As two Seattle police officers approached a home linked to a driver who had fled a hit-and-run, they discussed using a ruse to get information from the suspect.
“It’s a lie, but it’s fun,” one of the officers told his partner, according to a later report.
When a woman answered the door and said the suspect wasn’t there, the officer used the ruse by telling her that a person was near death after the suspect left the scene of a collision that day. The woman was shaken and later told the suspect what the police had said, according to a government report on the 2018 incident first reported by the Seattle Times.
The woman later uncovered the officer’s deceit, but not before unexpected tragedy struck: The suspect ended his own life less than a week after police visited the home. Now the officer has been disciplined after a police watchdog group found that his lie at least partly caused the suspect’s suicide.
Andrew Myerberg, director of the city’s Office of Police Accountability, wrote in his report that the ruse was impermissible under the circumstances and that the officer’s use of it “shocked the conscience.” Myerberg also suggested that Seattle police train officers on when ruses are and are not appropriate.
The officer said it was unfortunate that the suspect had killed himself but that he was not responsible for the suicide, according to the report. The document did not name anyone involved in the incident.
Police Chief Carmen Best suspended the officer for six days without pay, the department said in a statement.
“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,” the police force said. The statement added that officers were trained in 2019 on the appropriate use of ruses in criminal investigations.
Seattle’s police policy requires that officers be truthful, except when there is a pressing threat to a person’s or the public’s safety, information is needed for a criminal probe or untruthfulness is required by the nature of the officer’s assignment. Police across the country frequently use ruses to trick suspects into offering evidence or admitting guilt, according to the Harvard Law Review.
The series of events that led to the man’s suicide began on May 28, 2018, when several cars got into a crash that did not cause any injuries, according to the Office of Police Accountability report. Officers determined that the man who fled the scene was associated with a home on the other side of the city, and they asked police from that precinct to go there to get a statement from the suspect.
The woman who answered the door told the officers that the driver was an old friend of hers and that she let him register his car to her home because he did not have a permanent place to live, the report says. When the officers asked if she had the man’s phone number, she sat down on the stoop and began scrolling through her phone to look for it.
About 15 seconds later, one of the officers told the woman that they were looking for the man because “he was involved in a hit-and-run earlier that left a woman in critical condition, and he left her,” according to the report. The victim “might not survive,” the officer lied.
The officers left with the suspect’s phone number. Meanwhile, the woman tracked down the man, told him what the police said and suggested that he hire a lawyer, according to the report.
The man said he did not think anyone had been injured in the collision, but he became increasingly worried as time passed. He had been addicted to heroin for almost 20 years and had previous legal issues, the report says.
The suspect searched for information about a fatal hit-and-run and assumed that he did not find anything because police were withholding it pending the outcome of a criminal probe, according to the report.
One of the man’s friends lectured him about the lengthy jail sentence that he could face if he had killed someone. The man was crying the last time that his friend saw him, the report says. People believed that he had fatally struck someone but did not remember it.
The suspect left a bag of belongings and money on a shelf in his friend’s garage with a note that read, “If you don’t see me, keep this stuff,” the report says. He also asked his roommate if it was normal to think about suicide, and the roommate said that it was.
The next day, she found the man dead in his room.
The roommate, the friend, the woman at the house and the suspect’s mother all decided to further investigate the hit-and-run, including requesting body-worn camera footage. They discovered that the man did not kill anyone in what was actually a minor fender bender. In March, the woman reported the officer’s lie to the Office of Police Accountability.
The officer’s partner told investigators that when the officer told the woman that a victim was critically injured in the crash, she initially thought that she had misread notes about the incident. She said she remembered that the collision did not cause any injuries and that the hit-and-run was a misdemeanor. She told investigators that the woman cooperated with their requests and that the ruse had been unnecessary.
The officer who lied provided a different interpretation of events: the woman at the door was uncooperative and “kind of impeding the investigation.” He said that he used the ruse while the woman was scrolling through her phone because he did not have time to wait for her to find the number.
The officer said he had been trained on using ruses and knew that they could not “shock fundamental fairness.” In his case, however, he said the lie had been appropriate and that he had not abused his discretion.