A banner displayed at an Auburn Police Department recruitment booth on Saturday urging would-be cops to “Join Team Auburn PD” uses Officer Jeff Nelson as a poster child, outraging the family of the man Nelson faces a murder charge for killing and raising questions of propriety among police reformers.
The banner, at a booth at Auburn’s annual Pet Palooza celebration Saturday at Game Farm Park, prominently features Nelson alongside images including one of a SWAT team and an officer firing a handgun.
Auburn police spokesperson Kolby Crossley said it was a mistake to use the banner, which he called “old and outdated.”
“It was what we had,” Crossley said. “We won’t be using it ever again.”
Elaine Simons, the foster mother of Jesse Sarey, who was shot by Nelson outside a market following a scuffle in 2019, said Sarey’s family was “appalled” when a Pet Palooza attendee passed on a photo of the banner.
“How can police officers sit in a recruiting booth right next to a poster showing an officer charged with murder?” Simons asked. “It shows a total disregard to what’s going on around them, and is abusive to us and to the families of Isaiah Obet and Brian Scaman,” the other two men Nelson has fatally shot since he joined the department in 2008.
“It shows a total disregard to all of the victims of police abuse, by this officer and others,” Simons said.
The city of Auburn last year paid $4 million to settle a wrongful-death claim brought by Sarey’s family against Nelson and the city. The city also settled a lawsuit filed by Obet’s brother for $1.25 million in 2020, just a week before Nelson was charged with murder and assault in Sarey’s death.
Nelson is on paid leave pending trial, which likely will occur next spring.
The city and Nelson, 43, are defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last year by Joseph Loren Allen, who was later convicted in a federal drug and illegal firearms investigation and whom Nelson ran down with his patrol car during Allen’s 2018 arrest, breaking both his ankles and dislocating his shoulder.
Allen’s federal defense attorney obtained hundreds of pages of Nelson’s personnel and discipline files during the federal court case, creating an eight-page list detailing 65 incidents from 2011 through 2018 where Nelson used force during arrests, often for nonviolent misdemeanors or other minor crimes, or was offered up for discipline. Records for Nelson’s first three years at the department were not provided, according to federal court documents.
Many of the incidents involved dog bites, as Nelson worked as a K-9 officer. Others involved his frequent use of lateral vascular neck restraints, a hold that restricts blood flow to the brain, leading to unconsciousness.
The list also shows Nelson has used a Taser, his fists, his feet and resorted to shooting Scaman in 2011, Obet in 2017 and Sarey in 2019. All three deadly incidents involved knives and Nelson shot each man in the head, according to court records.
Nelson was charged with Sarey’s shooting death after prosecutors determined that he escalated a routine nuisance call into a life-or-death confrontation with the unarmed Sarey, who Nelson said grabbed for his gun and a knife on the officer’s vest during a scuffle.
Nelson first shot Sarey in the abdomen, according to the charges. Then, after clearing his weapon of a jammed round, he shot the incapacitated Sarey in the head, prosecutors allege.
Nelson’s trial has been delayed by numerous motions, including an attempt by prosecutors to introduce at trial photographs of Nelson’s extensive body art and tattoos that prosecutors believe speak to an aggressive approach toward law enforcement. The Seattle Times is seeking to make those photos public.
Some of the available photos show tattoos that contain part of a longtime police and military catchphrase, “Better to be judged by 12 than carried by eight,” prosecutors allege.
“This phrase indicates a willingness to use force (including deadly force) and face legal consequences (judged by 12) rather than be carried by pallbearers (carried by 8),” prosecutors have argued.
Leslie Cushman, an Olympia civil rights attorney and director of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, said Auburn’s decision to use a recruitment banner featuring Nelson left her “wondering just how clueless they are.”
“If this was a human resources decision, they clearly don’t understand what’s going on within that department or a culture that would endorse that message,” said Cushman, who was the citizen sponsor of I-940, a 2018 initiative that removed restrictive language in Washington’s police deadly force statute, making it easier to prosecute police. It also overhauled the state’s officer training system to emphasize de-escalation.
“Because I can assure you Officer Jeff Nelson does not represent the culture they want. It raises real questions about their thinking. How could they make such a grave mistake?”