The Seattle Office of Police Accountability (OPA) concluded late last year that a Seattle police officer's decision to lie about the victims of a car crash led the offending driver to commit suicide. The Seattle Times reported this week that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) responded to the finding by suspending the officer in question for only six days without pay.
The SPD's East Precinct officers were investigating a hit-and-run collision in May 2018. No injuries were sustained in the crash and the vehicles involved were still drivable. The East Precinct tasked two officers from the Southwest Precinct to locate the offending driver as records indicated that the driver might live in the area. The report says the Southwest Precinct officers were "aware that they were investigating a hit and run collision with no injuries."
Prior to approaching the residence, one of the officers said he would use a ruse in the questioning, saying, "it's a lie, but it's fun." A woman answered the door and informed the officers that while she knew the driver, he did not live at the house. He was a friend and she allowed him to register his car at her address since he didn't have a fixed residence.
The unnamed officer told the woman that her friend "was involved in a hit and run earlier that left a woman in critical condition and he left her." The officer added that the woman "might not survive."
The OPA, which issued a report in November 2019 about the unnamed officer's actions, reviewed body camera footage from the interaction. It noted that the woman was "clearly emotionally affected by the information provided to her."
The woman contacted her friend and repeated the story provided by the officer. She advised that he get an attorney and speak with his mother. At first, the driver was unconcerned as he did not recall being in an injury-causing collision. He said he had, at most, a "minor fender-bender." When they spoke again the next day, the driver became more concerned that he hit someone without realizing it.
OPA also noted that the driver was a heroin addict and had previous trouble with the law. The driver denied to a friend that he was high at the time of the collision as he had a new job and was saving money. Both he and the woman attempted to find more information about the crash, but grew concerned when they couldn't find anything. They thought the lack of information meant it was being held for a criminal investigation. The driver "seemed increasingly despondent regarding the collision and the possibility that he had killed someone," according to the OPA.
The woman called another friend, who reached out to the driver about the collision. The second friend recalled the driver crying on the last day they saw each other. The driver left a bag of his personal belongings and addressed a note to the second friend, saying, "If you don't see me, keep this stuff."
Believing that he caused a severe injury that he couldn't recall, the driver committed suicide. His body was found on June 3, 2018. His family and friends continued to believe the version of events shared by the officer until they did their own investigation. After realizing the officer embellished his story, the woman who was initially interviewed by police contacted OPA on March 12, 2019.
During the investigation, the officer told OPA that he was aware that ruses, while allowable, were not supposed to "shock fundamental fairness." He also maintained that the woman was "kind of impeding the investigation," even though OPA found that the woman went through her phone when asked about a way to contact the driver. The officer responded to this by saying he didn't have time to wait for the information.
OPA determined that even if the driver hadn't committed suicide, the officer "engaged in unprofessional behavior" by using the ruse. OPA also concluded that the ruse "ultimately contributed" to the driver's suicide.
Chief Carmen Best agreed with the findings and suspended the officer for six days without pay, Detective Patrick Michaud of SPD Public Affairs confirmed to Reason.
"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," he said. "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 Times, which initially broke the story, reached out to the department to uncover Best's rationale for the sentence. The Times reports that the department declined to provide a disciplinary action report. The department also declined to disclose the names of the officer and the driver.