Former SPD chief: Auburn cop Jeffrey Nelson’s past use of force was unreasonable

Former Seattle Police Chief James Pugel found over a dozen instances in which Auburn police officer Jeffrey Nelson needlessly escalated situations to use excessive force against people.

Prosecuting attorneys Mark Larson and Kathy Van Olst retained Pugel as an expert witness in Nelson’s trial for the assault and murder of Jesse Sarey in May 2019. As part of his testimony, Pugel examined 75 reports of Nelson’s use of force while working as an Auburn police officer.

Pugel worked in law enforcement for 37 years, served at every rank in the Seattle Police Department, and taught police use of force to all recruits while he was assigned to the Washington State Criminal Justice Commission.

After serving at the Chief of the Seattle Police Department, Pugel was hired as the Chief Deputy at the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO). During his time at the KCSO, Pugel was the chair of force-review board meetings. Pugel has reviewed hundreds of use of force reports.

When examining Nelson’s records, Pugel applied the “Graham standards” to each case in order to evaluate the reasonableness of Nelson’s use of force.

The Graham standards, which were established by the U.S. Supreme Court, consist of the following three criteria: the severity of the instant crime; the immediate threat posed by the subject to officers and others; and whether the subject was actively resisting or attempting to evade arrest by fleeing during the event.

After reviewing 75 use of force instances committed by Nelson, Pugel identified 17 cases that he determined did not meet the standards for reasonableness according to the Graham standards. In his report, Pugel discussed each of the 17 instances and detailed exactly what made Nelson’s use of force unreasonable in his opinion.

Pugel identified many instances in which Nelson stopped someone for either a non-violent misdemeanor or for no crime at all and ended up using high levels of force against them – and sometimes even lethal force.

In one incident, Nelson followed three people into a Safeway for no other reason than because there had been prior reports of shoplifting. Once inside the store, he contacted the three people and detained them without the suspicion there had been a crime committed, according to the report.

When Nelson tried to handcuff one of the men, he ran away and ended up hiding under a car. When Nelson found the man, he shocked the man with his Taser while he was under the car. Pugel said this level of force was unnecessary and concerning because the incident began when the three people were engaging in lawful activity.

“In my opinion, based on my training and experience, this incident does not meet the standards for reasonable use of force as established by Graham,” Pugel wrote. “The crime at issue was non-existent or minor at most. [The man] did not pose any danger to the officer or anyone else.”

In another instance, on March 2, 2014, Nelson witnessed a man “walking and failing to obey a traffic control device,” according to the report. This was a non-bookable infraction. Nelson ordered the man to stop and the man decided to run, which is considered obstruction.

Nelson then let his police dog, Koen, out of the patrol car and ordered Koen to attack the man. Koen caught and bit the man, who then surrendered. Pugel wrote in his report that he has “grave concerns” regarding Nelson’s actions.

“The application of a dog, which in generally accepted police practices is considered a serious/high level of force, is incredibly reckless against a person running from a pedestrian violation, without any other supporting information to lead the officer to believe that the person is a violent offender or about to commit a violent offense,” Pugel wrote.

The last case Pugel discussed in his report occurred on Nov. 1, 2018, and involved a man who was suspected of stealing cigarettes from a 7-Eleven convenience store and then fled from the investigating officer.

Nelson heard the suspect’s description broadcast and regained sight of the man. In his report, Nelson wrote he chose not to deploy his K9 dog, Koen, because of the lack of severity of the crime.

However, when he caught up to the man, Nelson threw him down to the ground, kneed him in the ribs, then put him in a “lateral vascular neck restraint” (LVNR) chokehold. Pugel notes that the chokehold Nelson used is considered to be lethal force because it can kill people.

Two other officers arrived while Nelson had the man in the LVNR chokehold, and they each grabbed one of the man’s arms. Despite other officers gaining control of the man, Nelson continued to hold the man in that restraint until he lost consciousness.

Pugel said Nelson’s application of the chokehold was unwarranted because the man didn’t pose a deadly threat to Nelson or anyone else.

“As mentioned in previous applications of force by Nelson in this report, the LVNR is considered a very high level of force and is considered in general police practices to be equivalent to potentially lethal force,” Pugel said. “Yes, the 5’7”, slightly built Bartley was resisting, but Nelson never mentioned a lethal threat observed by Bartley. This incident began as a theft of cigarettes.”

Pugel wrote that this LVNR chokehold was the same technique that New York police used to kill Eric Garner in 2014.

Ultimately, Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps will decide what evidence will be allowed into the trial, which is scheduled to begin in January 2023.

The killing of Jesse Sarey

In May 2019, Nelson shot and killed Jesse Sarey after attempting to arrest Sarey for jaywalking. Over a year later in 2020, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg filed assault and second-degree murder charges against Nelson for the killing of Sarey.

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.

Prior to Initiative 940, prosecutors had to prove a police officer acted with evil intent when they killed someone in the line of duty in order to charge that officer with murder — essentially an impossible standard to meet, Satterberg said.

Under Initiative 940, prosecutors now have to prove that a different, reasonable officer would not have used deadly force in the same situation.

Podcast: Judged by XII

Check out the latest installment in the podcast series Judged by XII, which examines the violent history of Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson.

Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson pleaded not guilty Monday to the May 31, 2019 shooting death of Jesse Sarey, 26. He maintains he acted in self defense. Auburn Police Department photo.

Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson pleaded not guilty Monday to the May 31, 2019 shooting death of Jesse Sarey, 26. He maintains he acted in self defense. Auburn Police Department photo.