Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best softened a key disciplinary finding in the case of an officer who, as part of a ruse to locate a hit-and-run suspect, falsely stated that a woman had been critically injured in what actually was a minor collision, according to newly disclosed records.
Best found that it would be “speculative” to link the ruse and the suspect’s suicide five days later, watering down a conclusion by Andrew Myerberg, the civilian director of the department’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA), that the falsehood contributed to the death of 40-year-old Porter Dean Feller.
The chief, in her report, also didn’t incorporate language from Myerberg’s written findings in which he concluded that Officer Matthew Kerby’s action, under a legal standard used to describe grossly unjust conduct, “shocked the conscience.”
Best suspended Kerby for six days without pay, although she chose the low end of a 5- to 15-day range recommended by department officials, according to the records obtained by The Seattle Times under a public-disclosure request.
Best declined to be interviewed.
The Times first reported on the ruse in a Jan. 10 story, relying on a summary on OPA’s website that didn’t identify Feller or Kerby by name or include Best’s disciplinary findings.
The newly disclosed documents show that Best, in a Nov. 21 disciplinary report, weighed her disdain for the officer’s “unnecessarily aggressive” conduct against her belief that Kerby, as a newer officer who joined the department in 2016, would learn from the discipline.
While carrying the chief’s signature, disciplinary reports are authored by staff attorneys who use carefully crafted language, mindful that the conclusions might have to withstand an appeal.
The reports don’t have to include the OPA director’s wording and, while Best didn’t cite the “shocked the conscience” standard in her report, she reached findings that closely hew to Myerberg’s conclusions.
Like Myerberg, Best found that the ruse wasn’t necessary, and that it violated department rules requiring officers to use discretion. She noted that the alleged crime was a misdemeanor and that there was no information Feller posed an active threat.
Kerby went to a West Seattle home on May 28, 2018, in search of Feller after he purportedly drove away from the minor collision. Kerby told his partner he planned to use a ruse, saying, “It’s a lie, but it’s fun,” records show.
When they didn’t find Feller, Kerby told a woman at the home that Feller had been involved in a hit-and-run in which a woman, who was critically injured, “might not survive.”
Visibly upset, the woman expressed concern and cooperated in efforts to find Feller, Best wrote.
The officer’s lie set off a chain of events, during which Feller, a longtime heroin user with a history of criminal behavior, initially expressed disbelief that he had injured anyone.
But under pressure from friends to deal with the matter, Feller began to worry he might have killed a pedestrian without realizing it, according to their accounts. He became despondent, they said, and talked about suicide before he took his own life June 3, 2018, leaving notes, personal items and money for others.
Kerby defended his action when he met with Best before her disciplinary action, according to her report. He asserted the ruse was reasonable to protect public safety and wasn’t meant to cause stress, and he spoke thoughtfully about the impact police can have on the community, Best wrote.
Although Best’s findings didn’t tie Kerby’s action to Feller’s death, she noted that several witnesses interviewed by the OPA expressed their opinion that the ruse contributed to his suicide.
“While it would be speculative to conclude that your actions contributed to the Subject’s death, there was no need for your actions,” she wrote.
Myerberg found that, based on the evidence, it was clear the ruse, at least in part, caused Feller’s suicide.
The King County Medical Examiner’s Office classified Feller’s death as accidental from heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine intoxication.
When questioned about the OPA findings by The Times, the pathologist who performed the autopsy stood by her conclusion.
Days later, after further review, the medical examiner changed the manner of death to suicide.
In a statement this week, spokesman James Apa said determining manner of death from an overdose can be complex as pathologists consider several factors, including interpretation of drug levels in the blood.
“In this case, the medical examiner’s office conducted additional analysis that provided further insight, and we plan to use the method for this case across all of our overdose cases to provide an added level of assurance in determining manner of death,” Apa wrote.