Police reform tool rarely used by local prosecutors

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SEATTLE – Isaiah Obet was behaving erratically and in mental distress in 2017 when Constable Jeff Nelson ordered his police dog to attack, then shot Obet in the chest. Obet fell to the ground and Nelson fired again, fatally shooting Obet in the head. The officer said his life was in danger.

The following year, Joseph Allen was crossing in front of Nelson’s squad car when the officer swerved and slammed him against a fence, breaking both of his ankles. His justification: Allen was a dangerous criminal.

In 2019, Nelson got into a fight with Jesse Sarey after trying to arrest him for disorderly conduct. He hit Sarey seven times, then shot him in the chest. After Sarey fell to the ground, Nelson killed him with a second bullet to the forehead. He claimed Sarey was on all fours “ready to pounce forward”, which was later refuted by video and witnesses.

Nelson’s actions in all three cases were described in a criminal complaint, eyewitness testimony and a police dash cam video obtained by The Associated Press. Over the past decade, Nelson has been investigated in more than 60 use of force cases involving the suffocation of suspects until they passed out, severe dog bites and physical strength requiring medical attention. But he was not on the King County District Attorney’s list to flag officers whose credibility is in doubt due to misconduct – a designation that must be shared with defense attorneys.

Nelson was not added to his “potential arraignment disclosure” list, or Brady’s list, until after he was accused of killing Sarey. A trial is scheduled for February 2022. Mohammad Hamoudi, a federal public defender, said given Officer Nelson’s history, all of his cases should be reviewed. And he hopes his story will encourage prosecutors to follow cases of excessive force involving other police officers.

“It has to do with respecting the rules, the laws and the like,” he said. “If an officer lacks impulse control or the ability to exercise informed judgment, you may question the way he investigates cases.”

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked a nationwide conversation about police reform, ranging from funding departments to improving training. But reform activists and civil rights advocates say prosecutors already have powerful tools to tackle bad police behavior. .

The AP found that prosecutors sometimes do not even compile the lists and that large disparities in related offenses are widespread across the country, with excessive force often not worth including.

The AP also found that many prosecutors and police unions went to great lengths to keep Brady List’s information from becoming public.

Today, defense attorneys, public defenders, civil rights groups and even some prosecutors are calling for increased use of Brady’s lists and an expansion of offenses that will result in a police officer on them, while the police unions resist these efforts.

Amy Parker of the King County Department of Public Defense said it was imperative that the officers’ stories of violence be exposed.

“As a career lawyer, I have regularly listened to prosecutors say that defendants who have previously used illegal force / violent crimes are more prone to violence and lack credibility,” he said. she stated in an email. “If prosecutors apply this standard to defendants, the same standard should apply to police when judging their conduct.”

King County District Attorney Dan Satterberg says excessive force doesn’t make an officer less credible. “An officer who has been accused of using too much force in an unrelated arrest has nothing to do with the indictment of their veracity,” he said.

The Brady Lists derive from a 1963 Supreme Court decision in Brady v. Maryland forcing prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys, including information that could be used to question officers’ credibility. But the decision did not set out the steps prosecutors and law enforcement agencies must take to ensure that defendants are informed or if lists of troubled officers must be kept.

The result, critics say, is a mishmash of policies that vary from state to state – and even jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Prosecutors in Atlanta, Chicago, Tulsa and Pittsburgh told the AP they did not track officers with disciplinary issues, and prosecutors in Milwaukee only listed officers who were convicted of crimes.

The Dallas County District Attorney’s list contained 192 names, with offenses ranging from misrepresenting to convictions for theft, assault and impaired driving. The Suffolk County, Massachusetts attorney’s list included officers from Boston who had lied on their timesheets or embezzled funds. The Orleans, Louisiana parish attorney followed officers who committed crimes, lied or drove dangerously, but not violent arrests.

Dishonesty puts an officer on the roster in Detroit, Denver, and Seattle, but the use of excessive force does not.

The Phoenix District Attorney, along with Orange County, Florida and Los Angeles prosecutors, were among the few people the PA found to include cases of excessive use of force on their lists.

“It’s like there’s a huge continuum and the result is you don’t have the same procedures followed not just across the country but in individual states,” said Will Aitchison, attorney at Portland, in Oregon, Labor Relations Information Systems, which represents officers after appealing disciplinary orders.

Some states have attempted to pass legislation that would address the inconsistency, including the Washington state legislature, which this year approved a bill requiring county attorneys to develop written protocols for collecting potential information. on impeachment by July 2022.

The California Legislature last year approved a bill requiring prosecutors to maintain a list of officers with “sustained findings of conduct of moral turpitude or group bias,” but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the measure because of the cost of a state mandate. “

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Email the AP Global Investigation Team at [email protected] or https://www.ap.org/tips/. See other work at https://www.apnews.com/hub/ap-investigations.

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Follow AP investigative reporter Martha Bellisle at https://twitter.com/marthabellisle



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