EVERETT — Police officers in the United States rarely face criminal charges for using force in the line of duty.
The first-degree manslaughter charge filed Monday against Everett police officer Troy Meade is unprecedented in Snohomish County history.
Meade, an 11-year veteran, is accused of recklessly causing the death of Niles Meservey, 51. The officer fatally shot Meservey after he refused to get out of his car.
Speculation that Meade could be charged for his actions in the line of duty generated great concern among Everett police officers.
The weeks leading up to the decision have been hard on everyone, a longtime Everett police detective said, speaking on the condition that he not be identified.
The detective said he and other officers understand the importance of a thorough, careful investigation and an independent decision by prosecutors. On the other hand, they also worry that it may be difficult for anybody to truly understand the perspective of the officer involved in this case.
“Troy is in a position where he just has milliseconds to make a decision,” the detective said. “Everybody else has months and months to armchair-quarterback the incident.”
Everett police policy bars anyone from speaking about the matter, with the exception of the police chief or his designee, department spokesman Sgt. Robert Goetz said.
Goetz and Everett Police Chief Jim Scharf on Monday referred calls to Louis Peterson, a Seattle attorney representing Everett.
Peterson didn’t respond for requests for comments. Instead Everett city spokeswoman Kate Reardon sent out a written statement.
Because of pending litigation against the city and the charge against officer Meade, Reardon wrote, “The City and its police department cannot comment further at this time.”
She said, “For today, this is how we have to respond.”
Police are allowed to use force if the officer can reasonably justify that he or she perceives a threat, said David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis who studies use of force by police.
“It’s very rare that a police officer is indicted,” Klinger said.
In the vast majority of cases when police use their weapons, the suspect is armed with a knife, gun or other weapon, and someone’s life is in jeopardy, the professor said.
No organization nationally tracks officer-involved violence or the number of times police are charged, Klinger said.
“We don’t even know how many people the cops shoot in the U.S. every year,” he said. “If we don’t know how many time cops kill people, how many times they shoot people, we certainly don’t know how many times police are indicted.”
The most recent case of an officer facing criminal charges was the New Year’s Day shooting by police of an unarmed man at an Oakland, Calif., transit stop. Former Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle is charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Oscar Grant, 22. The case is working its way through the courts.
One Everett officer, again speaking so long as he isn’t identified, said there has been some concern that there may be public pressure to file charges against Meade given publicity about other recent police shootings here.
“Some sort of political call to action would be my concern,” the officer said.
Since November, a special task force of detectives has been called on five times to investigate deaths by law enforcement in Snohomish County.
There also is some concern that the decision to charge Meade will affect other officers’ decisions to use lethal force.
“Maybe it will be in the back of their minds and they’ll use less-than-lethal force when less-than-lethal is not appropriate,” the officer said.
Officers go through hours of training to identify when it’s reasonable to use deadly force. Being second-guessed again and again is difficult, he said.
Police increasingly are confronted with dangerous situations by people who may be armed, dangerous and ready to use violence against officers, said John Gray, a former Arlington Police chief, now an instructor of police training at Northwestern University in Chicago.
While the number of officers who are killed in the line of duty has either leveled off or dropped in recent years, assaults on officers have increased, Gray said.
The reduction in deaths likely is a result of improved protective gear and training, he said. Snohomish County and Western Washington are recognized as having superior training to many other areas of the country, he said.
Still, even with the very best policies and training, there are aberrations in performance.
“People change and they make bad decisions and they have to be held accountable,” he said.
Now that an officer has been charged, Everett’s department likely is going to look inward at its policies and procedures, Gray said.
It has been years since a police officer in Snohomish County has been accused of criminal conduct in a line-of-duty death, and that case didn’t result in charges.
In 1992, a member of the sheriff’s office SWAT team fatally shot Robin Marie Pratt during a raid on her Everett apartment. The team was there to arrest her husband on what proved to be bogus allegations that he had been involved in a fatal armored car robbery.
A six-member inquest jury spent three days hearing testimony from the SWAT team members and forensic experts. A majority of jurors determined the death of the unarmed woman was a criminal act, and they held one of the SWAT team members responsible.
No charges were filed by Greg Canova, the special prosecutor hired to decide how the case should be handled. He is now a King County Superior Court judge but then was a senior assistant state attorney general.
At the time, Canova said his nearly five-month review of Pratt’s shooting turned up no legal grounds to justify criminal charges. He interviewed the inquest jury members after their verdict and said most really believed no crime had occurred and were confused by jury instructions. Among other factors in the decision not to file charges was that the SWAT officer fired a single shot from the fully automatic weapon, Canova said. That indicated the officer didn’t intentionally shoot Pratt, he said.