Crime

Police officers fired after telling Tacoma woman to beat her grandson with a belt. Charges pending

It took more than a year, but two Tacoma police officers have been fired for allegedly urging a 54-year-old woman to beat her 9-year-old grandson with a belt in June 2017.

The two officers, Damion Birge and Jesse Jahner, also face possible unspecified criminal charges following an investigation by the Washington State Patrol.

The case was sent to the Thurston County prosecutor’s office in September 2017 to avoid potential conflicts of interest locally. Since then it has hovered in administrative limbo.

Asked to explain the delayed decision, Thurston County deputy prosecutor Jeffrey Lippert cited employee turnover and bureaucratic complexity. He suggested a charging decision could come in January.

“It’s been delayed significantly, yes,” said Lippert, the county’s chief criminal deputy. “(But) we believe we are ready to make a charging decision.”

Birge and Jahner were terminated by Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell following a separate internal investigation. That decision took effect Oct. 24, according to police spokeswoman Loretta Cool. By that point, the two officers had spent 16 months on paid administrative leave.

“The investigation is complete and they have been terminated,” Cool said Thursday.

The State Patrol completed its criminal investigation in September 2017 and forwarded it to Thurston County, according to Lt. Randy Hullinger.

The News Tribune requested records of the internal investigation by Tacoma police and the criminal investigation by the State Patrol. Both requests were denied.

Deputy City Attorney Michael Smith said the city could not release the internal investigation records because they included information related to the criminal investigation, which technically remained in active status pending a charging decision.

The original incident stemmed from a 911 call. The boy, diagnosed with developmental disabilities, had broken windows and smashed various items in his grandmother’s house after she stepped out for 20 minutes to fill a prescription. Two Catholic Community Services social workers had stayed with the boy.

The woman returned to find the house strewn with broken glass. The social workers were outside. The doors were locked. The woman entered the house and spoke to the boy, who held a pair of knives in his hands.

The two police officers arrived. They knew the boy from a previous contact that led to an involuntary commitment, according to a police report of the June 2017 incident. The mother told The News Tribune that the two officers reminded her of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble.

She asked them to take the boy to Remann Hall, Pierce County’s juvenile detention facility. The officers said the boy was too young.

She said that she had never physically disciplined her grandson and believed it was illegal to do so.

The officers told her otherwise. A police report written by Jahner states that he explained the state law governing corporal punishment and told the woman she could spank the boy with a belt.

The woman recalled officers asking her if she had a belt and telling her to use it.

“I handed it to them. They hit the table with it very hard, very loudly,” she told The News Tribune at the time. “They proceeded to tell me that I had to use my belt and beat my boy. They told me I had to, and they weren’t going to call an ambulance or anything.”

The police report written by Jahner gives a similar account.

“(The woman) asked us to physically discipline (the boy), and we told her, ‘No.’ (We) explained that it was her child and she had the right to discipline him for his actions.”

The woman remembers the officers saying, “You have to do this.”

“And I did it,” she told the newspaper in 2017. “I hit him with the belt. Of course my boy fought with me, because why wouldn’t he? I will never forgive myself.”

What accounts for the delay in filing criminal charges or declining to file them? The answer is complicated and hinges in part on state laws governing appointment of outside “special” prosecutors.

Such appointments must be made by the prosecutor in the county where the alleged crime occurred. Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist handled the appointment in 2017, but the assigned deputy prosecutor in Thurston County left the office and took another job elsewhere.

The departure created a roadblock. Another special deputy had to be appointed. Several months passed before Lindquist made the decision this past summer.

“There is a process we had to go through to get the reappointment,” said Lippert, the chief criminal deputy in Thurston County. “I’m not going to speculate as to why it took so long.”

The November election results added further delay, according to Lippert. Lindquist’s term ends in a few weeks. He’ll be replaced by Mary Robnett.

“At this point there is a change of prosecutor that’s going to happen in Pierce County, which is who asked us to handle this case,” Lippert said. “There will likely have to be a reappointment of the special prosecutor. When a new prosecutor comes and takes over, the new prosecutor needs to reappoint.”

Robnett, who has been preparing for the transition, said Thursday that Lippert’s description was accurate. She said she has surveyed several cases involving special prosecutors, including the incident related to the Tacoma officers, and plans to handle the reappointment swiftly.

“When I take office, I’ll be signing it,” she said.

The Tacoma woman at the center of the case said she has received recent calls from Thurston County, telling her she might have to testify against the officers. She’s waited for a year and a half.

“If justice can be served, we’ll do it,” she said Thursday. “We need closure.”

News Tribune investigative reporter Sean Robinson won the 2016 Ted Natt First Amendment award for ongoing scrutiny of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office. Since 2000, he has produced award-winning coverage related to criminal justice, government accountability and public disclosure.
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