King Co. deputy fired for putting pepper spray on water bottles of homeless

FILE -- A King County Sheriff's deputy patrol cruiser photographed by KOMO News.

SEATTLE – A King County deputy has been fired for misusing pepper spray after he admitted to putting the irritant on the water bottles of homeless people. The deputy told investigators he was frustrated by a problem camp site and was simply trying to send a message.

Although Derek DeZiel was let go for "conduct unbecoming" an officer, Sheriff John Urquhart wrote in a termination letter that he considered this to be a "criminal" act - and a form of malicious mischief.

The incident came about late last year, when deputies were regularly called to help clear out a homeless encampment under a bridge in Fall City. DeZiel was one of the officers who typically responded.

On the day in question, the campers were gone but their property was still beneath the bridge. A fellow deputy said DeZiel pulled out his pepper spray and aimed it onto the nozzle of a water bottle.

“Then he said, ‘This is how we handled things in METRO,’” said Ryan Sprecher, one of the other deputies at the camp site that day.

When questioned, DeZiel told investigators it was his way to send a message.

“I put a little squirt of pepper spray on the end of a water bottle to deter him from coming back,” DeZiel said.

Despite applying the spray to the nozzle, DeZiel said his goal was not to have the homeless camper ingest any of it.

“Was the assumption that he would drink this and then get pepper spray on his lips,” one of the internal affairs investigators asked.

"No the assumption was he would touch it and realize there is something on it and that he would get the idea not to come back under the bridge anymore,” DeZiel responded.

DeZiel told investigators he'd done it before, and had learned the tactic from more senior deputies. His partner on the call that day called it "disappointing."

“We've all been OC'd and it's not fun,” Sprecher said. “I really wouldn't want it in my mouth. Especially drinking water."

In his termination letter, Urquhart called the pepper spray incident "an attack on the most vulnerable and powerless segment of society by the most powerful segment of society...a police officer!”

The sheriff also pointed out that DeZiel could not name anyone who taught him the tactic, and said he didn't believe him.

DeZiel had been disciplined before for harassment and other violations in the past. The county prosecutor is now reviewing his case to see if it warrants any criminal charges.

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