Ex-Bellingham Police officer, city sued for alleged excessive force, culture of violence

Watch bodycam footage of ex-Bellingham police officer’s alleged assault

Joshua Smith has sued the city of Bellingham in federal court, alleging he was assaulted by then-Officer Brooke Laughlin during a 2017 traffic stop. Laughlin resigned from duty in 2018.
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Joshua Smith has sued the city of Bellingham in federal court, alleging he was assaulted by then-Officer Brooke Laughlin during a 2017 traffic stop. Laughlin resigned from duty in 2018.

A Bellingham man has sued the city and former Bellingham Police officer Brooks Owen Laughlin alleging Laughlin used excessive force during an arrest and that the department has a policy of tolerating violent officers.

Joshua Travis Smith, 23, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Seattle on Dec. 18, arguing that his civil rights were violated, that he suffered severe physical and emotional injuries and remains traumatized by Laughlin’s actions while trying to arrest him.

In the lawsuit, Smith alleges that Laughlin, 33, used excessive force and assaulted him, that he was wrongfully arrested and maliciously prosecuted, that the Bellingham Police Department negligently kept Laughlin on staff and that the department has a policy of failing to supervise, discipline and control its officers, according to court records.

“The City of Bellingham maintained a policy and practice of tolerating and covering up the violent and illegal activities of its police officers,” the lawsuit states. “Officer Laughlin, now a convicted felon, had a long history of domestic abuse and violence against citizens, known to the Defendant. Yet the Bellingham Police Department negligently retained Laughlin and others who used excessive force.”

Smith’s lawsuit alleges that officers who used excessive force were not investigated, disciplined or held accountable, and officers such as Laughlin used that knowledge to their advantage.

“The Bellingham Police Department tolerated these repeated instances of criminal violence by its officers, and failed to remedy the culture of violence that has taken root in the Department,” the lawsuit states.

Laughlin was sentenced to eight years in prison Dec. 12 after he was found guilty of nine charges relating to a pattern of domestic violence abuse of a woman from September 2016 until his arrest last spring.

Laughlin resigned from duty effective 5 p.m. April 20, according to Bellingham Police Chief David Doll in earlier stories in The Bellingham Herald. Laughlin was put on paid administrative leave on Feb. 14, four days after his first arrest on Feb. 10. Laughlin was arrested again a month later on March 27, after the woman disclosed violations of a no-contact order and the abuse to police.

Laughlin had been with the Bellingham Police Department for 13 years and was promoted to corporal on Jan. 9, 2018.

The Bellingham Police Department had known about Laughlin’s history of domestic violence since at least January 2017, but some sheriff’s deputies and the woman’s family have had concerns about Laughlin’s conduct since 2015, according to records obtained by The Bellingham Herald.

“Anytime our Officers use force, as a response to a threat, that entire incident is reviewed at multiple levels to ensure that the Officer(s) has complied with agency policy and laws governing use of force. The entire incident that is the subject of this lawsuit was reviewed at that time, and the Officers involved were found to be in compliance,” Bellingham Police Chief David Doll said in an emailed statement Tuesday evening to The Bellingham Herald. “Due to the pending nature of this lawsuit I can provide no further comments.”

The incident

On June 19, 2017, Laughlin was dispatched to the 3300 block of Plymouth Drive in Bellingham. Smith was dating an 18-year-old woman at the time whose father was a deputy with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, the lawsuit states. The woman’s mother called 911 because she was trying to keep the woman from leaving with Smith, the lawsuit states.

The woman left willingly with Smith after getting into an argument with her parents, but later got out of Smith’s vehicle on Ellis Street and sat on the sidewalk, crying, records show. Smith was trying to console her when Laughlin arrived, the lawsuit states.

When Laughlin approached them, he verified who they are and asked Smith to come speak with him, according to footage from Laughlin’s body-worn camera. Laughlin told Smith that he was being audio and video recorded. Smith put his hands up and asked if he was under arrest, to which Laughlin responded “No,” the footage shows.

Smith then asked “Am I allowed to record you?” and put one hand down to reach into his pocket.

Laughlin responded with “No, we’re going to talk right now and I’m recording you right now.”

Smith then told Laughlin that he’s a public officer and he’s allowed to record him.

Laughlin then told Smith to pull his hands out of his pockets and tried to arrest him.

Smith and his girlfriend can be heard yelling on the video as Laughlin is attempting to arrest him. Laughlin’s camera comes off — which Smith alleges Laughlin took off — and it ends up on the ground, according to the lawsuit.

In the complaint, Smith argues that he complied with Laughlin’s instructions, and denies attempting to return to his vehicle. Smith argues that Laughlin then made attempts to arrest him without probable cause, records state.

Smith alleges that Laughlin kicked him in the testicles, wrenched his back, broke his finger and slammed his head into a nearby wooden fence with enough force to break some of the boards, the lawsuit states.

In Laughlin’s incident report, Laughlin wrote that he was “concerned Joshua Smith was going to obtain a weapon in either his pockets or the vehicle,” according to police records. “Because of Joshua Smith’s refusal to follow commands and furtive movements to possibly access a weapon, I felt it necessary to immediately detain him into handcuffs.”

In his report, Laughlin said that he pushed Smith against a nearby wooden fence to limit Smith’s ability to “move and turn in towards me,” the records state. Laughlin said that while another officer assisted him in attempting to arrest Smith, Smith tried to pull his hand away and they heard a pop from one of Smith’s fingers, according to police records.

Laughlin wrote that Smith continued to resist their efforts to handcuff him, so he kneed Smith in the “lower midsection to bend him over and disrupt his balance,” allowing Laughlin and the other officer to take him to the ground, the records show. Eventually, Smith was arrested and put in the back of a patrol car.

Smith was charged with obstructing a law enforcement officer in Bellingham Municipal Court. His charges were dismissed Feb. 26, 2018.

The city of Bellingham has not yet responded to Smith’s lawsuit.

Smith’s father previously filed an excessive force complaint against Laughlin on July 7, 2017. Smith’s father said that Smith lost his job due to injuries sustained during the arrest, and the loss of income had greatly affected the family.

“There is no excuse for the cruel and unusual punishment my son received,” Smith’s father wrote in his complaint.

On Nov. 28, 2017, Lt. Jason Monson wrote in a letter to Smith’s father that the complaint against Laughlin had been investigated and Laughlin was exonerated. Exonerated is “when the investigation discloses that the alleged actions occurred, but those action were justified, lawful and or proper,” according to the letter.

Before filing the lawsuit in federal court, Smith also submitted a claim for damages to the city on Sept. 27, but the claim was denied on Nov. 2, the lawsuit states.

Other officers

The lawsuit mentions that Laughlin is the third officer in as many years to be arrested for assaultive behavior.

Former officer Sukhdev Singh Dhaliwal, 32, was sentenced Dec. 10, 2018, to 240 hours of community service for a fight that occurred when he and his brother met two men outside a Blaine business in mid-October 2017.

In fall 2016, officer Jacob Esparza was fired after he was arrested on domestic violence charges. Esparza pleaded guilty in June 2017 to one count of harassment (domestic violence) and was sentenced to serve 364 days in jail, with 362 days suspended.

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.