Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday directed Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office to open a criminal investigation into Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer’s January confrontation with a newspaper carrier.
In a letter to John Hillman, who heads the criminal division of the Attorney General’s Office, Inslee asked for a probe of whether Troyer made a false report on Jan. 27, when the sheriff called a police dispatcher, repeatedly claiming that 24-year-old Sedrick Altheimer was threatening to kill him.
Troyer already faces a separate, noncriminal investigation commissioned by the Pierce County Council, which hired former U.S. Attorney Brian Moran for the job.
In calling for the attorney general to step in, Inslee indicated that county probe was not sufficient.
Calling the reports of the Jan. 27 incident “very concerning to me,” Inslee said he’d hoped to see a criminal investigation launched at the local level. “But, to my knowledge, that has not happened almost three months after the incident,” he said in a statement. “So now the state is stepping in. I have spoken to Attorney General Ferguson and his office will conduct this investigation and make the decision whether to initiate prosecution.”
Ferguson said he appreciated the governor’s confidence, and pledged in a statement his office would conduct a “diligent, fact-based review.”
Altheimer, who is Black, had been delivering newspapers on his regular route early on that January morning when he was followed by the sheriff, who was driving his personal SUV. The two wound up in a 2 a.m. face-off in a residential intersection.
Troyer called emergency dispatchers, telling them Altheimer “threatened to kill me,” triggering a massive initial police response from multiple agencies. But on questioning by Tacoma police, Troyer backed off his claim about being threatened, according to an incident report.
Troyer has said he was in bed at home that night and pursued Altheimer because he saw what he believed to be a suspicious vehicle. He has insisted he violated no laws or Sheriff’s Department policies during the incident, which was first reported last month by The Seattle Times.
“Just like with the local investigation being conducted by the Pierce County Council, I welcome any and all inquiries into the event that occurred on January 27th. I and the department will fully cooperate with the investigation and look forward to it being done,” Troyer said in an email Friday.
Reached by phone, Altheimer said he was glad to hear of the criminal investigation into Troyer’s conduct. “He definitely made a false report. It’s got to be a criminal investigation because it was a criminal act,” he said.
Washington’s false reporting law makes it a gross misdemeanor to cause an emergency response by knowingly reporting false information to authorities. Felony charges can be filed if such a report causes injury or death.
Body camera footage from the incident in Tacoma’s West End shows Altheimer angered by the large police response called in by the sheriff. He asked a Tacoma officer that night whether the sheriff would face consequences for falsely accusing him of making death threats. “I am not going to blow smoke up your ass and say something is going to be done about it,” the officer responded.
Notably absent from body video footage of the incident released earlier this month by the Tacoma Police Department were any recordings of an officer’s interview with Troyer.
The department has opened an internal investigation of whether any officers who responded to Troyer’s call violated the agency’s new body camera policies, department spokesperson Officer Wendy Haddow said Thursday.
Officer Chad Lawless wrote in his incident report that he’d mistakenly left his body camera at a police station when rushing to respond to the “officer needs help” call triggered by Troyer.
Several community organizations had been calling for a criminal investigation, including the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, which filed a complaint this week with the FBI’s Seattle office.
“It is well known that people make false reports to 911 against Black people, resulting in harm. It is also well known that law enforcement, at a disproportionate rate, use excessive or deadly force against Black people. The individual who was unlawfully targeted by Mr. Troyer is lucky to be alive,” said the complaint, signed by Sakara Remmu, lead strategist for the group.
But prior to the intervention by Inslee and Ferguson, there was no indication any criminal probe would happen.
Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett this month turned any potential county level prosecution decisions over to Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim because Robnett’s office serves as legal counsel for Troyer and the Sheriff’s Department.
“To the extent there is ever any need for a county prosecutor to review this case or to arrange for further criminal investigation, I request that you serve as prosecutor due to my obvious conflict of interest,” Robnett wrote in an April 5 letter to Tunheim.
A spokesperson for Tunheim said his office had only just learned of the attorney general’s action and was not aware of any other ongoing criminal investigation.
Troyer was elected as Pierce County sheriff last year, capping a 35-year career with the agency, including serving in recent years as its public face and media spokesperson.
Seattle Times staff reporter Lewis Kamb contributed to this report.