Wednesday, January 14, 2004
Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler has been cleared of criminal wrongdoing in his treatment of a local skateboarder who was violating the law.
The sheriff said he has been “extremely grateful” for the strong community support while the investigation was underway. He said many witnesses to the incident stepped forward without being solicited to speak out on his behalf.
“I have no problem with the parents filing a complaint if they felt a wrong was done, that’s their right. On the other hand, I know the law and I stand behind what I did and knew that, in the end, I would be exonerated,” Wampler said.
An independent counsel declined to press charges against Wampler after reviewing the investigative reports about the Oct. 24 incident. Deschutes County District Attorney Michael Dugan was asked by John Sewell, his counterpart in Hood River County, to look at the case so that any challenges about unfairness could be avoided. Sewell said that move was necessary to avoid any appearance of impropriety since Wampler works closely with local law enforcement officials.
“From the time this was brought to my attention it was investigated by the book and in a professional manner to be sure that justice was served,” Sewell said. “Deschutes County responded promptly to resolve what some people were trying to turn into a political spectacle.”
Wampler came under fire for using physical force against a 16-year-old during the annual Homecoming parade. The sheriff readily acknowledged that he pushed the juvenile against a chain link fence and held him there. However, Wampler said he was forced to take that action after the young male refused to turn over his skateboard and became belligerent. Both Wampler and Police Chief Tony Dirks had issued several directives for the teen to stop skateboarding at a high rate of speed against oncoming traffic along May Street near the intersection with 13th Street.
According to Wampler, Dirks, and some witnesses, the minor male disobeyed those orders and then refused to turn over his skateboard when he was finally stopped. After Wampler’s hand was cut during an attempt to confiscate the skateboard, he then physically restrained the subject, who allegedly began yelling to be released and other obscenities. However, whether Wampler exceeded the “reasonable force” allowed by peace officers became the object of an investigation by the Oregon State Police.
The parents of the teen, Dirks, and some of the witnesses reported that Wampler had put his hands around the boy’s neck in a choking motion. However, the sheriff and other observers said the official’s hands were placed at the top of the juvenile’s shirt and his forearm was used to pin the teen against the fence.
After scrutinizing all of the information provided by the OSP, Dugan determined that Wampler had used the authority granted him as a law enforcement officer and had not violated any criminal statute.
“In making a charging decision, a prosecutor must first consider whether there is reasonable doubt that the subject of the complaint is in fact guilty. In this instance there is conflicting evidence as to the severity of the physical force used by Sheriff Wampler. There is, however, no conflict of interest in witness statements that the teen had directly disobeyed Sheriff Wampler’s order to stop. Sheriff Wampler had legal justification to stop and arrest the teen. Sheriff Wampler had legal justification to use physical force to effectuate such an arrest. These considerations lead me to conclude that there is sufficient reasonable doubt as to the “guilt” of Sheriff Wampler as to require a declination of criminal charges. Finally, I conclude that Sheriff Wampler did not violate any criminal law,“ wrote Dugan in a letter to Sewell that was delivered late last week.
Conversely, Dugan said charges could be considered against the teen for the offenses of interfering with a peace officer and disorderly conduct. However, the prosecutor did not recommend taking that action because “it is equally unclear as to whether such charges could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Wampler said he will be relieved to put the controversy behind him and get back to his regular duties. However, he admits that his relationship with Dirks has become somewhat strained during the past few weeks.
“I am extremely disappointed with the actions of the police chief in regard to this incident,” said Wampler.
Dirks said he had no choice but to truthfully answer the questions directed at him by OSP investigators, especially since he was present for the exchange between Wampler and the teen.
“I’m pleased that the sheriff is not going to be charged criminally but just because he didn’t break the law doesn’t mean that his conduct was acceptable,” Dirks said.
He said the officers within his department are expected to govern their behavior by strict procedures regarding interaction with the public.