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Bellingham settles lawsuit alleging police used excessive force

City officials have agreed to pay $100,000 over a civil lawsuit that alleged excessive force by two Bellingham Police officers, one of whom was fired a year ago for misconduct and other accusations.

Settling the lawsuit was a “risk management decision” because the city could have faced a large jury award and also be required to pay court costs and lawyer fees if it lost the case at trial, said Shane Brady, assistant city attorney.

“The city stands by what the officers did and how they handled that call,” Brady said Thursday.

City Council members discussed the settlement in closed session Monday, but court records and police reports are public.

The lawsuit stems from the February 2015 arrest of a Pierce County man on suspicion of fourth-degree assault for hitting his daughter during an argument at her home in the Happy Valley neighborhood. The lawsuit named the city of Bellingham, Officer Jeffrey Yoder, and former Officer Jacob Esparza and his ex-wife.

Police Chief David Doll said he supports his officers’ actions during the arrest.

“This case was reviewed at the time and we felt that (the officers) used appropriate force,” Doll said. “I’m disappointed, and I understand that it’s a risk management decision. If we had body-worn cameras at that time, my officers would have been exonerated.”

City Council members unanimously approved the settlement during Monday’s regular council session. It will be paid by the city, which is self-insured, Brady said.

Officer dismissed

Both Brady and Doll said a large factor in the decision to settle the lawsuit was Esparza’s dismissal from the Bellingham Police Department in December 2016 over accusations of misconduct in a separate case.

Esparza
Jacob Esparza Ryan Duclos City of Bellingham

Esparza was arrested on charges of domestic violence after his 2016 firing. He pleaded guilty in October 2017 to one count of harassment with domestic violence, a gross misdemeanor, in Whatcom County District Court. He was sentenced to serve 364 days in jail, with 362 suspended.

Filed in January 2017, the case of Parrott v. City of Bellingham was being heard in U.S. District Court in Seattle. The settlement was reached in December after mediation talks, Brady said.

In court documents, Curtis A. Parrott of Fircrest claimed he was injured as he was handcuffed during his arrest on suspicion of assault. He asked to be handcuffed with his hands in front of his body – contrary to long-established police procedure – and the officers refused.

Parrott claimed permanent injury to his shoulder, stemming from what he said was a previous injury.

Parrott’s lawyer, Geoffrey M. Grindeland of Mills Meyers Swartling P.S. in Seattle, declined comment Thursday.

An assault charge against Parrott was dismissed in June 2015, according to Bellingham Municipal Court records.

911 call ends in arrest

In his arrest report in 2015, Yoder said he and Esparza were sent to investigate a 911 call from the home of Parrott’s daughter, where Parrott and his daughter were arguing.

According to standard police procedure, the people at the scene were interviewed separately. Yoder spoke with Parrott and Esparza spoke with Parrott’s daughter. Her name is being withheld because she is the victim in a domestic violence incident.

In his report, Esparza wrote that Parrott’s daughter said her father struck her with an open hand on both sides of her face. Yoder wrote in his report that he saw blood on the woman’s ear, though Parrott denied hitting his daughter.

Both and Yoder and Esparza wrote that they told Parrott to turn around and put his hands behind his back.

Yoder wrote that Parrott “told us that he wasn’t going to jail” and that Parrott’s body language implied that he would resist arrest. Yoder and Esparza each took hold of one of Parrott’s wrists, forcibly turned him around and pressed him against Parrott’s car to be cuffed.

Both Yoder’s and Esparza’s reports agree with the manner of the arrest and the force that was used to place Parrott in custody, according to Bellingham Police records.

Parrott was examined in the Emergency Department at St. Joseph hospital before he was booked into Whatcom County Jail, the officers wrote.

“While at the hospital, I observed him move his arm and shoulder without issue,” Yoder wrote in his report.

Yoder said Parrott was able to adjust his hospital gown and later dress himself without apparent pain.

A hospital physician gave Tylenol to Parrott after an examination, Yoder wrote.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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