“It’s a lie, but it’s fun,” a Seattle police officer remarked to his partner as they approached a West Seattle home in search of a suspect in a hit-and-run collision.
His comment referred to a ruse he planned to use in their pursuit of a man who had fled the collision.
When the two officers reached the home, they spoke with a woman who said the man used her address to register his car. She told the officers he wasn’t there but she would get his phone number.
The officer who had devised the ruse he described as fun then set it in motion, unleashing events that spiraled into unforeseen tragedy when the man took his own life days later. Now, a police watchdog has found that the officer’s action “shocked the conscience” and contributed to the man’s death.
The two officers had not been involved in investigating the collision, which occurred in another precinct and involved several vehicles. They were asked to go to the home after the address was tied to the fleeing driver’s vehicle. They were told no one was injured, which made the hit-and-run a misdemeanor.
But as the woman searched her phone for the suspect’s number, the officer with the ruse plan told her they were looking for the man because he was involved in a hit-and-run that left a woman in critical condition. A summary report on the 2018 incident was recently released by the Police Department’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA).
The officer told her the injured woman “might not survive.”
The woman was “clearly emotionally affected” by the news, police body-camera video showed, according to the OPA report.
After the officers left, the woman tracked down the hit-and-run suspect, told him what the police had said and advised him to get an attorney. Initially, he didn’t appear overly concerned, saying he didn’t think he had been involved in a collision that left anyone injured, the woman later told the OPA.
But he began to worry that he might have hit a pedestrian without realizing it, the OPA report said. He became increasingly despondent over the possibility he had killed someone, the woman told the OPA. She said he had been a heroin addict for nearly 20 years and had prior legal troubles.
Shortly after, the man died by suicide, according to the OPA report.
In the subsequent investigation, Andrew Myerberg, the OPA’s civilian director, determined that the ruse was, at least in part, the cause of the man’s death.
Myerberg found that the officer who told the woman the false story had violated department standards regarding professionalism and discretion, concluding his conduct “shocked the conscience.”
The officer, who is not named in the report, insisted he had done nothing wrong.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best upheld the findings, suspending the officer for six days without pay.
Police declined to immediately release Best’s disciplinary action report containing her rationale for the decision, as well as other records requested by The Seattle Times, saying they were subject to public-disclosure procedures. A department spokesman declined to disclose the name of the officer. The man who died was also not named in the OPA’s report.
The Seattle Community Police Commission (CPC ), a citizen advisory body, called Friday for the immediate release of the chief’s disciplinary report, saying the commission will be reviewing the matter at its next meeting
“Our thoughts are with the loved ones affected by this tragedy,” CPC co-chairs Emma Catague and the Rev. Harriett Walden. “This case clearly demonstrates the need for reform.”
As part of his findings, Myerberg recommended that the department provide training on ruses, including “when they are appropriate and when they shock fundamental fairness.”
He said the department should consider using the case as an example of the consequences of an inappropriate falsehood.
In a written statement Thursday, the department said, “Chief Best agreed with OPA’s findings and disciplined a Seattle Police Officer with six days off without pay for using a ruse during a hit-and-run criminal investigation. The officer’s actions did not meet SPD’s standards of acceptable use of discretion and were not consistent with the standards of professionalism or training.”
The statement added: “In 2019, the Seattle Police Department provided in-service training to all sergeants, officers and detectives on the appropriate use of ruses during criminal investigations.”
At the time of the man’s death in June 2018, the woman first approached by the officers, along with others who knew him — including a friend, his roommate and his mother — all believed he had killed someone, according to the OPA.
Shortly before the man took his life, the friend had read the “riot act” to him after learning of the hit-and-run and the assertion by police that a woman had been critically injured, according to the report. The friend told the man he could go to jail for a long time, and on the last occasion they saw each other, the suspect was crying. The man left a bag of personal effects in his garage, with a note to his friend that read, “If you don’t see me, keep this stuff.”
His roommate recalled that the man couldn’t remember the collision and was “freaking out,” the report says. She said he spoke about being in trouble with the police and needing to get a lawyer, and asked if it was normal to think about suicide.
But when those people began looking into the matter after the man’s death, including obtaining body-camera video, they determined he had not injured anyone in what amounted to a minor fender-bender, and that the officer’s initial statement to the woman was knowingly inaccurate.
The woman reported the matter to the OPA in March. The woman, the suspect’s friend and the roommate asserted the officer’s use of the ruse was “wholly inappropriate and that it directly contributed” to the man’s suicide.
According to the summary report, the officer’s partner told the OPA that when she heard him tell the woman about a critically injured victim, she momentarily thought she had misread the notes for the call.
As she and the officer walked away, she said she asked him if she had misread the call. He told her he had used a ruse, the report says.
In her opinion, the partner told the OPA, there was no need to use a ruse to get information, since the woman was cooperative.
The officer told the OPA he had received training on ruses at the police academy and said while they’re generally permissible, they couldn’t “shock fundamental fairness.”
He said he didn’t know whether injuries had occurred in the collision, and while he was sure he had read the call notes, he could not remember what they said, according to the summary report.
In contrast to his partner, he described the woman they had contacted as evasive and “kind of impeding the investigation.”
The officer told the OPA the ruse was reasonable and appropriate, and that it was needed in response to an ongoing threat to public safety.
While the officer told the OPA it was regrettable the man took his own life, he insisted he wasn’t responsible and said he had not abused his discretion or acted unprofessionally.
Editor’s note: A comment thread was appended to this story in error when it first published. We have removed it, consistent with our general approach to stories involving suicide.