By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
A homeless South Whidbey man agreed last week to settle a claim against Island County over a 2019 incident in which a former lieutenant in the sheriff’s office injured him by repeatedly slamming his leg in a car door.
Michael Davis will receive $90,000 in the agreement, which was negotiated between his attorney, Braden Pence of Everett, and the Washington Counties Risk Pool.
Mike Hawley, a former lieutenant with the sheriff’s office, received a letter of reprimand for the incident. Chief Criminal Deputy Evan Tingstad completed the internal investigation and concluded Hawley violated office policy against “unreasonable and unwarranted force,” as well as the use of obscene language.
During an interview, Pence said he believes the incident and the response from the sheriff’s administration illuminates a culture of impunity and a lack of accountability within the office.
Pence argues that Hawley only received a slap on the wrist for a criminal assault and then was allowed to retire “with a pension for the rest of his life.”
Pence said he was also surprised this week to learn that the sheriff’s office didn’t refer the case to the Island County Prosecutor’s Office for possible criminal charges. He said he left a message with the prosecutor Thursday saying Davis wishes to pursue charges.
Sheriff Rick Felici said Hawley’s actions were clearly not appropriate and that Hawley himself admitted that he lost his patience and acted outside of department policy. But based on the video and the statements of two other deputies who witnessed the encounter, Felici concluded that there’s no evidence Hawley purposely slammed Davis’ leg in the car door.
Hawley retired this summer after 32 years with the department, including 10 years as sheriff. Felici said he was shocked by Hawley’s actions, especially since he’s long been known for his calm demeanor and has never faced any discipline before in his long career.
Felici said the case was discussed with the prosecutor’s office but not formally referred for a charging decision. Investigators concluded that there was no evidence, he said, of the intent necessary for an assault charge.
The incident occurred on the night of March 4, 2019, at a park-and-ride lot located at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland. Felici explained that Hawley and the other deputies were responding to a report of someone lurking behind a nearby abandoned building and checked on the occupied vehicle parked in the lot.
Pence explained that Davis is a middle-aged man who works various odd jobs in the area and lives out of his car because he can’t afford housing; Davis doesn’t use illegal drugs and doesn’t have any kind of substance abuse problem; he has no criminal record besides a misdemeanor marijuana charge from years ago.
Davis started videotaping the encounter on an iPad that night after Hawley knocked on the door of the car.
The video shows Hawley demanding that Davis exit the car. Hawley repeatedly swore at Davis and threatened to rip the door off the car and drag him out. The video shows that Davis is angry and not cooperative, repeatedly telling Hawley that he had been told by another deputy to park there.
“He certainly wasn’t de-escalating,” Pence said of his client, “but I don’t think it was his responsibility to do so.”
Davis opened the car door after Hawley threatened to break the window. As an investigator later noted, the encounter continued to deteriorate. Davis asked one of the three deputies at the scene for his name and badge number; he was apparently ignored.
Hawley, as he later explained, decided to end the contact by closing the car door.
The door struck Davis’ leg and did not close. Hawley twice more tried to close the car door, slamming it into Davis’ leg each time.
Davis shouted at Hawley and two other deputies that he was assaulted and wanted to file a complaint. Nevertheless, they walked away from the scene.
Pence said he believes the video shows that Hawley was purposely and forcefully slamming the door on his client’s leg. Felici, however, said it isn’t clear whether Hawley or the other deputies realized Davis’ leg was being struck by the door. He drove to the hospital on his own for treatment. Photographs of his leg show extensive bruising.
Davis later called 911 to report the incident, and the sheriff’s office conducted an internal investigation. Tingstad spoke to Hawley, who admitted he “was not comfortable with how the contact went.”
“I got from him that there was no particular reason or purposeful thought as to why the contact went the way it did,” Tingstad wrote about his conversation with Hawley. “It was just a poor contact that got worse.”
Tingstad concluded that Hawley’s use of profanity was “somewhat understandable” but that repeatedly closing the door on the man’s leg was “unexplainable.” He issued a written reprimand.
Pence argued that the deputies’ “harassment” of a homeless person was likely a violation of a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that said it is “cruel and unusual punishment” to enforce rules that prevent homeless people from camping in public places if no other shelter is available. He claims that Davis “kind of gets chased around the island” by deputies.
Felici, in contrast, said the only reason that deputies contacted Davis was because a citizen had reported a suspicious person in the area. He said deputies certainly don’t harass homeless people.
“We don’t go around bothering anyone,” he said, “unless there’s a legitimate reason to contact them.”
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.