SEATTLE — A Seattle police officer who unnecessarily used a ruse to locate a hit-and-run suspect in May 2018 has been suspended for six days after a watchdog agency found that the lie caused the man to take his own life.
The unnamed officer sent word to the man through a friend -- the complainant in the case -- that a woman injured in the crash was in critical condition and might not survive her injuries.
In reality, the crash was a minor fender bender and no one was injured, according to the Office of Police Accountability, an independent investigative office within the Seattle Police Department. Andrew Myerberg, the civilian director of the watchdog, authored the November report on the findings.
The driver, who friends said “was despondent about the fact that he may have killed someone,” died by suicide less than a week later.
"Notably, the night before he took his own life, he directly told his roommate that the incident was causing him to feel suicidal feelings," the OPA report stated.
The OPA findings led to a recommendation of a six-day suspension for the offending officer, whose name was not released. The report also pointed out that, at the time of the incident, the department provided officers no ongoing training on ruses, when they are appropriate and when they “shock fundamental fairness.”
"OPA believes that this case demonstrates that such training is sorely needed," the report stated.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said in a statement obtained by NBC News that she agrees with the watchdog's findings. She upheld the six-day suspension without pay for the officer, according to a statement issued Thursday.
"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," Best said, according to NBC News. "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."
The incident in question took place May 28, 2018, when the unnamed officer and his partner were asked by an investigating officer to find the driver in a misdemeanor hit-and-run crash that damaged vehicles but caused no injuries, according to the OPA case summary. The officers, who were aware of the severity of the crash, traced the driver's vehicle to a home in West Seattle.
When they arrived at the home, they spoke to the woman who lived there.
Before making contact with the woman, however, the offending officer decided to have a little fun at the driver’s expense.
"Prior to (making contact), the officers discussed using a ruse if the subject was inside of the residence," the report said. "(The officer) stated that he would use the ruse and told (his partner), 'It's a lie, but it's fun.'"
The resident told the officers that the driver of the car, a longtime friend, did not live with her but had used her address to register his vehicle because he was homeless, the report stated. She went and got her cellphone to find the man’s phone number for the officers.
“Around 15 seconds after the complainant started doing so, (the officer) used a ruse and told her that the reason that they were looking for the subject was that “he was involved in a hit-and-run earlier that left a woman in critical condition and he left her,” the report stated.
“The complainant responded, ‘God (expletive). When did that happen?’”
"(The officer) said that the hit-and-run occurred earlier that day and that the woman 'might not survive,'" the report said.
The woman’s reaction, which was caught on body camera footage, was one of distress, the report stated. She gave the officers the man’s phone number, and they left.
The woman called the hit-and-run suspect and left him a voicemail. When he called her back, she told him about the police visit and encouraged him to call a lawyer and his mother, the report said.
Over the next couple of days, the man told the woman repeatedly that he did not remember being in a crash that would have caused an injury. He recalled a “minor fender bender with another vehicle,” but said he didn’t think anyone had been hurt.
"He was concerned, however, that he might have hit a pedestrian but did not realize it. He grew more and more worried," the OPA report said. "He had been a heroin addict for nearly 20 years and had prior legal troubles.
“The complainant searched for information regarding a hit-and-run that resulted in a fatality and found nothing. The absence of information concerned them because they believed that this suggested that it was being withheld because a criminal investigation was ongoing.”
The woman told the OPA she spoke to the man one last time before his death and he “seemed increasingly despondent regarding the collision and the possibility that he had killed someone.”
Another friend of the hit-and-run suspect recounted how the man was attempting to turn his life around and had gotten a new job and was saving money, the report stated. When the friend talked to the man, he denied being high at the time that his car rolled backward and struck that of another driver.
"The subject remembered that the other driver got out of his vehicle but the subject drove away," the report stated.
Had the ruse not been used, it is likely that the suicide would not have occurred."
-Office of Police Accountability report
The friend told investigators he “read the subject the riot act” and told him he could go to prison for a long time if he had killed someone, even if he was sober when the crash took place.
"The friend recalled that, on the last occasion that he saw the subject, the subject was crying," the report said. "The friend stated that everyone believed that the subject had hit and killed someone but that he did not remember it.
“The friend stated that the subject left a bag on a shelf in his garage that continued some of the subject’s personal effects and money. A note with the bag told the friend, ‘If you don’t see me, keep this stuff.’”
The man’s roommate told OPA investigators that the man was “freaking out” over the thought that he had killed someone.
"Several days after the incident, the subject asked the roommate if it was normal to think about suicide. The roommate said that it was," the report stated. "She confirmed that his statement of feeling suicidal was related to his concern regarding the hit-and-run and the potential legal and criminal implications."
On the morning of June 3, the roommate went into the man’s room and found him dead.
The complainant, the second friend, the man’s roommate and his mother all believed that he was under investigation when he died for killing someone in a hit-and-run. When they looked into the incident further, however, including requesting body camera footage, they learned of the officer’s ruse.
The complainant filed a report March 12, 2019, with the OPA, who interviewed her and the other witnesses, as well as the officers involved in the hit-and-run investigation and those who investigated the man’s suicide.
"The officer who investigated the hit-and-run told OPA that the crime at issue was a misdemeanor," the report stated. "He did not recall telling (the officer and his partner) that it was important to locate the driver or that he instructed them to make an arrest. He expected that (they) would locate the subject and obtain his insurance information."
The offending officer’s partner backed up that assessment. She told the OPA that the complainant, when approached for the hit-and-run driver’s information, was cooperative and she said “there was no need to use the ruse to get the desired information from the complainant.”
The offending officer disagreed, telling OPA investigators the woman was evasive and “kind of impeding the investigation.” He claimed he did not remember the woman getting her phone and willingly giving them the man’s contact information.
"When asked why he used the ruse when the complainant was actively going through her phone, (the officer) said that he did not have time to stand around and wait for the information," the report stated.
Myerberg pointed out in the report, however, that the officers were only at the woman’s home for five minutes and they left with the information they were seeking.
It was also unclear why the officer “did not have time to wait around” for her to find the phone number.
"The subject was being sought for a misdemeanor hit-and-run," Myerberg wrote in the report. "There were no exigent circumstances or injuries, and there was no information suggesting that the subject was an active threat to harm anyone or that he was armed.
“Moreover, (the officer) was not asked to immediately apprehend the subject but only to try to locate him.”
Read the entire Office of Police Accountability report below.
The report stated that the evidence also shows the officer had already made up his mind to use the ruse before making contact with the complainant. It also stated that the officer never wrote up a supplemental report on the incident and there is no indication he ever relayed the hit-and-run driver’s phone number to anyone.
The Seattle Police Department allows officers to use their own discretion when determining whether a ruse of some kind is needed to further an investigation, but there are guidelines to follow. According to the department's policy on employee conduct, officers are allowed to use deception for "specific and lawful" purposes if:
· "There is an exigent threat to life safety or public safety,
· "It is necessary due to the nature of the employee's assignment,
· Or "there is a need to acquire information for a criminal investigation."
"Even if a ruse was permissible under the circumstances of this case, the specific ruse used here shocked fundamental fairness," Myerberg wrote. "The crime at issue was a misdemeanor with no injuries. The subject was not believed to be armed, was not being sought as an imminent threat to safety, and was not a fleeing felon."
Falsely telling the complainant the man had likely killed someone “shocked the conscience and, in OPA’s opinion, was inconsistent with the community’s expectations of (the officer’s) conduct,” the report stated.
Myerberg wrote that the officer acted “without any apparent consideration of the possible consequences that could flow from his use of the ruse.”
The officer was adamant that he was not responsible for the man’s suicide, which he described as an unforeseeable result.
"Even if OPA agreed with this, it was not unforeseeable that the complainant would notify the subject of the officers' assertion that he critically injured the woman and that the woman was likely to die," Myerberg's report stated. "It was also not unforeseeable that this would cause the subject and others significant distress. Indeed, we know from witness accounts that it did exactly that."
Myerberg sustained the allegation that the officer failed to use his discretion in a reasonable manner and within proportion to the severity of the crime being addressed, as required by departmental policy. He also sustained the allegation that the officer failed to be professional.
“This incident clearly undermined public trust in the department and in (the offending officer) by multiple individuals, including the complainant, the roommate, and the friend,” the report stated. “They were shocked and upset that SPD officers could engage in such actions.
“(The officer) is correct that the subject … ultimately made the decision to take his own life. However, the witnesses to this case all establish that this decision was based, potentially solely, on the subject’s belief that he had killed someone.”
Myerberg found that, "While (the officer's) ruse was perhaps not the legal cause of the suicide, a preponderance of the evidence supports a finding that, had the ruse not been used, it is likely that the suicide would not have occurred."
The name of the man who committed suicide was withheld from the report.