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Wash. sheriff pledges policy changes following backlash over sergeant’s conduct during arrest

“I need to make sure that I have someone whose primary job is to take a look at use-of-force incidents and examine them thoroughly,” Sheriff John Nowels said

By Emma Epperly
The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels plans to change how his office reviews cases involving uses of force following the recent disclosure of a violent encounter in Spokane Valley involving one of his sergeants and a 61-year-old man sleeping in his car after hours in the parking lot of a city park last August.

Nowels updated the Spokane Valley City Council on the situation and took questions from council members during a Tuesday evening public meeting.

The case involving Sgt. Clay Hilton is under investigation by the Spokane Police Department after a video of him arresting Kevin Hinton in the parking lot of Terrace View Park surfaced earlier this month. Hinton was left with eight broken ribs, a punctured lung and a bloodied face.

All charges against Hinton were dropped when his attorneys brought the body camera footage to prosecutors’ attention.

“It’s important to understand and for me to reiterate that we in the sheriff’s office and obviously you as the City of Spokane Valley really believe that we have to uphold public trust,” Nowels said. “It is intrinsic and necessary for law enforcement to maintain public trust with its citizens, and that is something that we take very seriously, and of course all of the authority we have derives from the citizens that we serve.”

Nowels acknowledged that the video was “understandably alarming,” but that he could not allow his emotions to drive his actions and instead must wait for SPD to complete its independent criminal investigation.

Once complete, the sheriff’s office will do its own internal affairs investigation. Then, Nowels will determine whether Hilton broke any sheriff’s office policies and procedures.

“When we see video, there’s an entire investigation that develops evidence outside of video, with statements and things like that, that must be considered to be fair to all of the parties involved,” Nowels said. “And that’s why we wait.”

In the meantime, Nowels has planned some changes to operations in the department.

Council member Laura Padden asked why Nowels wasn’t notified about the August incident until the end of September.

Nowels said he couldn’t speak to this specific situation but does plan to make changes, including the creation of a new lieutenant position in the internal affairs division to review uses of force.

“We are in the process of rerouting where some of our use-of-force reports go to get a little more scrutiny and to ensure that something like this isn’t missed again,” Nowels said.

Uses of force are reviewed by the patrol lieutenants on duty and a subject matter expert, who are often overwhelmed with other duties, he said.

The new position will help create more timely and in-depth reviews.

“I need to make sure that I have someone whose primary job is to take a look at use-of-force incidents and examine them thoroughly,” he said.

This is the first time the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has had a controversy involving body camera footage since deputies began wearing cameras in January 2022. The body camera policy only dates back a year, but was based on similar policies at other area agencies.

Councilmember Ben Wick asked what the policies are surrounding the muting of body cameras. Several deputies turned off the sound of their body cameras at various points while on scene of the August incident.

There is a policy that allows audio to be muted when deputies are discussing tactics or if they have probable cause or for other investigative issues, but Nowels said muting may be happening too often.

“We felt that maybe that functionality was being overused,” Nowels said. “So we are looking at tightening that up.”

He is working with the Deputy Sheriff Association to modify the policy.

“I think that would be beneficial,” Wick said.

“So do we,” Nowels responded.

It’s the first time Nowels has dealt with excessive force allegations involving one of his deputies since being elected sheriff last year.

Nowels has limited his public statements on the advice of legal council. The practice may be the result of a more than $19 million jury award to a former deputy in a defamation lawsuit against former sheriff Ozzie Knezovich last year over statements Knezovich made following allegations the deputy used a racial slur.

Hilton remains under investigation by the Spokane Police Department. Hinton intends to file a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, his attorney Josh Maurer said.

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(c)2023 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)
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