Politics & Government

Two Shelton officers fired, but won’t face criminal charges after beating homeless man

The Mason County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office on Monday declined to press charges against two Shelton police officers who repeatedly struck, pepper sprayed and used a stun gun on a man who had been sleeping on a staircase behind a homeless shelter in May.

The decision runs counter to advice from Thurston County Sheriff’s Office investigators, who in July recommended assault charges after concluding the use of force that left 25-year-old Nicholas Heflin with a broken nose, eye injuries and broken bones in his face “was not necessary or reasonable.”

Earlier this month, the two officers, Justin Doherty and Matt Dickinson, were fired by the department after an internal investigation into the event, which was captured in part on the officers’ body cameras.

Michael Dorcy, the Mason County Prosecutor, said his office solicited advice from use-of-force and training experts who believed criminal charges weren’t warranted.

In a letter to the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, Dorcy said he questioned some of the decision making by the officers but said their actions weren’t inconsistent with training or unreasonable.

Dorcy wrote, “The burden of proof cannot be met to sustain criminal assault charges beyond all reasonable doubt in court.”

Heflin plans to file a roughly $15 million civil claim against the City of Shelton in the case by Tuesday evening, said his attorney Jeanette Boothe. Boothe, who runs her own Shelton-based firm, said Heflin was “quite emotional about the fact that (the police officers) were not going to be criminally charged.”

Boothe said she is exploring whether other legal options against the officers are possible, such as a federal criminal investigation.

“We think this is an egregious assault on this young man,” Boothe said. “And he’s certainly going to have lasting results from it.”

The two officers could not be immediately reached for comment. Their lawyer, Alan E. Harvey, told The News Tribune and The Olympian on Tuesday that his clients maintain they “acted within the training they have received at the Shelton Police Department, and acted within policy, and that they committed no crimes.”

“In short, Mr. Dorcy got it right, didn’t rush to judgment, and he didn’t succumb to public pressure to make a snap decision charging a crime until the investigation was completed,” Harvey wrote in an email to the two newspapers. “Unfortunately, the Chief of Police did succumb to public pressure, and, as a result, two officers were unjustly terminated.”

Dorcy and Shelton Police chief Darrin Moody were not immediate available for comment.

Heflin and Doherty are white, according to Shelton police and public records. Dickinson was identified in July as mixed race by police, who offered no further elaboration.

Altercation left man hurt

Doherty and Dickinson, who have roughly 15 and 10 years of experience, respectively, with the Shelton Police Department, found Heflin sleeping with his feet hanging off the staircase outside Community Lifeline homeless shelter in Shelton around 1:40 a.m. on May 25.

The letter from Dorcy notes Community Lifeline was closed that evening, and the officers had previously been asked to move people away from the area when the shelter isn’t open.

Dorcy wrote the officers had a “reasonable suspicion” Heflin was trespassing.

After asking Heflin to come down from the top of the staircase three times, they climbed up to engage him. Body-camera footage shows the officers asking Heflin, curled in the fetal position, to wake up and show his hands.

Doherty, shining a light in Heflin’s face, said: “I’m going to tell you one more time to show me your hands, or I’m going to pepper spray you.”

Doherty then pepper sprayed Heflin after he “appears to rotate his torso and moved his left hand up near his head,” Dorcy wrote.

Heflin said he did not comply at first because he was asleep, according to police reports.

After being sprayed, Heflin showed his hands briefly before rolling on his stomach while facing away from the officers and flashing his palms backwards at police while coughing.

He then sprung from his stomach to his knees, still facing away from the officers and coughing.

Doherty then “jumps onto” Heflin, “forcing him into the corner of the landing,” according to the Thurston County report.

The report notes Heflin can be heard “yelling, ‘Dude, dude, dude, my neck, dude, my neck.’”

Soon after, both body cameras go dark — the officers said the cameras fell off in the struggle — but they continued recording sounds of the incident.

The Thurston County report states Heflin was “screaming for help” and that “the sound of someone being struck” could be heard.

Less than a minute later, one of the officers shocked Heflin with a stun gun, after which he continues “to scream for help,” the report states. Because of the clothing Heflin was wearing, the dart discharged from the stun gun did not pierce his skin, but he later told investigators he remembered being shocked, records state.

After a few more minutes of screaming and sounds of someone being hit, other police arrived and Heflin was handcuffed, according to the Thurston County report.

The Thurston County report states the “majority of the strikes appear to have connected with (Heflin’s) face.” It also says the officers were wearing “knuckle guard riot style gloves” which may have made the man’s injuries worse.

Dorcy questioned why the officers had “placed themselves into a tactical disadvantage on this dark, exterior stairway.”

But Dorcy said there was not enough evidence to prove the officers’ concerns of being knocked down the staircase, or surprised with a hidden weapon, were unreasonable.

“I know from my police training and experience that this is a common place for subjects to carry/conceal knives and/or firearms,” Doherty said in a report written after the Heflin was booked into jail. Heflin later was released without being charged.

Dorcy noted the choice of the officers to tackle Heflin was “reasonable under these circumstances, and not inconsistent with appropriate police training and tactics.”

Dorcy said after the officers tackled Heflin, there was “an unpredictable and frenetic struggle that lasted for several minutes and required help from other officers to gain control of Mr. Heflin’s hands.”

The prosecutor’s letter says multiple witnesses described Heflin as resisting the officers, although in police reports at the time Heflin said he did not fight back and the officers did not remember being struck.

Moody told Mason County radio station iFiberOne News Radio fired Dickinson and Doherty after the department “found policy violations and violations in what we believe in here at the police department and the city.”

A Thurston County investigator wrote the pepper spray wasn’t warranted under department policy and said Heflin did not make an aggressive movement “that should have been perceived by an officer with 15 years of experience as assaultive.”

Dorcy said in his letter he consulted with Robert Bragg, the Defensive Tactics Program Manager at the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission. Bragg, in notes provided by Dorcy, said the incident had an “egregious appearance” but is “best left as a civil matter to be decided in the federal court.”

He added the officers’ behavior should be addressed by their police department “as opposed or in addition to criminal charges.”

 

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

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