A civil lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle alleges deputy Art Wallin unjustifiably unleashed his dog on a man north of Mill Creek in June 2017, causing a “serious injury” that later became infected and required surgery.
The complaint, filed Jan. 10, argues Wallin didn’t have sufficient reason to deploy the dog. The lawsuit claims the only probable cause for a crime that had been established — obstructing police — wasn’t serious enough to warrant the use of force, and the man made no aggressive movements toward the deputies. The plaintiff is asking for an unspecified amount of compensation in damages.
Following an internal investigation, sheriff’s Capt. Scott Parker came to a similar conclusion and disciplined Wallin for violating use-of-force policy, according to documents obtained by The Daily Herald through a public records request.
“It is understood that at times you need to make decisions quickly as information is rapidly received and processed,” Parker wrote. “However, in this particular incident there was no exigency to rush the deployment of a canine, especially considering there had been no contact or identification of the reporting party or a victim, or anyone for that matter having information or knowledge about what was being reported to 911.”
The disciplinary letter, dated Dec. 19, 2018, was sent to Wallin two months after he shot and killed 24-year-old Nickolas Peters. That case brought on two investigations and a civil lawsuit that settled for $1 million. Wallin was fired in October by then-Sheriff Ty Trenary, who called the shooting unjustified. That decision was reversed by Sheriff Adam Fortney shortly after he took office.
Wallin has been with the sheriff’s office for 13 years, most recently as a police dog handler, and has received several positive performance evaluations and commendations, according to records.
Parker also determined Fortney — who was then a night shift patrol sergeant supervising Wallin — violated policy by not notifying higher-ups of an incident that could lead to litigation. Fortney wasn’t officially disciplined, due to command staff failing to notify him of the potential violation, according to public records.
Wallin and deputy Nathan Smith, who also is named in the lawsuit, had little information when they responded to a robbery call June 20, 2017. All they knew was that a woman called 911, saying she was being mugged by a man in a red shirt with weapons in the 3100 block of 132nd Street SE.
The woman hung up. Deputies attempted to call her back multiple times, but each time she answered and then disconnected.
The deputies didn’t find any potential victim at the scene when they got there around 12:30 a.m., according to records. They only saw a man walking away from them.
Smith whistled and yelled, “Hey!” according to his report of the incident. There was no response.
The deputy said he yelled again and the man ran into the woods — because he was afraid, he reportedly said in followup interviews.
Both Wallin and Smith said they identified themselves as police, then warned the man they would send out a dog if he didn’t cooperate. According to the internal investigation, the man reported not to hear either announcement.
The deputies reported hearing what sounded like a woman sobbing, though they never identified where the sound came from.
Wallin said he kept Ronin on a leash as they went into the woods, according to documents. The deputies wrote that they couldn’t see more than 3 feet in front of them.
“The terrain consisted of sticker bushes, small trees, mud, and vines,” Smith wrote in his report. “This, combined with what seemed like pitch blackness made it nearly impossible to see (in front) of me. My flashlight served to illuminate the brush directly in front of my face but that was it.”
Then they heard screaming. The man later said he was yelling out, “What did I do? … What did I do wrong? … What is going on?” according to documents.
Ronin had bit him in the leg. Wallin said he grabbed the dog right after contact was made.
According to the complaint, the man said the deputies didn’t offer any treatment for his injuries. Smith wrote that they did provide treatment. The man was taken to the hospital, but the bite wounds became infected and eventually needed surgery, documents say. Wallin documented the injury and said it was typical of other dog bite injuries he’s seen.
Command staff initially sent congratulatory emails, according to records obtained by The Herald.
“You took a soggy sandwich, used your training, knowledge, experience and drive to provide the highest level of service to the public and hold a bad guy accountable,” a lieutenant wrote.
Parker, the captain who ultimately determined Wallin and Fortney violated policy, also joined in on the accolades.
“Sounds like a job well done,” Parker wrote in the email chain. “I’ll have to get out from behind the desk and come out some night and ride with you guys to remind myself what police work looks like.”
The internal investigation into possible policy violations began in September 2018.
Wallin reported he deployed the dog based on the “totality of circumstances,” including information from dispatch of an armed robbery, a man attempting to evade police and the possibility of a victim. He commented in his report that alternative uses of force, such as a stun gun or baton, would not be effective in the thick vegetation.
Fortney reportedly noted the time from dispatch to the dog bite was about two minutes. He said he felt comfortable with the use of force, and described the situation as a “fluid call,” according to records.
Initially, a lieutenant took Wallin’s side and cleared him of the alleged violations.
Parker disagreed with the lieutenant’s conclusions and found Wallin’s use of force unjustified.
In the disciplinary letter, Parker conceded the initial robbery call “brought with it a heightened sense of awareness and officer safety.” It made sense, he explained, to question the man through a Terry stop, in which police can briefly detain a person suspected of involvement in a crime.
“However, without the presence of a reporting party, a victim, anyone with information to validate the initial 911 call, or physical evidence of a crime, Terry may wane over time,” the captain wrote.
And while Wallin and Smith claimed the man had obstructed and delayed their investigation, Parker wrote that the deputies were the ones causing the delay, by focusing on the man when there was scant evidence connecting him to any robbery.
“Relying solely on dispatched information without independent validation can be inherently flawed and dangerous,” Parker wrote. “Often-times information relayed to field units is not accurate for a variety of reasons.”
The man never was charged with robbery as a result of the encounter. He eventually pleaded guilty in District Court to obstructing police and was sentenced to a day in jail. He entered what is known as an Alford plea, saying he didn’t admit to the facts as alleged, but acknowledged a jury could convict him based on the evidence.
The civil lawsuit contends he didn’t do anything wrong.
“Merely avoiding the police is not a crime,” the lawsuit states.
The plaintiff asserted he was attacked by the dog because “the officers did not like his attitude or failure to immediately follow their alleged commands to come to them.”