Auburn police officer still on payroll while awaiting murder trial

City has not conducted an internal investigation of Jeffrey Nelson and the related 2019 shooting.

Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson is awaiting trial for second-degree murder and assault in the first degree related to the May 31, 2019, shooting death of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey.

Nelson remains under house arrest, preparing for a trial that may not wrap until 2024 — while the city of Auburn and its taxpayers continue to pay him $100,000 a year.

Diana Johnson, a volunteer with the Auburn Police Advisory Committee (PAC), told the Auburn City Council on Monday evening that when PAC members informed Auburn’s taxpayers and voters about Nelson’s status and pay, “an overwhelming number of voters and taxpayers” objected.

“The city and chief have acknowledged Officer Nelson will not be able return to duty in Auburn, even if found innocent,” Johnson said. “In addition to paying a full-time salary to an officer who is not, and will not, be protecting our city, keeping Officer Nelson employed prevents the department from hiring someone to fill that spot.”

Johnson, who addressed the council during the time allotted for public comment, stressed that she was not speaking out to offer her own opinion, only to share with city leaders a few things the PAC has learned since February 2023.

A related fact that recently came to the PAC’s attention, Johnson said, is that most residents of Auburn are unaware that the Auburn Police Department has not yet conducted an internal investigation of Officer Nelson’s conduct in the death of Jesse Sarey, and that’s why he is still employed and receiving pay.

“Although it is common for internal investigations to happen after criminal investigations,” Johnson continued, “that is a matter of choice and not policy, and a delay of several years in the criminal trial is unprecedented, so the PAC has since recommended, based on community response, that the APD move forward with the internal investigation.”

In a meeting with Mayor Nancy Backus, Johnson said, Backus told PAC members that an outside attorney hired by the city’s insurance pool had advised the city not to complete an internal investigation yet because there is no language in the collective bargaining agreement regarding a murder charge in an officer-involved shooting.

According to Johnson, the mayor asserted that a lawsuit from the police union could potentially cost the city its insurance, or perhaps tank its status as a city.

“Again, even with this additional information, the overwhelming response from the community members I and other PAC members spoke with is that they do not want their tax dollars to continue going to the salary of an officer on trial for murder. Even many members of the community who believe Officer Nelson is innocent have said that they do not think he should continue to be employed by the department,” Johnson said.

The PAC, Johnson noted, did not ask for a specific decision respecting Nelson’s employment status, but only advised the city and its police department to use the tool currently at their disposal — that is, conduct the internal investigation.

“This could be a strong step to building trust for our police department in Auburn, especially with our marginalized community groups,” Johnson said. “In April we were told again that there is no plan to start an internal investigation until the trial is concluded. I want to inform you on record that there is still a frustration in the community, and that PAC members are asked regularly about it.”

Nelson is the first officer in Washington to be charged with murder since the passage of Initiative 940, which changed the standard for holding police criminally liable for excessive use of force.

Nearly four years since the death of Sarey, and three years since prosecutors charged Nelson, Nelson’s trial has been delayed three times. A new trial date has not yet been set after his last trial date — scheduled for Feb. 22, 2023 — was delayed again. Nelson’s last hearing for a status conference at the King County Superior Court was on March 31.