No charges in St. Helens use-of-force investigation
Editor's note: This story contains images from police officers' body-worn cameras that some viewers may find disturbing.
A St. Helens police officer punched a female suspect during an arrest this summer, fracturing a bone around her eye, in what Columbia County's top prosecutor suggests could be a teaching moment for local law enforcement agencies.
District Attorney Jeff Auxier announced he won't file charges against the officer, Adam Raethke, after an investigation by Oregon State Police concluded the punch was justified.
But in his report on the incident, Auxier wrote he hoped his decision would "be seen less as a vindication of the conduct at issue and more as an opportunity for the agency to raise professional standards."
On Aug. 12, 2020, St. Helens Police Officers Raethke and Jamin Coy responded to a report of domestic disturbance between sisters Ashley Andrews and Alyssa Jones.
After interviewing the sisters and others present, Raethke and Coy informed Andrews that she would be arrested. A physical altercation followed, leading to Raethke punching Andrews in the face while she was on the ground, leaving her with a black eye and broken orbital bone.
Andrews was charged with assaulting a public safety officer, which is a felony, and five misdemeanors including harassment, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
An investigation by Oregon State Police concluded that the punch was justified, but a use-of-force expert whom Auxier consulted raised questions about Raethke's conduct.
"The very elements of a professional practice are missing," Bill Lewinski told Auxier. "Is it justified? Yeah. But what they did could have been avoided. If they go to that level of force with a young woman, what do they do with a strong man? I'm very concerned."
Raethke, a former Marine, and Coy, who is 6-foot-4, both easily outweigh Andrews, who is just under 5 feet tall and 110 pounds.
Auxier consulted Lewinski after OSP and a trainer with the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training concluded the punch was justified.
"While I appreciate the conclusions of OSP and DPSST, I was not convinced that a 6-foot-tall male police officer can punch a 5-foot-tall female in the face simply because she had scratched his neck," Auxier wrote.
Details of the incident
Body-worn camera footage shows Coy telling Andrews that he and Raethke will be taking her into custody after she finishes her cigarette. Andrews grabs a duffel bag and heads toward her truck. Coy tells her not to go to the truck but Andrews continues, saying that she's putting the bag in her vehicle so that her sister won't steal it. Coy offers to put the bag in the truck for her, but Andrews ignores him, so Coy grabs the duffel bag and Andrews' arm. Andrews swings at Coy, apparently attempting to hit him, but doesn't make contact.
Body cam footage from Raethke's view doesn't show whether Andrews' punch landed. Raethke told investigators that he believed Andrews had punched Coy, so he intervened.
For nearly half an hour after Coy and Raethke arrived on the scene, the encounter remained relatively calm, though Andrews and her sister were both clearly upset while speaking to the officers. Andrews was argumentative with her sister, the officers and, later, the medics.
The situation escalated quickly. Less than 60 seconds passed from the moment Andrews swung at Coy to when Raethke and Coy lifted Andrews, handcuffed, off the ground.
Body cam footage shows Raethke approach from behind Coy, grab Andrews by the neck and under her arm, and push her into a wall and then down to the ground on top of full green bottle bags. Coy, still holding onto Andrews' arm, pulls a bottle bag out of the way as Raethke pushes Andrews to the ground.
As Raethke is on top of her, pushing on her face with his forearm, Andrews continues to struggle, with one arm held by Coy and the other reaching up near Raethke's neck.
Raethke hits Andrews once, with a closed fist, before he and Coy flip her over and handcuff her.
Medics responded to the scene and transported Andrews to a hospital.
Raethke told investigators that he felt a sharp pain on his neck while Andrews' hand was reaching up, but did not immediately realize it was Andrews' hand. The OSP report says that in the body camera footage, it sounds like Raethke says "stop pinching" as he punches Andrews.
Jennifer Myrick, an attorney who represented Andrews, said that the investigations shouldn't have focused so narrowly on the punch.
"Grabbing someone's neck is not a casual thing, and we don't have anything on that," Myrick said.
Raethke told an OSP investigator that his hand making contact with Andrews' neck "was unintentional and inadvertent."
DA suggests training isn't sufficient
The District Attorney's Office dropped the charges against Andrews less than a month after the incident, after further review.
Myrick said that Andrews suffered broken ribs from being thrown against the wall. Andrews is a nurse but has been put in a managerial role, Myrick said, because of brain damage that may mean she can't safely treat patients.
Raethke told investigators that during his defensive tactics trainings, he hadn't been taught any takedown methods to use when face-to-face with a combative subject.
Myrick said she was shocked that officers hadn't received that training, given that a combative interaction would likely be face-to-face.
Myrick also said that Auxier refused to provide documents and body camera footage to her and another attorney working with Andrews.
Raethke had completed state use-of-force training just four days before the incident with Andrews, DPSST records show. He completed defensive tactics training the day after the incident.
Scott Willadsen, DPSST's use-of-force training coordinator, reviewed the body camera footage and told Auxier that Raethke's actions were consistent with DPSST training. Auxier wrote that Willadsen said he would have told Raethke that the punch "was a permissible use of force under the circumstances so that he could quickly gain compliance, but that such a punch is likely to draw scrutiny."
St. Helens Police Chief Brian Greenway did not directly respond to multiple requests for comment, but a city spokesperson provided a statement on behalf of the St. Helens Police Department.
"At the beginning of this year, we began taking proactive steps to ensure that our use-of-force policy and training meets national best-practice standards in policing," the police department stated. "We have implemented an increased training regimen which includes use-of-force confrontational scenarios. We also have a policy in place that requires a supervisor to respond to any officer's physical use of force. This allows us to review our officers' use of force and proactively address any issues which occur."
The supervisor-response policy was used in the August incident with Andrews.
"We adopted a revised use of force policy which does not allow our officers to use carotid holds," the department stated. However, the department's use of force policy shows that carotid holds are permitted in instances where a deadly use of force is considered justified, meaning there is a threat of death or serious bodily injury.
Carotid holds are one of two neck restraints commonly used by law enforcement. Carotid holds limit blood flow to the brain, while chokeholds restrict breathing. Both neck restraints were banned or restricted by more than half of the nation's largest police departments this year.
The St. Helens Police Department policy manual available on the city's website has not been updated since 2017. Carotid holds are permitted in that edition, while chokeholds are not mentioned.
Auxier attributed the Aug. 12 incident to insufficient training opportunities for understaffed law enforcement agencies.
"This is a problem suffered throughout Columbia County. Nevertheless, it would be unfortunate if this opportunity to raise professional standards was not seized," Auxier concluded.
"While we hold our officers to the highest standards, we are a small agency with limited staffing and no dedicated training facility," the St. Helens police statement noted. "We regularly advocated for additional officers and an increased budget which would allow our calls to be adequately staffed and provide sufficient shift coverage so that we could send our officers to more frequent training."
Raethke has been accused of excessive force in a separate incident that took place in August 2019. A lawsuit related to that incident was filed in May and is ongoing.
Raethke worked in the Columbia County Jail for two years before joining the St. Helens Police Department in June 2019.
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