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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Off-Duty Seattle Police Officer Involved In Sturgis Biker Shooting -Updated

(originally posted on 08/11/08 - updated 08/28/08, Officer Smith has been charged in the incident as have the four other officers with him and the person who was shot as well.)

An off-duty Seattle police officer and member of the "Iron Pigs" motorcycle club, (a biker group comprised of law enforcement officer and firefighters), is being investigated after being detained as a result of a shooting in Sturgis South Dakota this weekend. The Seattle Police Department has confirmed that it has put SPD officer Ron Smith, and 4 other officers who were with him, on administrative duty while Sturgis police and other local authorities investigate the shooting that left one "Hells Angels" motorcycle club member hospitalized.

The shooting occurred around 1:00am inside a bar called the Loud American Roadhouse that held about 500 patrons at the time of the shooting. Accounts differ as to how many shots were fired, from 2 to 8, but the officer involved alleges that the shots were fired in self defense after a fight broke out between members of the Iron Pigs and Hells Angels, according to the Seattle Police Officer's Guild.

Some witnesses who have given testimony to a grand jury convened in South Dakota and others in various motorcycle forums who claim to have been there suggest that the fight broke out over Iron Pigs MC members displaying their "colors" which is something most biker groups are discouraged from doing while at the Sturgis rally as it is seen as a provocation.

The previously unnamed officer, Ronald Smith, reportedly has a history of disciplinary actions against him, including one 2005 incident at a Seattle Seahawks game where he taunted Seahawks fans which instigated a fight while he was working as security and another 2005 incident where he allegedly threatened to shoot a bar manager in Tacoma Washington while off-duty after the bar manager asked him to leave. Investigations into both matters found the officer guilty of misconduct, but the disciplinary actions merely resulted in a 2 day suspension for the first incident and a written reprimand for the threats he made in the Tacoma area bar.

While some police officers have threatened us and journalists in Seattle with legal action in regards to the reports of previous misconduct rulings involving this officer, the reports of these prior misconduct allegations were apparently confirmed by the president of the Seattle Police Officer's Guild himself in an interview with The Seattle Times about the Sturgis shooting incident:

"O'Neill said the Seattle detective involved in the shooting has been investigated by the department a handful of times, once for allegedly taunting someone at a football game, but he has not received any "serious" discipline. He said the detective contacted him, as his union representative, since the shooting."

Details about another misconduct case against officer Smith, also in 2005, indicates that the officer may have had run-ins with the Hell's Angels previously when he apparently pressed charges against a Hell's Angels club member for making threats over the phone. However, it appears that the call was recorded and when played back to prosecutors the charges were dismissed and a subsequent internal investigation referred Smith for Supervisory Intervention as he appeared to be the person making threats during the conversation instead by telling the club member that he was a part of "the biggest gang of all" and that he should "watch his back".

(we should also note that officer Smith, as a guild board member and editor of the Seattle Police Officer's Guild's newsletter "The Guardian", has contacted us, and other blog writers, in the past to issue threats of legal action and other intimidating messages over articles published about misconduct and pieces critical of content posted in their monthly newsletter.)

The police guild has issued statements of support and insists that the officer was attacked without provocation. They state that they anticipate that he will be vindicated when video evidence taken from the bar becomes available. However, investigators have said the video is currently too dark to make out any details and they hope to have it enhanced by the time the grand jury reconvenes around August 27, so the assurances of the officer's innocence by Seattle Police Guild members is not based on any actual evidence or known independent witness testimony.

Alleged witness accounts reported in the press up to this point appear to contradict the officer's accounting of events to the media with the officer stating that he was being kicked and hit by several people and fired out of fear for his own life. Witness acocunts seem to be indicating that the officer who fired shots was standing and shot at a single person who was fighting with someone else or else there was more than one Iron Pigs MC member who was armed inside the bar that night. Additional commentary in the latest reports in the Sturgis area press from people who claim to have been there raise some disturbing accusations as well, however no testimony given to the grand jury has been confirmed so there is no way to verify any accounts reported in the press or various message boards.

Regardless of the nature of the shooting, the officer may face legal consequences for having a concealed weapon inside an establishment that serves alcohol while he was drinking. While off-duty officers are exempt from laws governing where they may cary their off-duty weapons by federal law, the law does not permit officers to cary weapons while under the influence. Witnesses say the officer was taken into custody inside the bar and the officer has admitted in a recent Seattle Times article that he had been drinking but insists he was not drunk. He was reportedly administered a BAC test but no results have been released and the federal law is not specific about what constitutes being under the influence.

(To highlight how rules about concealed weapons apply to officers, a recent politically motivated nightclub sting operation in Seattle, dubbed "operation sobering thought", resulted in the arrest of some nightclub employees because they allegedly allowed known undercover officers into bars with their service weapons. This would appear to indicate that Seattle Police believed officers should not be allowed into establishments that serve alcohol.)

The Seattle Police Department has sent a contingent of officers to Sturgis to oversee the investigation but insist that they will not interfere with grand jury and associated Sturgis police investigation. Authorities in Seattle and Sturgis remained quiet about details of the investigations and information surrounding the identity of officers involved and the wounded individual until recently. Sturgis authorities have also stated that the officer has been released after questioning by a grand jury that had been hastily convened over the incident, but there is no indication currently whether any charges will be filed. The individual who was shot still remains in the hospital recovering from his injuries as of 08/21/08.

Meanwhile, the Iron Pigs MC websites have been going down all over the US leaving many to suspect that the bike club members are trying to clean up the questionable content and images that were posted on their sites in response to the increased scrutiny caused by this incident and to avoid giving the appearance of being instigators to the grand jury that is currently investigating the shooting. Motorcycle enthusiest sites have been rife with descriptions and accounts of content in those sites that mimic terminology and imagery used by so-called "outlaw" motocycle groups like the Hells Angels and suggest that the incident may have started due to the Iron Pigs usage of a "three-piece rocker" patch on their jackets which allegedly denotes membership to such types of organizations.

A number of civil suits were filed recently over another off-duty police officer shooting incident in Seattle's Post Alley where a different officer allegedly hit a woman with his motorcycle, shoved her into a wall, and then shot a local defense attorney when people in the late-night bar crowd had allegedly attacked him over the incident. It's unknown as to whether that officer was a member of the Iron Pigs group and if that officer was among the five officers involved in the Sturgis shooting.

UPDATED 08/11/08 16:16- added information on a somewhat unrelated shooting incident involving an off-duty officer on a motorcycle per commenter request.
UPDATED 08/12/08 01:32- added more information as it became available in news reports and for information about the grand jury hearings held in Meade County, South Dakota.
UPDATED 08/15/08 23:33- More information from recent Seattle Times article and various sites and fixed the link to the correct "Operation Sobering Thought" article.
UPDATED 08/18/08 14:11- Added details about and sourced witness accounts reported in the Meade County press.
UPDATED 08/21/08 10:03- Referenced latest article from The Black Hills Pioneer.
UPDATED 08/23/08 11:42- Referenced information posted in The Seattle Times about a misconduct complaint filed against officer Smith over a different incident with another Hell's Angels MC member.

UPDATED 08/23/08 23:08- Referenced a Seattle Times article where the president of the police guild confirmed previous allegations of misconduct were filed against this officer as reported in the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

Note: While we were aware of the officer's identity we did not publish that information out of respect for concerns expressed in the media for the officer's safety until the officer's identity was released in the Seattle Times on Aug 15.


Anonymous said...

I can't believe you didn't link this up to the story of the off duty cop on a motorcycle shooting people outside of Kells.

At least the police in Sturgis won't tolerate thug biker gang SPD officers randomly shooting people around bars.

Packratt said...

Thanks for the comment!

I assume you mean the Post Alley incident that's currently in civil litigation? Well, I do wonder if that officer was also a member of this Iron Pigs MC the similarities between the cases are a bit stretched, it's hard to put it in context, but I'll think about it.

Washblog has an interesting article about the incident that goes over an older interview with the Sturgis Police chief where he says the one thing they do is make sure no biker club members have weapons when they come in for the rally... apparently they missed this one.

Thanks again for the comment and the suggestion!

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you're supporting the Seattle media blackout on this by not releasing Officer Smith's name. Information wants to be free. A quick search of the AP for "sturgis identities" will turn up the name.

Packratt said...

Well, to tell the truth, initially my concern was for the officer's family so I didn't want to release his name in case there would be some sort of retribution by members of the HAMC for the shooting.

However, after his name was released in the Meade County press and elsewhere my concern turned to issues of liability... after all, if the news papers and television stations in Seattle were still afraid to release his name, I sure as heck should be.

Mind you, it's because Lt. Ron Smith has made it clear in the past to us that he's not afraid to threaten unleashing the guild's lawyers on people, he's done it to us himself as I mention in the post after this one.

Also, I would rather be cautious when publishing articles about a cop who admits to carrying around his gun while drinking, as mentioned in the Seattle Times article released today.

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