Family members of people killed by Auburn police officer Jeff Nelson are speaking out about the department using a photo of Nelson on a recruitment banner at Petpalooza.
On Saturday, May 21, Auburn held its Petpalooza festival at Game Farm Park, drawing hundreds of people to the city. The police department had a recruitment booth set up with a large banner that featured a prominent photo of Nelson under text encouraging people to join the department.
Nelson is currently awaiting trial for the 2019 assault and murder of Jesse Sarey. Nelson shot Sarey point-blank twice after attempting to arrest Sarey for jaywalking. Sarey was the third person Nelson shot and killed in just over a decade at the Auburn Police Department.
Nelson previously shot and killed Brian Scaman in 2011 and Isaiah Obet in 2017. The City of Auburn has agreed to pay millions of dollars in wrongful death settlements to the families of Obet and Sarey.
Elaine Simons, Sarey’s foster mother, said the fact Auburn police used a photo of her foster son’s killer was disheartening.
“I thought it was in disregard to not only the Sarey family but also to Brian Scaman and Isaiah Obet’s family,” Simons said. “How can you be at a Petpalooza and have a total disregard that you’ve got a police officer who’s been charged with a horrific crime? It was disheartening. It was another slap in the face.”
Simons said the families of the people Nelson are owed an apology for the department’s poor judgment. The use of Nelson’s image on recruiting materials also raised concerns over the type of police officer the department is looking to attract.
“Having him [Nelson] as the poster child, is that the kind of police you’re looking for?” Simons said.
Kolby Crossley, the Auburn Police Department’s spokesperson, said the banner was old and that the department won’t use it again. The department is currently working on making new banners, Crossley said. Crossley did not say who made the decision to use the banner.
Auburn Police Chief Mark Caillier did not respond to a request for comment on the situation. As of press time, Nelson still appears in the group photo on the Auburn Police Department’s Twitter account.
Simons wasn’t the only person upset by the department’s decision to use Nelson’s image on promotional materials. Brian Scaman’s sister, Dawn Yancey, also spoke out.
“It’s almost like they’re promoting bad policing by putting him on there,” Yancey said. “It’s kind of disrespectful to all the families. They said it’s an old poster, but they know who Nelson is.”
Jeff Trimble, the person who took the photo and brought the banner to Simons’ attention, said the banner raised concerns about accountability and the department’s sensitivity to such serious issues.
“I thought it was extremely insensitive to knowingly or unknowingly use the accused indicted Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson, who is on trial for murder and misconduct,” Trimble said. “As a citizen of Auburn, I wonder if there is accountability in City Hall.”
Yancey also said the department owes an apology to the families of individuals who were harmed or killed by Nelson.
The three people Nelson killed aren’t the only ones he did harm, Yancey pointed out. Internal records show that Nelson used violence against at least 92 civilians in a span of about 10 years. The majority of people Nelson used violence against required medical attention, according to police records.
Records indicate that on multiple occasions, Nelson strangled people until they lost consciousness, tased people and let his K-9 attack people who were suspects of low-level nonviolent crimes.
In some cases, the people Nelson violently assaulted weren’t suspects of any crime, according to police department records.
For example, on Feb. 26, 2017, while Nelson was helping a casino eject a customer, a man bumped into Nelson, according to police records. In response to being bumped, police records say that Nelson attacked the man from behind, put him in a stranglehold and slammed his body to the ground, and applied more pressure to the man’s neck until he lost consciousness.
Nelson’s attack on the civilian was so brutal that the man had to be transported to a local hospital to be treated for his injuries, according to police records. There are no records indicating Nelson was ever investigated for misconduct relating to this assault on a bystander. In fact, Nelson was never disciplined by the Auburn Police Department for his use of violence against citizens in Auburn.
Nelson is currently on electric home monitoring, or house arrest, awaiting his trial for the murder and assault of Sarey. His trial was recently pushed back at the request of his defense and is now expected to start in January 2023.
Nelson is the first police officer to be charged with murder in Washington since the passage of I-940, which changed the standards for prosecuting police.