Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson was disciplined for damaging department property and swearing, but not for beating and tasing innocent people, according to police records.
Nelson is currently awaiting trial for the murder of Auburn community member Jesse Sarey in 2019. Nelson shot Sarey in the chest, then unjammed his gun and shot him in the head after Sarey had fallen backward, according to Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg. Sarey, a person of color, was unarmed when Nelson shot and killed him, Satterberg said.
However, the shooting of Sarey was far from the first act of violence Nelson committed against an Auburn community member — internal documents reveal Nelson’s pattern of violent behavior dating back to 2011.
Throughout his time as an Auburn police officer, Nelson killed three people and beat dozens more so severely they needed medical attention, according to Auburn Police Department’s use of force documents.
According to an incomplete list of Nelson’s uses of force against people in Auburn, Nelson used force 92 times between May 8, 2011, when he shot and killed a man who allegedly had a knife, and Nov. 1, 2018, when Nelson put a man suspected of stealing cigarettes in a stranglehold to the point he lost consciousness.
Use of force records indicate that the majority of the incidents in which Nelson used force — 57 out of 92 incidents —resulted in injuries that required medical attention, and 35 people needed hospitalization. Nelson injured 68% of the people he used force against, which is significantly higher than the department-wide rate of 38% in 2020, according to documents.
Despite the number and severity of the assaults Nelson committed, his actions were rarely investigated by the Auburn Police Department.
The department launched internal investigations into Nelson 12 separate times during his tenure as an Auburn police officer. Only six resulted in disciplinary action. Nelson was disciplined three times for driving recklessly, twice for being discourteous and once for destroying over $1,000 worth of a citizen’s property.
In July 2014, Nelson saw three members of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe walking in the street. Nelson parked his patrol car in the street and made contact with the three people. Officer Cristian Adams was also present.
According to documents, Nelson began cussing at the men, then asked Adams, “want to f—- them up?” After that, Nelson used a Taser on one of the men before putting him in a “lateral vascular neck restraint,” which is a stranglehold that cuts off blood flow to the brain. Nelson held the man in this stranglehold until he lost consciousness, and the man required medical attention from firefighters, according to police records.
The lateral vascular neck restraint Nelson used has since been banned by the Washington state Legislature.
The man Nelson attacked had allegedly committed the misdemeanor crime of public disturbance because he was jaywalking, according to police records.
The department investigated Nelson’s actions surrounding this incident and found he committed “Actual Misconduct,” not for tasing and choking the man for a misdemeanor crime, but for using profanity, according to investigative documents.
Nelson was ordered to undergo “Coaching and Counseling” as discipline for his actions. Auburn Police Chief Mark Caillier, a commander at the time, was on the board that investigated and disciplined Nelson for this misconduct.
The most severe punishment Nelson ever received prior to being arrested for the killing of Jesse Sarey was a one-day suspension without pay after Nelson had crashed his patrol car into another officer’s patrol car, according to police records.
The internal investigation documents reveal that damaging Auburn Police Department property resulted in more scrutiny and punishment than putting civilians in a stranglehold for misdemeanor crimes.
One quarter of the investigations into Nelson, and half of the investigations that led to disciplinary action, were because Nelson used his patrol vehicle incorrectly.
The acts Nelson wasn’t investigated for are just as telling. On Feb. 26, 2017, while Nelson was helping a casino eject a customer, a man bumped into Nelson, according to police records. In response to being bumped, Nelson attacked the man from behind, put him in a stranglehold and slammed his body into the ground and applied more pressure to the man’s neck until he lost consciousness, according to police records.
Nelson’s attack on the civilian was so brutal that the man had to be transported to a local hospital to be treated for his injuries, according to police records.
There are no records indicating Nelson was ever investigated for misconduct relating to this assault on a bystander.
This is not the only instance in which Nelson used violence against someone who wasn’t suspected of committing a crime, according to police records.
On June 28, 2018, Nelson was responding to a welfare check in which the person eluded the police, but welfare checks are not necessarily criminal in nature. At some point, Nelson, who was a K9 handler at the time, released his dog, who then bit another police officer, according to police records.
Nelson ordered his dog to stop biting the officer, who at that point was too injured to continue, according to police records. Nelson then tackled the person whom he was supposed to be doing a welfare check on, then the dog bit the person, according to records. Nelson put the person in a stranglehold, at which point the dog bit Nelson, records show.
Nelson’s reckless use of his K9, the lack of ability to control it, and his violence toward a civilian were never investigated beyond the required use of force report, according to police records.
Nelson took the lives of three people and assaulted nearly 100 people by the time he stopped working for the Auburn Police Department.
In the end, Nelson lost his job with the Auburn Police Department because the state laws changed. Nelson is the first police officer to be charged with murder since Washington voters approved I-940, which changes the burden of proof for prosecution of police homicides, according to Satterberg’s office.
Prior to I-940, a prosecutor would have to prove an officer acted with “malice” and “lack of good faith” when they killed someone, an impossible standard to meet, Satterberg said. The new standard under I-940 is concerned with whether an officer’s actions were “reasonable,” Satterberg said.
Nelson will appear before the court on Feb. 28, 2022, for his trial in the murder and assault of Jesse Sarey.