Last week, the King County Sheriff’s Office fired a deputy who had put pepper spray onto the waterbottles of homeless campers in order to discourage them from returning, according to internal investigative documents published by The Stranger.
According to an official summary of the internal investigation’s findings, Deputy Derek DeZiel joined another deputy on an area check beneath the Fall City Bridge in eastern King County. The other deputy observed DeZiel “use his [pepper spray] canister to spray the mouth piece of a water bottle and explain to Deputy Sprecher that when he was in Metro they would also spray sleeping bags as a way to encourage the homeless to move along.” DeZiel said he’d learned the technique from senior deputies, and didn’t seem to think that he’d done anything wrong. “Some people said we used to slash tents but we don’t do that anymore so we’ll, we might put a little pepper spray down to deter people from coming back,” he said.
Sheriff John Urquhart officially fired DeZiel for Conduct Unbecoming, but in his termination letter, he wrote, “I believe a more appropriate classification would have been Conduct Criminal in Nature for Malicious Mischief.”
“I don’t find the fact that you pepper sprayed the water bottle of a homeless person ‘benign.’ Not in the least. I find it an attack on the most vulnerable and powerless segment of society by the most powerful segment of society…a police officer!” Urquhart wrote in bold font, underlining the word “most.”
Deborah Jacobs, head of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which supervises King County deputies, says that when she first learned of the incident, “it was a very concerning complaint. Right away we thought it probably rose to a criminal level. We’d really like to see aggressive prosecution when police are involved in criminal acts, because there should be at least as high a standard for police as for regular citizens, if not higher.”
Jacobs went so far as to email the prosecutor’s office in February to ask them to seriously consider charging DeZiel, in which she called what he did “a truly sadistic act against someone who has no power.”
“Thanks again for allowing me the opportunity to let you know that I’m concerned about this particular case,” she wrote. “I hope that it will be given due consideration. I know it’s probably not an easy one to charge, but it seems to me like the kind of conduct that would result in a charge if done by a homeless person against a police officer, so I hope that the same effort will go to charging the officer if the facts bear out. Even if a conviction can’t be secured, pursuing it can send a message.”
Wednesday evening, Sheriff John Urquhart’s office initially said the county prosecutor’s office was “advised of the details of the case” and declined to prosecute. A little less than two hours later, however, spokespersons for the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s office said that in fact the prosecutor’s office has not yet made a decision about whether to pursue criminal charges against DeZiel. “We will be reviewing the case and then make a decision regarding potential criminal charges,” said prosecutor spokesperson Dan Donohoe via email.
This post has been updated, as described above.