Monday, October 26, 2009

Officer Troy Meade Charged with Manslaughter

Police officers in the United States rarely face criminal charges for using force in the line of duty.

The first-degree manslaughter charge filed Monday against Everett police officer Troy Meade is unprecedented in Snohomish County history.

Meade, an 11-year veteran, is accused of recklessly causing the death of Niles Meservey, 51. The officer fatally shot Meservey after he refused to get out of his car.

Speculation that Meade could be charged for his actions in the line of duty generated great concern among Everett police officers.

The weeks leading up to the decision have been hard on everyone, a longtime Everett police detective said, speaking on the condition that he not be identified.

The detective said he and other officers understand the importance of a thorough, careful investigation and an independent decision by prosecutors. On the other hand, they also worry that it may be difficult for anybody to truly understand the perspective of the officer involved in this case.

“Troy is in a position where he just has milliseconds to make a decision,” the detective said. “Everybody else has months and months to armchair-quarterback the incident.”

Everett police policy bars anyone from speaking about the matter, with the exception of the police chief or his designee, department spokesman Sgt. Robert Goetz said.

Goetz and Everett Police Chief Jim Scharf on Monday referred calls to Louis Peterson, a Seattle attorney representing Everett.

Peterson didn’t respond for requests for comments. Instead Everett city spokeswoman Kate Reardon sent out a written statement.

Because of pending litigation against the city and the charge against officer Meade, Reardon wrote, “The City and its police department cannot comment further at this time.”

She said, “For today, this is how we have to respond.”

Police are allowed to use force if the officer can reasonably justify that he or she perceives a threat, said David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis who studies use of force by police.

“It’s very rare that a police officer is indicted,” Klinger said.

In the vast majority of cases when police use their weapons, the suspect is armed with a knife, gun or other weapon, and someone’s life is in jeopardy, the professor said.

No organization nationally tracks officer-involved violence or the number of times police are charged, Klinger said.

“We don’t even know how many people the cops shoot in the U.S. every year,” he said. “If we don’t know how many time cops kill people, how many times they shoot people, we certainly don’t know how many times police are indicted.”

The most recent case of an officer facing criminal charges was the New Year’s Day shooting by police of an unarmed man at an Oakland, Calif., transit stop. Former Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle is charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Oscar Grant, 22. The case is working its way through the courts.

One Everett officer, again speaking so long as he isn’t identified, said there has been some concern that there may be public pressure to file charges against Meade given publicity about other recent police shootings here.

“Some sort of political call to action would be my concern,” the officer said.

Since November, a special task force of detectives has been called on five times to investigate deaths by law enforcement in Snohomish County.

There also is some concern that the decision to charge Meade will affect other officers’ decisions to use lethal force.

“Maybe it will be in the back of their minds and they’ll use less-than-lethal force when less-than-lethal is not appropriate,” the officer said.

Officers go through hours of training to identify when it’s reasonable to use deadly force. Being second-guessed again and again is difficult, he said.

Police increasingly are confronted with dangerous situations by people who may be armed, dangerous and ready to use violence against officers, said John Gray, a former Arlington Police chief, now an instructor of police training at Northwestern University in Chicago.

While the number of officers who are killed in the line of duty has either leveled off or dropped in recent years, assaults on officers have increased, Gray said.

The reduction in deaths likely is a result of improved protective gear and training, he said. Snohomish County and Western Washington are recognized as having superior training to many other areas of the country, he said.

Still, even with the very best policies and training, there are aberrations in performance.

“People change and they make bad decisions and they have to be held accountable,” he said.

Now that an officer has been charged, Everett’s department likely is going to look inward at its policies and procedures, Gray said.

It has been years since a police officer in Snohomish County has been accused of criminal conduct in a line-of-duty death, and that case didn’t result in charges.

In 1992, a member of the sheriff’s office SWAT team fatally shot Robin Marie Pratt during a raid on her Everett apartment. The team was there to arrest her husband on what proved to be bogus allegations that he had been involved in a fatal armored car robbery.

A six-member inquest jury spent three days hearing testimony from the SWAT team members and forensic experts. A majority of jurors determined the death of the unarmed woman was a criminal act, and they held one of the SWAT team members responsible.

No charges were filed by Greg Canova, the special prosecutor hired to decide how the case should be handled. He is now a King County Superior Court judge but then was a senior assistant state attorney general.

At the time, Canova said his nearly five-month review of Pratt’s shooting turned up no legal grounds to justify criminal charges. He interviewed the inquest jury members after their verdict and said most really believed no crime had occurred and were confused by jury instructions. Among other factors in the decision not to file charges was that the SWAT officer fired a single shot from the fully automatic weapon, Canova said. That indicated the officer didn’t intentionally shoot Pratt, he said.

Sgt. Cher Sneider Accused of Trying to Date Suspect

Police Sgt. Cher Sneider was demoted to patrol officer and suspended for 15 work days without pay on Monday after the Police and Fire Commission determined she tried to date a criminal suspect and then lied about it.

The commission stopped short of firing her, which acting Police Chief Daniel Meister had requested.

Sneider's demotion was warranted, commission members said, because her untruthfulness during the Police Department investigation and the commission hearing last week into her conduct undermined her ability to supervise.

Sneider was hired in January 2000 and has been a sergeant since November 2006. She was earning $68,910 annually as a sergeant. A top paid patrol officer in the department earns about $59,259 annually.

Meister had filed administrative charges against Sneider earlier this year, accusing her of lying and inappropriate conduct and sought her dismissal from the force.

According to the administrative charges filed against her, Sneider, while off duty on May 10, 2008, had an on-duty patrol officer access a secure police database to get Sneider the phone number of a man who was under investigation by the department.

Sneider, who has been on paid administrative leave since November 2008, thought the man was "hot" and wanted to call him so she could go out with him, according to the charging document and testimony at the hearing.

The man, identified only as John Doe in the document, was a city resident with a known criminal history with the department. At the time, city police were investigating him and his residence on suspicion of illegal activity, including illegal drugs, the charging document states.

Sneider made four calls with her personal cell phone to the man's residence on May 10, 2008, one call the following day and two calls on May 17, 2008, the document says. She also stopped at his home May 11, but he wasn't there, the document states.

Sneider, who testified during a two-day hearing last week, denied trying to have a relationship with the man and said she only contacted the suspect as part of an investigation into a noise complaint.

Sneider's attorney, Gordon McQuillen, said Monday that Sneider might appeal the discipline. He said evidence presented by Meister did not prove Sneider accessed Doe's number for personal reasons.

Commission members, in a seven-page decision, said Sneider's testimony was unconvincing.

"It is not credible that Sneider would be making legitimate and necessary police-related calls . . .  while out visiting a succession of taverns on a Saturday night and drinking alcoholic beverages. It is not believable that Sneider would pursue this issue off duty as late as 12:06 a.m. on Sunday morning, May 11, 2008, which is the time she made her last call to the Doe residence," the commission wrote.

Police Department rules require that officers engage in professional conduct, refrain from associating with people of questionable character, use city resources only for work and "speak the truth at all times."

A separate insubordination charge against Sneider was dismissed by the commission. That charge stemmed from her request to remove a laptop computer mount bracket from then-Chief Gary Bach's squad car to have it installed in her car. Meister earlier had issued an order that nothing be removed from Bach's squad, and Sneider was accused of ignoring the mandate.

The commission said it is disappointing that department personnel and commission time was spent looking into the laptop mount issue.

"The commission is concerned that this situation is symptomatic of poor management, system-wide disregard for authority and continuing deterioration in the chain of command with the police department. This matter should have been handled internally," the commission said.