have allowed Harris’ attorneys to pursue punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees, court documents indicate.
A spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office and a spokesman for the King County Prosecutor’s Office, which is representing the county, declined to comment on the case until after the judge’s ruling.
Harris was left brain-damaged, paralyzed and unable to speak on May 10, 2009, after a witness mistakenly identified him as a suspect in a bar fight in downtown Seattle. Paul and another deputy, who were working as Metro Transit police, chased after Harris and the pursuit ended when Harris stopped running and was shoved into a wall by Paul.
The incident was captured by a surveillance camera.
An internal investigation by the Sheriff’s Office determined that Paul delivered a “hard shove” that fell within legal bounds. The Prosecutor’s Office called it “a very tragic incident,” and declined to file criminal charges against the deputy.
In their lawsuit, Harris’ attorneys claimed Paul acted negligently and used excessive force.
Late last year, Harris’ attorneys filed a motion in Pierce County Superior Court asking the judge to look again at the case after learning of emails that document two additional incidents in which Paul was alleged to have used excessive force.
Osborn says the county should have disclosed the information to Harris’ legal team before the 2011 civil trial.
One of the incidents was outlined in a 2007 email to Paul’s supervisor from the commander of the Basic Law Enforcement Academy, where Paul had been demonstrating defensive tactics to new officers. During one demonstration, Paul used force that was “far above the norm” when working with a smaller, female trainee, according to the email.
The academy’s commander informed Paul’s supervisor that he would no longer be welcomed at the academy, court documents indicate.
In his emails, Cmdr. Ron Griffin said Paul “exhibited behaviors that were a concern,” had a “macho” demeanor and bragged about his actions, court documents say. The email went on to say that if Paul’s actions were upsetting to law-enforcement officers, he was “likely exhibiting poor behavior to the public or fellow deputies.”
Harris’ attorneys also cite a second incident in their motion, which occurred after Harris had been injured, but before the lawsuit was settled, in May 2010.
In that incident, Jeffrey Gold, a Seattle resident, said he was walking home when he stopped to videotape Paul and other deputies dealing with an intoxicated person at a bus stop. Gold claims in his lawsuit that Paul ordered him to leave the scene, then charged after him, knocking him to the ground and breaking his nose.
Gold was arrested for jaywalking and obstructing an officer, but was never charged. He filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s Office, but an internal investigation found Paul had acted within department policy.
Because the complaint was ruled to be unfounded, it was not released to Harris’ attorneys, attorneys for the county said in court records. In court filings, attorneys for the county said that there were legal privacy restrictions banning them from releasing information about complaints made against officers that were not upheld.
The state Supreme Court ruled in August 2011 that reports into alleged misconduct by police officers must be made public even if the accusations are not upheld.
Court records also say that the academy commander and Paul’s supervisors were only able to find the emails about Paul’s behavior at the law-enforcement academy once they were questioned by a KING 5 reporter who was able to give them exact dates to search.
Paul remains on the force although he was placed on a performance-improvement plan after former Sheriff Sue Rahr learned he had been involved in a number of “incidents” between August and December 2010 in which he was alleged to have had “verbal conflicts, physical confrontations, use of force and marginal arrests.”
Gold has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Paul and the county.
On Thursday, the FBI confirmed it has launched an initial investigation into Paul in connection with the Harris and Gold incidents.
“We have opened inquiries into each of those matters and are awaiting direction from the Department of Justice,” said FBI spokesman Fred Gutt.
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.