A Tacoma police lieutenant in charge when officers responded to Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer’s confrontation with a Black newspaper carrier in January has been disciplined for his and other officers’ failures to turn on their body cameras during the call.
Lt. Robert G. Stark was given a letter of reprimand in May after an internal investigation found he “arrived at the scene of a call for service and you failed to activate your Body Worn Camera, nor did you ensure officers’ on scene were activated,” newly released records show.
“As a leader, you are expected to demonstrate adherence to Department policies and procedures,” added the reprimand given to Stark, signed by interim police Chief Mike Ake.
The investigation exonerated four other officers who responded to Troyer’s Jan. 27 emergency call, even though they variously admitted to forgetting to wear, or correctly turn on, their body cameras during the call, records show. All of them fell under a grace period from discipline for any officer who broke the new policy within a month, or their first 16 work shifts, after receiving their cameras, an internal affairs lieutenant found.
Stark and the other Tacoma officers were part of a massive police response to Troyer’s 2 a.m. emergency call after the sheriff confronted a man driving near his home and told a 911 dispatcher that the man “threatened to kill me.”
The call spurred an urgent countywide alert that sent more than 40 officers from multiple agencies rushing toward the scene, but most were called off after Tacoma police arrived.
The man, Sedrick Altheimer, turned out to be a newspaper carrier on his regular route. On questioning by Tacoma police, Troyer backed off his claim about being threatened, according to an incident report.
Altheimer, 25, contends Troyer racially profiled him and lied about being threatened. He’s filed a $5 million claim against Pierce County.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office has opened a criminal investigation into the matter at the direction of Gov. Jay Inslee, and the Pierce County Council has hired former U.S. Attorney Brian Moran to conduct a separate, noncriminal investigation. Both probes remain ongoing.
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, and maintains Altheimer did threaten him.
Some of the Tacoma officers who responded to the incident in Tacoma’s West End properly wore and activated their body cameras, capturing Altheimer angered by the large police response called in by the sheriff.
In one of the videos, Altheimer asked an officer 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.
But notably absent from the footage, released by the department in April, were any recordings of an officer’s interview with Troyer.
The department opened an internal investigation on April 7 to determine whether any of the responding officers had violated the agency’s new body camera policy, which was formally implemented on Jan. 4. Officers started receiving training with cameras in early December.
Officer Chad Lawless, who served as the primary officer and wrote the incident report for the call, told an internal affairs investigator he’d mistakenly left his body camera “on the charger at the substation” before rushing to the “officer needs help” call triggered by Troyer.
Lawless stated he notified his sergeant “that I forgot it as soon as he arrived on scene and I also notified Lt. Stark and documented this in my general report.”
His sergeant, Steve Storwick, told the investigator in a written statement he failed to turn on his body camera due to “operator error,” and by the time he realized his camera wasn’t recording, “I believed the incident had concluded.”
Two other backup officers stated they also left their cameras in a charging dock at the substation but said they had no direct contact with either Altheimer or Troyer during the call.
A lieutenant investigating the matter initially recommended “sustained” findings against Lawless and Storwick for violating the body camera policy, with “unfounded” findings against the two other officers.
But an internal affairs commander who reviewed the investigation later found all four officers should be exonerated based on a department directive stating, “no officer will be subject to discipline for failing to activate a camera for any reason for the first month or 16 shifts, whichever occurs later,” the records show.
Stark, who was the shift commander on the night of Troyer’s call, admitted he violated the policy and was beyond the amnesty period, telling a captain he had used his camera “very seldom, as he does not personally respond to very many calls for service.”
Stark added that his failure to turn on the camera “was not intentional” and “stated he had just forgotten during the call,” the records say.
Seattle Times staff writer Jim Brunner contributed to this report.