AMONG QUESTIONS unanswered in the now month-old shooting death of Robert Thomas Sr. is how off-duty King County Deputy Melvin Miller was able to strap on a gun and roam his Renton neighborhood like the sheriff of Dodge. To some, Miller's questionable policing tactics are part of a perceived pattern by King County Sheriff's officers, off duty or on, who make their own rules in the hood. Residents on the Sammamish Plateau have complained for two years about what one critic, a former police reserve officer, calls misconduct and criminal activity by sheriff's officers in her community. And a former sheriff's deputy says that while serving for a year in SeaTac, he witnessed fellow officers engaging in conduct that violated state and federal law. Both think the department tacitly approves such conduct.
The department insists that's untrue. The Sammamish and SeaTac claims were investigated, and the accused officers—perhaps a dozen out of a sworn force of 650—cleared, officials say. Nonetheless, the onetime reserve officer, Jackie Ruedi of Issaquah, is seeking a review of her complaints by the U.S. Justice Department. The former deputy, Joseph Pellegrini, is suing the department in King County Superior Court. He says he was wrongfully discharged after he reported the alleged violations to superiors.
Both Ruedi and Pellegrini say the patterns they witnessed included profiling, one of the contentious issues in the mysterious April 7 shooting of Thomas. African-American leaders are accusing Miller, a white officer, of having racial motives for confronting Thomas, a black man sitting in a parked truck, then shooting him after he allegedly pulled a gun. Among the puzzling questions: Why did Miller wear his gun to respond to a supposedly innocuous phone call from a neighbor? Did the deputy ID himself? Who drew first? And why was a gun, typically dropped or kicked away afterwards, still clutched in Thomas' hand when a photographer arrived?
Ruedi and Pellegrini say the frequent profiling in their mostly white communities is usually based on age and appearance: In Sammamish, the targets are most often teens. In SeaTac, deputies focus on the longhaired and poorly dressed. In both cases, pretextual stopping of older cars is standard, they say, along with a bravado attitude that cops rule.
"They did profiling and pretext stops as a matter of department training," says Seattle attorney Peter Connick, who is representing Pellegrini. The former deputy also claims that he witnessed numerous illegal entries and searches and that he was taught, "'We make the law here,'" says Connick.
Pellegrini was pressured to join in, but he refused and sought a transfer, according to Connick. He was required to specify the reasons, which he detailed in a transfer request filed in May 2000. A blue wall formed quickly, says Connick, once details of the request leaked to others in the precinct. Pellegrini, who Connick claims had a near-top training academy score and a good performance rating, then began to catch flak for his work. A month later, he was gone.
A department board—which Connick says included some of the officers Pellegrini had named in his transfer request— issued a report in June calling Pellegrini's performance unsatisfactory and recommended that he be fired. Pellegrini quit rather than be terminated. The department nonetheless officially fired him afterward. "All he wanted was to be a good cop," says Connick. "He got retaliation and termination."
King County has challenged those claims in court and plans to fight them at a trial set for August. The case has produced a huge amount of documents that Connick says "proves exactly what Mr. Pellegrini claims." Sheriff's spokesperson Sgt. Greg Dymerski says he can't comment because the issue is in litigation.
Ruedi, meanwhile, is hoping for a U.S. attorney's probe of her claims. She's one of a dozen Sammamish area residents who have complained of misconduct and harassment by officers in recent years. The sheriff's department cleared a handful of officers last year, but Ruedi filed a new complaint with the U.S. on April 16, in the wake of Thomas' death. She outlined 28 instances of wrongdoing and calls the department's investigation a cover-up. She has also lodged a complaint with the King County ombudsman's office.
"I got involved two years ago after my son was repeatedly stopped for no reason and asked by deputies if they could search his car," she says. "At first he always said, 'Yes.' But we began to worry that something could be planted. We started to complain, and things just snowballed. More people contacted me, and I became a sort of clearing house for police misconduct. I didn't choose to become a whistle-blower."
Ruedi, who along with her husband is a former police reserve officer from Spokane, says the complaints include warrantless searches, threats by officers, false reports, and assaults. "Our community is a police state," she says.
The Justice Department, which announced that it would review the Thomas shooting case for possible civil rights violations, wouldn't say whether Reudi's claims are being investigated. Sheriff's spokesperson Dymerski says that while past complaints were unfounded, his department is reviewing some "new cases" from Sammamish but has made no findings.