Spokane sheriff wants more scrutiny of use-of-force incidents

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(The Center Square) – Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels said Tuesday that he wants increased scrutiny of use-of-force incidents involving deputies within the agency.

To that end, Nowels said he intends to assign a lieutenant to the internal affairs department who is specifically tasked to review such incidents and ensure proper reviews and reporting. That personnel decision comes in the aftermath of an August incident during which a 62-year-old man was hospitalized with injuries following a confrontation with deputy Sgt. Clay Hilton.

The incident occurred within the city of Spokane Valley, and Nowels made his comments as a briefing update to Spokane Valley city council members during their regular meeting Tuesday. He was accompanied by police chief Dave Ellis, who is also an undersheriff with Nowels’ office.

Hilton’s body camera video of his run-in with citizen Kevin Hinton has been publicly released and Nowels acknowledged that the footage is “understandably alarming.”

The audio portion was apparently turned off, but Hinton appears beaten with a torn shirt and bloodied face. On that evening, after parking his vehicle in a lot, Hinton was approached by Hilton, who said he couldn’t be there. Their dispute escalated, with Hilton later saying in a report that he thought Hinton was attempting to retrieve a knife from his vehicle. The deputy struck Hinton several times before taking him into custody as other officers arrived.

Hinton was initially transported to the Spokane County Jail but staff refused to book him due to his injuries. He was then taken to a local hospital and admitted for treatment of multiple broken ribs, a punctured lung and facial lacerations.

Nowels told Spokane Valley officials that he was not informed of the incident – which he called “significant” – until early October. The following day, he said, Hilton was placed on paid administrative leave pending an independent investigation which remains ongoing by the Spokane Police Department. Nowels said he is not involved in that process and unaware of its current status.

When completed, Spokane police will submit a report to Spokane County prosecutor Larry Haskell’s office for review and consideration of any potential criminal charges, said Nowels.

Regardless of that outcome, the sheriff said his office would then conduct its own internal review to determine if any department procedures or policies had been violated and whether disciplinary action was warranted.

But Nowels said he intended to wait “for all the information” to be presented before making any determination on deputy Hilton’s conduct and that he “can’t allow emotion to drive my decisions.”

Nowels also noted that Hinton has retained legal counsel to pursue civil litigation over the incident, and that a law enforcement citizens’ advisory board has received some information for review and consideration of future recommendations.

Along with increased scrutiny by internal affairs of use-of-force conduct, Nowels said his administration is reviewing a policy that allows deputies to turn off the audio portion of their body cameras at certain times. In some instances, like discussing tactics with other officers, that is justified, said Nowels. But he feels the practice “is overused” and there should be consideration in “tightening that up.”

It is vital, said the sheriff, for law enforcement “to maintain public trust with citizens.”

Nowels said he intends to keep Spokane Valley officials periodically updated when certain significant events occur, such as completion of the Spokane police investigation, when his office’s internal investigation starts, and the outcome of both.

Last week, Spokane Valley Mayor Pam Haley said Nowels had been asked to address city officials over concerns about the incident.

Without commenting on its specifics, Haley said, “Public safety is our highest priority” and that the city – which contracts with the county for additional law enforcement coverage – expects “the highest standards” from officers.

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