SEQUIM — The recent arrest of a Sequim resident has the man’s mother, his attorney, law enforcement officials and others considering how the incident could have been better handled.
On Nov. 7, Nicholas Barrett, who has Down syndrome, was arrested in Port Angeles on charges of theft of a motor vehicle, malicious mischief and obstruction of a law enforcement officer.
“I’m so disappointed [this case] had to get this far,” Suzanne Hayden, Barrett’s attorney from the Clallam County public defenders’ office, said after Barrett’s arraignment hearing Nov. 22.
“A little more education for everyone involved and we never would have had to get here.”
On Nov. 7, Barrett was attending a class at Peninsula College but forgot his cellphone he uses to communicate with his mother, Terry, when he’s away from home.
After the class, Barrett missed his bus home.
“Nick had only had four trainings on how to use buses at that point,” Hayden said. “He didn’t realize that when he missed his bus, another one would come later. He thought he was stuck.”
According to his mother, Barrett became upset, leading to him walking south of the college into one of the bordering neighborhoods along Fifth Street. Frustrated, he damaged some of the properties near Ennis Street and at some point picked up a short length of rebar, according to the police narrative.
A witness called 9-1-1 and informed dispatch that Barrett had also gotten into his truck and told the witness he “doesn’t like cops,” according to the narrative.
“Telling that to dispatch instead of saying, ‘This person has a disability’ changed the entire tone of the response,” said Daniel Harris, a city of Port Angeles employee and member of the Clallam County Mosaic board of directors — a nonprofit that works with vulnerable and special-needs adults.
The two officers — Luke Brown and Cpl. Clay Rife — arrived on the scene at 10:45 a.m., according to their respective reports. As officers approached, Barrett left the truck and fled on foot, despite the officers’ commands to stop.
Brown then drew his Taser, and as Barrett attempted to flee through a fence — kicking out a board of it in the process, according to the reports — Brown told Barrett that if he did not stop, he would be tased.
From here, the two officers’ reports differ somewhat: Brown reported that Barrett fell, and as he got up he discharged his Taser. Rife’s narrative states that Barrett was continuing to flee when the Taser was used.
“That inconsistency is troubling,” Hayden said after Barrett’s arraignment. “As was the use of the Taser at all. It’s supposed to be used when an officer is in harm’s way. A person with Down syndrome who is fleeing does not represent such a threat.”
There is no documentation of the police department employing any procedures or resources to better communicate with and handle someone with a developmental disability. There is no mention of his disability in the police records.
“Even if officers on the scene perceive a disability, that is not a diagnosis,” Port Angeles Deputy Police Chief Jason Viada said of the situation.
“The best that those officers can get from their perceptions on the scene is a ‘maybe,’ ” he said.
As for the use of the Taser on Barrett, Viada said that “force can be lawful and within policy, but it can still make people feel terrible.”
That said, Viada said a situation such as this can be a teaching moment for the police department.
“We do hope that we can take this as an opportunity to learn and do better,” he said.
Being better in the future
Such a teaching moment is exactly what Barrett’s mother, who works at Sequim Middle School as a special education paraeducator, is hoping this can be for everyone involved.
“We’re part of a whole community,” Terry Barrett said. “When we know better, we do better.”
To that end, Harris is working with Clallam Mosaic and Kim Yacklin, the deputy director of Clallam County Health and Human Services, to put together an education plan to work with the Port Angeles Police Department and other local law enforcement and fire departments. The goal is to better recognize and handle situations involving people with developmental disabilities.
“It’s still in the very early stages,” Yacklin said, “but this is very much something we want to see happen.”
Barrett’s mother said she wants to see Peninsula College become included in that process of improvement as well.
“They have no inclusion program for people with these disabilities,” she said. “That’s made things really tough for Nick and for others.”
Peninsula College did not respond to requests for comment.
As far as Barrett’s legal case, his lawyer and his mother said they are hopeful for a positive resolution.
“We were very fortunate to have a deputy prosecutor who has a special education background,” Hayden said, referring to Matthew Roberson, a Clallam County deputy prosecuting attorney.
“He understands a little bit more of this situation than others would,” she said.
During the arraignment, Hayden requested that Barrett be assessed for his capability to face the charges. Roberson agreed and requested a review hearing in January, which Superior Court Judge Brian Coughenour agreed to.
Hayden is hoping, however, to have the case resolved sooner than that.
“The prosecutor has to get his ducks in a row in order to dismiss this case,” she said. “He has to show that it’s not getting dismissed just because we’re saying Nick has Down syndrome.”
To that end, Roberson and Hayden will be pulling records from Sequim High School and elsewhere to help further document Barrett’s disability in order to avoid the long formal evaluation process.
“Hopefully with that we’ll have this dismissed and done by Christmas,” Hayden said.
Barrett’s mother said she was pleased by the news.
“It’s been so hard,” she said, “but I’m so grateful to the community for their support, and happy for good news.”
That support came in the form of a number of supporters in the court gallery, from family friends to Mosaic staff and participants — including Sequim High Principal Shawn Langston and Shelley Langston, the Sequim School District’s executive director of learning support services.
Barrett was a student at Sequim High School, participating on the wrestling team and being named homecoming king in 2015.
“There’s a lot of momentum here for good steps going forward,” Barrett’s mother said. “We just have to help people take them.”
Conor Dowley is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.