For decades, people mistreated by police have called for reform that includes, at a minimum, holding officers accountable. Over the past year, the Riveters’ Justice System Committee (JSC) has supported these efforts by contacting government officials, advocating for improvements to police union contracts, and supporting legislative bills.
To better understand the current state of police accountability within Whatcom County, the JSC obtained officer-related complaint records from Bellingham, Blaine, and Ferndale, and lawsuit settlement information from Bellingham, Blaine, Everson, Ferndale, Lynden, and Whatcom County. A review of these documents provides insight into how complaints are investigated, the degree to which officers are held accountable, and the cost to local governments when the public feels harmed by police conduct.
In a series of posts, we’ll describe how BPD handled a traffic stop and racial-profiling complaint that led to Bellingham recently paying a $100,000 settlement, how much police-related lawsuit settlements cost local governments, and what police complaint records can tell us. We’ll also share recommendations for better policing from national organizations.
***CLICK ON EACH PART TO EXPAND DETAILS***
Part 1: Investigating a complaint against an officer
Let’s start with the settlement mentioned above. As reported by the Bellingham Herald, Alfredo “Lelo” Juarez and his parents filed a civil rights lawsuit in April 2016 against Officer Serad, the Mayor, and the Police Chief after an internal investigation found that Serad had not violated police policy.
The incident: In 2015, Officer Serad pulled Lelo over for driving the wrong direction on a one-way street. He had three passengers in the car at the time. During the stop, Lelo lied about his age and was evasive about his driver’s license status.
In response, Officer Serad:
- verified Lelo understood him (to check for language barriers)
- told Lelo that if he’s unable to confirm his identity, then he would be unable to confirm Lelo was in the country legally and determine whether Lelo has any warrants
- asked Lelo how he entered the country illegally (after learning Lelo was undocumented)
- called Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) for assistance within minutes of learning Lelo was undocumented
- repeatedly told Lelo he was not free to leave
- turned off his body cam video while speaking with CBP
- detained Lelo until Border Patrol arrived on scene
The interaction with CBP led to Lelo’s 24-hour detention in an immigration detention center. He was 15 years old at the time. Having felt BPD racially-profiled Lelo, he and his parents filed a complaint, which prompted BPD to conduct an investigation.
BPD’s complaint investigation: Most police departments investigate complaints internally and that was the case here; BPD assigned the investigation to a lieutenant within the department. The investigation report includes a summary of the complaint, officer interviews, records reviewed, body cam video footage review, and findings. The investigator attempted to interview one passenger identified during the stop but had no success.
During the investigation, Officer Serad acknowledged that he’d never before called CBP for a similar traffic stop. He also said that his typical response when he can’t confirm someone’s identity is to have a passenger take the driver home. He’d also cite the driver for not having a valid license or other relevant infractions.
According to the information in the report, the investigator took Officer Serad’s word that he didn’t realize the car occupants appeared to be Hispanic, that he did not let the driver’s race, ethnicity or nationality impact the level of enforcement; and he didn’t remember the details of his call with CBP (which the body cam didn’t capture because Officer Serad stopped recording).
Investigation results: Despite the questions asked and actions taken by Officer Serad during the traffic stop (including the sharing of Lelo’s location), the investigator determined that Officer Serad behaved in a manner consistent with the police department’s policy, which provides equal protection of the law and equal service to the public…regardless of immigration status.
In contrast to Officer Serad’s own testimony, the investigator noted in the investigation report that “no information was discovered to suggest that Officer Serad handled the call differently because of the driver’s race, ethnicity, national origin…” and determined he did not violate police policy. This appears at odds with the investigator’s recommendation that Serad receive retraining on immigration violations, DACA, and the racial-based profiling policy.
JSC concerns about the investigation process and result:
- It did not include interviews with civilian witnesses or Border Patrol agents (called during the traffic stop).
- It did not include review of the Customs and Border Patrol call.
- BPD staff conducted the investigation instead of an independent (and preferably, civilian-led) oversight board.
- Officer Serad admitted to handling this call differently than normal. Undoubtedly, Serad’s decision to contact CBP was because of Lelo’s immigration status. It was also in contrast to BPD’s policy, which stated a person of questionable immigration status must be “conducted in the same manner as those for any other person…and without regard to immigration status”.
- Officer Serad was not held accountable for contacting Customs and Border Patrol about an undocumented resident because immigration status was not the sole basis for Lelo’s stop or detainment.
(Read our November 10, 2021 letter to Bellingham Mayor Fleetwood and Councilmembers.)
Current law prohibits law enforcement working with federal immigration authorities: In 2019, the Keep Washington Working Act began restricting various forms of collaboration and information-sharing with federal immigration enforcement by police, sheriffs, jails, and local and state authorities. The interaction described above is strictly prohibited under this law and yet, according to an August 2021 report by the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights (UWCHR), law enforcement agencies in 13 researched counties (which did not include Whatcom) continue to summon federal immigration authorities to the scene of traffic stops, to provide tips about the location of specific individuals, and to participate in multi-agency task force operations that include civil immigration arrests. Examples provided in the report from other counties are nearly identical to how Officer Serad summoned CBP to the scene of the Lelo Juarez traffic stop.
The JSC contacted UWCHR to learn when they will complete their extensive review of immigration records collected from Whatcom County. We will take action if these interactions continue to occur locally, as reported by residents that are undocumented.
Part 2: Tracking police officer complaints
The Justice System Committee research shows that maintaining complaint records and conducting independent investigations are important steps for finding patterns in individual officers or department practices. Prior to July 2021 (when SB 5051 went into effect), complaint records at Ferndale PD, Bellingham PD, Blaine PD, and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office were destroyed after six years. This practice allowed an officer’s record to frequently be wiped clean, making it difficult, if not impossible, to detect problems. Below we provide an example of how easy it has been for a problematic officer to go unnoticed.
Ferndale Police Department complaint records
The JSC looked at a summary of 52 complaint allegations filed between 2015 – 2020 for Ferndale Police Department officers that were employed at the time of our January 2021 records request. The investigation results shed light on how often the department sides with the officer’s version of events.
- 88% of all allegations were determined either unfounded1 or not sustained2, or the officer was exonerated3.
When it comes to complaints from the public,
- 6% of allegations from the public were either sustained4 or founded5 (94% dismissed).
However, complaints were taken seriously from inside the organization.
- 98% of internally-initiated allegations were either sustained or founded.
These percentages demonstrate that complaints from the public about an officer’s behavior and conduct mostly go ignored. In fact, it’s common for investigators to recommend “no further action” as a follow up to each complaint.
Signs of a problematic police officer
When reviewing the list of complaint allegations, one officer’s name stood out – Michael Scott Langton. Officer Langton made the news recently because Ferndale PD placed him on paid leave in early October 2021 for allegedly contacting the Oath Keepers, a far-right, anti-government extremist group, days before the January 6 attack on the US capital. Contact with this group would seemingly put Langton in violation of the Prohibited Speech, Expression, and Conduct section of Ferndale’s police policy, which prohibits “expression that is contrary to the canons of the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics” (page 1).
According to a November 2, 2021 Bellingham Herald article, Officer Langton returned to duty after the Ferndale PD conducted a “thorough investigation” of the allegation that Officer Langton had contacted the Oath Keepers and determined it was “unfounded” because “no violation of policy or law occurred”. This determination appears to contradict the Ferndale police policy.
Connect Ferndale immediately responded to the investigation result by making a public statement and demanding that city officials update their police policy, form a community-based police oversight committee, have the allegation externally reviewed, and host a listening session.
Langton began working for Ferndale PD in August 2012 and has 17 complaints on record from 2015 to 2021 – each from a different complainant. (The officer with the next most complaints had three on record.) Most complainants accused Officer Langton of behavior that was harassing, discriminatory, rude, insulting, or overly aggressive. Five believed this treatment was because of the color of their skin. Sixteen were internally investigated and had unfounded results meaning the investigator determined the allegation was “frivolous” or “did not occur”. We noted that one complaint even stated that Langton “is known by many minorities as being The Racist Cop”.
(Read our November 10, 2021 letter to Ferndale Mayor Hansen, Chief Turner, and Councilmembers.)
Langton’s prior career with Blaine Police Department
During his tenure with Blaine PD, Officer Langton was named in a lawsuit alleging he used excessive force on a legally-blind man in June 2011. City of Blaine settled the lawsuit in 2015 with a $129,000 payment to the plaintiff. Online research results in scant details about this case. In fact, we couldn’t locate any articles from the press until October 2021 when Officer Langton’s paid leave status made news.
Records obtained from the City of Blaine indicate other complaints had also been made about Langton, but acquiring those records has been unsuccessful. We know, however, that at least one other Blaine resident alleges a rough encounter with Officer Langton. According to a 2011 court document, “Officer Langton treated the defendant so roughly when he arrested her that at least one witness had to avert his eyes because he could not watch the officer’s treatment of [the Blaine resident]”.
According to a 2013 letter from Blaine’s City Manager to Whatcom County District Court, it appears Officer Langton was also named in a third lawsuit. The JSC has yet to determine the allegation(s) in this case.
Did Ferndale PD know about Langton’s Blaine PD history?
It’s unclear. We know that the “comprehensive screening, background investigation and selection process” described in section 1000.4 of Ferndale’s police policy doesn’t recommend reviewing an officer’s previous complaint history. Also, according to September 2012 city council meeting minutes (page 5, part C), the City immediately saved $80,000 by hiring a seasoned officer because Langton no longer needed to be trained through the police academy.
New laws have and proposed bills would address several JSC concerns, but more work is needed to increase accountability and transparency
- New – SB 5051 added a subsection (4) to RCW 40.14.070, which requires personnel records for law enforcement officers be retained for “the duration of the officer’s employment and a minimum of 10 years thereafter”. Remember, prior to July 2021, complaint records were usually destroyed after six years.
- New – SB 5051 requires that departments conduct broader background checks for officers before hiring them, including checking with previous departments for any discipline history or misconduct investigations. At a national level, experts report it’s common practice for an officer to quit before an investigation is complete to keep it off their record. We don’t know if this was the case in Blaine, but the timing of Langton’s arrival in Ferndale is suspicious.
- New – SB 5051 allows for an officer to be decertified for disqualifying conduct.
- Proposed – HB 1203 would require any police department of 15 officers or more to establish a community oversight board responsible for fielding complaints, investigating allegations of police misconduct, making recommendations on discipline, and participating in the hiring of new police chiefs.
- Proposed – HB 1202 would create a state cause of action allowing people to sue police officers in their individual capacity for violating people’s constitutional rights. The measure would allow police to face civil lawsuits in situations where they may be unable to be sued in federal court due to the doctrine of qualified immunity.
- Still needed – Demographic information about the complainant or officer are not collected as part of local law enforcements’ complaint reporting or investigation process.6
- Still needed – Complaint descriptions and the status of the investigation process are not publicly available through an open data set.6
Updated 11/3/2021 to include information about Langton’s return to duty and correct an error. The original post included the wrong link to Ferndale’s police policy.
Updated 11/4/2021 to include information about Connect Ferndale.
Updated 11/27/2021 to add a link to the City of Ferndale’s Oath Keeper investigation report and correct the date when Officer Langton allegedly emailed the Oath Keepers. The email was sent one month after the January 6 attack on the US Capital, not two days prior. This distinction is important because the Ferndale Police investigator implies a person might not have “reasonably known about members of the Oath Keepers” on February 4, 2021, as compared to the date of the investigation, October 14, 2021.
1 Unfounded = When the investigation discloses that the alleged acts did not occur or did not involve department members. Complaints that are determined to be frivolous will fall within the classification of unfounded.
2 Not sustained = When the investigation discloses that there is insufficient evidence to sustain the complaint or fully exonerate the member.
3 Exonerated = When the investigation discloses that the alleged act occurred but that the act was justified, lawful, and/or proper.
4 Sustained = When the investigation discloses sufficient evidence to establish that the act occurred and that it constituted misconduct.
5 Founded = Undefined in the police policy manual.
6 See Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability Complaints open data set for what transparency can look like.
Part 2b: Ferndale PD’s internal investigation sheds light on an imperfect process
In Part 2 of our Learn Why We Believe Public Safety Reform is Necessary series, the Riveters’ Justice System Committee identified concerning trends in the investigations of complaints against Ferndale Police Department officers. In Part 2b, we continue the story by reviewing the investigation into Officer Langton’s alleged contact with the Oath Keepers. We also examine how thorough Ferndale PD was in their investigation after we obtained three interview recordings and the investigation report.
Ferndale PD took atypical steps for this investigation
In total, the JSC has reviewed records for 20 investigations conducted after a complaint was made about a Ferndale police officer. In all cases, a primary investigator, usually a lieutenant or sergeant with the Ferndale PD, conducts the investigation and the Ferndale police chief signs his approval of the investigator’s recommended result. The Langton/Oath Keepers investigation was handled differently, however, likely because the allegation made national news.
In this case, Chief Turner reviewed the investigator’s completed report, then directed the investigator to ask more probing questions. Chief Turner also provided his own 13-page written review of the investigation. This is not normal practice based on the other complaint investigations we reviewed from Ferndale PD and other local law enforcement.
The primary investigator failed to properly investigate the allegation
It’s clear Ferndale gave this investigation the utmost scrutiny, knowing journalists and other interested parties would review the results closely. We believe that if this investigation had followed the path of other complaint investigations by Ferndale PD, it would have fallen well short of a thorough investigation.
With the exception of the investigator’s recommendation to train and educate officers about groups like the Oath Keepers, we have the following concerns about his investigation approach and documentation:
- The investigator tainted the report with bias:
- The investigator implies that little was known about the Oath Keepers on February 4, 2021, when the email was sent, and therefore determined that a “reasonable person” wouldn’t have known on that date that contacting the Oath Keepers would’ve been “unbecoming a member of this department”. The Oath Keepers, however, made national news prior to the November 2020 election and became a household name well before February 4. 2021. We know this because NPR and CNN reported on January 1 and 27, 2021 about the Oath Keepers’ involvement in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. Based on this, we believe a reasonable person should have known by February 4, 2021 that contacting the Oath Keepers would reflect poorly on the department.
- The investigator highlights three times that the Oath Keepers email was acquired illegally and, therefore, not meant to be made public. This opinion by the investigator appears to be an attempt to redirect readers’ views about the allegation by implying it was an invasion of privacy.
- The investigator failed to accurately document Langton’s complaint history by leaving out the following information:
- The August 2020 civil rights complaint lawsuit against Officer Langton filed in federal court.
- The previous 17 unsustained complaints on Langton’s record. Instead of acknowledging this complaint history, the investigator noted that “since joining the department in 2012, there have been no observations of Officer REDACTED to suggest a propensity towards a disregard of a person’s civil rights…”. Due to the number of complaints filed against Officer Langton as compared to other officers, the JSC doesn’t agree.
- The investigator provided favorable information about Officer Langton that is unrelated to this case when he wrote that “Officer REDACTED was awarded a Certificate of Commendation…and selected Patrol Partner of the Year…” in 2021.
- The investigator used information from a 2012 background check into Officer Langton as evidence that he is “honorable and honest” and that he is “not now, or ever been a member of any foreign or domestic organization, association, movement, or group” that advocates for violence or seeks to alter the form of government of the United States by unconstitutional means. This hardly seems relevant given the amount of time that has passed and the number of hate and anti-government groups (that recruit military and law enforcement personnel) that have gained traction since that background check was conducted.
- Prior to having his report reviewed by Chief Turner, the investigator failed to ask Officer Langton if the email address belonged to him and, if so, when he last accessed the account. These questions should have been part of the initial line of questioning.
- The investigator did not appear to investigate whether Langton made inappropriate posts on social media accounts or if he contacted the Oath Keepers (or other concerning groups) by email prior to February 1, 2021 from other personal email accounts.
Chief Turner’s review provided more depth to the investigation
- Because of Chief Turner’s recommendation to ask follow up questions, we learned the email account belonged to Langton and that he accessed it as recently as the week of September 27, 2021, just days before BuzzFeed News reported on it. Unfortunately, Chief Turner incorrectly stated several people “had accessed” Langton’s email account when Langton only stated people could have had access to his email account when he left it open on his computer.
- Ferndale PD’s policy narrowly defines unacceptable conduct, which means the Oath Keepers would need to be defined as a hate group or criminal organization for the conduct to be considered unbecoming or reflect unfavorably upon the department.
- Chief Turner used Wikipedia to evaluate the reliability of groups associated with the released Oath Keepers email by painting both organizations far more negatively than the website describes. He stated that BuzzFeed News is “a largely unreliable internet media news” and highlights portions of the site that call into question their credibility. The website, however, also states that BuzzFeed News “largely follows established rules of journalism” and has won awards and recognition for several news-breaking stories that proved accurate.
He takes the same approach with Distributed Denial of Secrets, the group that provided BuzzFeedNews the hacked email. He described them as a “criminal hacker group” and “significant threat”. According to Wikipedia, this group is described by Wired as “a transparency collective of data activists”, by the New York Times as a “watchdog group” and by Business Insider as a “freedom-of-information advocacy group”.
Based on these alternative views of these groups, the JSC does not agree with Chief Turner that the allegation could not be credible because it was “unsubstantiated information obtained by illegal means sourced from a criminal hacker group”.
- Chief Turner requested a search of City and PD servers to determine if anyone within the City had communicated by email with the Oath Keepers. This shows he made an attempt to look into this more broadly, but, unfortunately, the search date range only went back to February 1, 2021.
The JSC encourages Ferndale to take this opportunity to improve
For transparency and accountability, police reform experts advise that police conduct investigations should be conducted from outside the department for which the officer works and by an oversight board that includes civilians. It does not appear from the obtained records that Ferndale sought options or opinions from outside the Ferndale PD.
Following the news that Officer Langton returned to duty after the investigation found the allegation unfounded, the JSC sent Ferndale officials a letter summarizing our concerns about the complaint investigation process and providing resources for improving police policies and union contracts. Mayor Hansen kindly acknowledged receipt of our letter and explained the City’s plans to review their policies and procedures.
We’ve asked Mayor Hansen and Chief Turner to go beyond this particular Oath Keepers incident and evaluate which police policies and union contract language would allow an officer 1) with lengthy complaint histories to be hired, and 2) to continue in this line of work when the public feels harmed or threatened by their behavior. We believe this recent allegation and investigation should indicate failures in Ferndale’s current policies and processes.
Parts 3, 4, 5...