Policies govern how Tukwila Police officers use force

Tukwila Police officers knew as they approached the UPS freight facility on East Marginal Way in August 2014 that a man acting strangely had just pushed several people in the yard.

Tukwila Police Chief Mike Villa

Tukwila Police officers knew as they approached the UPS freight facility on East Marginal Way in August 2014 that a man acting strangely had just pushed several people in the yard.

Trespassing, he had been told to leave, but he didn’t. The freight yard is fenced and has limited ways in and out. Later he would charge in a civil-rights lawsuit that an officer punched him in the head several times with his fists and he was tased by another and that K-9 officer Ace bit him.

The question is: Did the officers use excessive force to take the suspect into custody? An internal review by the Tukwila Police Department administrators showed that the two officers followed the department’s use-of-force policies.

The Tukwila Police Department has adopted industry-wide, use-of-force policies that meet national accreditation standards. The policies can be modified to reflect local situations and legal precedents.

“Officers shall use only that amount of force that reasonably appears necessary given the facts and circumstances perceived by the officer at the time of the incident to accomplish a legitimate law enforcement purpose,” states the Tukwila Police Department’s use-of-force policy.

The U.S. Constitution and federal laws protect individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The department does at least two practical, hands-on use-of-force trainings a year for its officers, said Police Chief Mike Villa. The department’s K-9 Units receive hundreds of hours of training, he said.

The National Institute of Justice on its website explains that the “continuum” of force starts with an officer’s mere presence and could end with lethal action. In between are verbal commands, punching or kicking and use of pepper spray or a Taser.

A common goal is “pain compliance,” using the appropriate tactic if the situation escalates.

The city of Tukwila in recent years has settled a number of use-of-force lawsuits, including three for about $675,000.

Excessive use-of-force complaints have become a major issue for police departments across the country.

Much of what happened during the incident at the UPS freight facility was recorded on an officer’s Coban camera mounted in his police cruiser. Police command staff carefully reviewed the footage and read the officers’ reports, which included one on use of force.

Even the police video of the UPS incident “doesn’t look good,” said Villa, until you have all the background and every detail of the “dynamic” situation is understood.

“You have to look at it carefully, but he [the suspect, Linson Tara] actually forms a fist with his left hand. He spins and turns on the officers,” Villa said in an interview.

The officer had to base decisions on the suspect’s initial resistance to officers, and now, on the fact he has turned on them. Also, what the video doesn’t show is the suspect reaching around the officer’s gunbelt, Villa said.

Villa said the officer considered, “Is he going for my weapon? What are the tools on my gunbelt that he might actually be trying to obtain?” The chief added the officer can’t stop to look at the video or observe what else is happening.

“He’s responding to what [the subject’s] actions are,” Villa said.

Officers arrested the suspect and took him to a hospital, where he admitted he had used “bad” crystal methamphetamine, the city of Tukwila wrote in its response to the lawsuit.

Following Police Department policy, the officers filled out a use-of-force form, which is reviewed by a police commander, the deputy chief and by Villa. The review found that officers Brent Frank and Mike Boehmer followed the department’s use-of-force policies.

Still, the City of Tukwila settled the civil-rights lawsuit with the suspect, Linson Tara, for $100,000. There were reasons to settle the lawsuit, Villa said, but not because the officers were guilty.

“That’s what people think, if you settle, you are guilty. That is really frustrating for us, because in many of these cases that’s not the case,” Villa said.

The two officers weren’t disciplined because there was no reason to do so, Villa said.

K-9 Officer Ace also followed his training, Villa said, after he was released remotely from Frank’s police vehicle.

“One of the things that the dogs are trained to do is protect their handler,” Villa said. “And so if their handler is in a struggle or a fight, the dog is trained to come and assist the officer.”

Police dogs are trained to bite and hold, but the lawsuit charged that Tara was bitten multiple times. In “a perfect world,” Villa said, where someone is standing still and not wearing baggy or heavy clothes, for example, the dog is able to make just one contact. In this case, “it took a minute to get some contact,” Villa said.

The city of Tukwila is insured through the Washington Cities Insurance Association. In many cases, the decision to settle is a business one, Villa said.

For example, the association may look at the cost to defend the city and the particular issues of the case. Also a factor is which federal district judge will hear the case. And then there are attorney fees on top of the settlement.

“Our review is (if) the officers’ use of force was actually within policy and training,” Villa said of the Frank/Boehmer lawsuit. “But looking at the case it was going to cost us a lot more money potentially.”

In another use-of-force case, the city agreed to a $300,000 settlement in June 2015 in a federal civil-rights lawsuit involving the use of pepper spray at a bus stop just west of Tukwila International Boulevard on South 144th Street.

Officers Zachary Anderson and Jacob Berry responded to an intoxicated man at a bus stop. Once in handcuffs, he refused to get into a police vehicle, despite warning he would be pepper sprayed if he didn’t. He refused and was pepper sprayed.

But before the trial ended, the city decided to settle the lawsuit, which Villa described as a business decision. The city and insurance company weren’t sure how the judge might decide in the case, based on comments made about use-of-force guidelines at the time of the trial, not when the incident occurred, according to Villa.

Anderson, now a sergeant, and Berry properly used the pepper spray under the policies in effect in 2011, which made pepper spray a low-level, pain-compliance tactic. In 2012, a federal appellate court changed that to an intermediate level.

The potential for higher attorney fees, which the city pays for itself and the plaintiff, was a key factor in the decision to settle, according to Villa.

Former Tukwila officer indicted on civil-rights charge

In a third case, former Tukwila Police Nicholas Hogan is facing a jury trial Aug. 8 on a federal civil-rights charges that he used excessive force on a suspect who has already in restraints at Haborview Medical Center in Seattle in May 2011. Hogan pleaded not guilty to the charge in May.

The indictment alleges that Hogan deployed his pepper spray, causing bodily home. If convicted, Hogan faces a maximum 10 years in prison for the civil-rights violation, as well as a potential $250,000 fine, according to the U.S. Department of Justice

Hogan was hired by the Snoqualmie Police Department in February 2014, two years after he was fired by the Tukwila Police Department.

The city of Tukwila wasn’t sued by “M.S.”, the initials of the victim used in the federal indictment of Hogan. However, the city had settled two use-of-force civil-rights lawsuits involving Hogan, for a total of $246,000.

Hogan was hired by the Tukwila Police Department in February 2009. Villa had just become chief in June 2011, when complaints and allegations began to surface about Hogan, including the incident at Harborview.

After considering whether the allegations were serious enough to put citizens at risk or expose the Police Department to liability, Villa placed Hogan on paid administrative leave.

Villa took Hogan’s firearm and badge and suspended his law-enforcement authority and began an internal investigation. In his letter firing Hogan in early 2012, Villa cited two use-of-force complaints, including the one involving “M.S.”, and code-of-conduct issues.

Although the Tukwila Police Department suspended his law-enforcement authority, Hogan still retained his certification to serve as a police officer in Washington state, which means another department could hire him.

The Washington Criminal Justice Commission can revoke that certification, for such things as lying or dishonesty or criminal behavior, but excessive use of force is not one of the reasons, Villa explained.

In the first three years or so as police chief, Villa said he’s terminated officers whose misconduct impacted “our ability to do our job” and is a “blemish” on law enforcement.

In some cases officers were allowed to resign, rather than be fired, he said, following internal investigations.

“There are other officers where they shouldn’t be an officer somewhere else, in my opinion,” he said. “So those officers don’t get an option. They are terminated. There have been a few.”

But in the last two years he hasn’t seen that same type of misconduct, he said.

“I think we have a really good police department,” he said. “We are trying to hire officers who have the core values that we are looking for, so that we are bringing the right officers into the department.”

Then, the department tries to retain those officers.

“I think that’s been paying some dividends in the officers we have working for us now,” he said.



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