A persons belongings in The Jungle, the encampment under I-5 that was swept last October.
A person's belongings in The Jungle, the encampment under I-5 that was "swept" last October. City of Seattle

The King County Sheriff’s Office last week fired a sheriff’s deputy for contaminating a water bottle at a homeless encampment with pepper spray, according to internal investigative documents obtained through a public records request.

Former senior deputy Derek DeZiel, who served on the force for eight years, admitted in interviews that he put “a little squirt of pepper spray” on the tip of a homeless man’s water bottle with the intention of discouraging the man from returning to an encampment. “He's going to understand that he's no longer welcome here and he won't be under the bridges anymore," DeZiel said, explaining the technique.

DeZiel reportedly used the tactic multiple times, claiming “that’s what people had showed me to do” when he was a junior deputy at Metro Transit. In interviews with investigators, DeZiel did not name anyone who allegedly taught him this practice, and King County Sheriff John Urquhart says he doesn’t buy DeZiel’s claim that other deputies have used pepper spray on homeless people’s water bottles.

“I passed [the information] on to the commander of the Metro Transit unit to ask around and see if there are any rumors of that and there's nothing,” Urquhart told The Stranger by phone.

Interview transcripts obtained by The Stranger also show police union leadership asking DeZiel whether the pepper spray was “organic,” claiming the weapon may be used as a condiment on tacos, and minimizing his application of mace compared to “protest control tactics” used by police during demonstrations at Standing Rock, North Dakota, and the Coast Guard.

In a termination letter to DeZiel, dated April 28, Urquhart rails against DeZiel for his behavior. Though the allegation against DeZiel was for "conduct unbecoming," Urquhart wrote that he believed a more appropriate classification would have been "conduct criminal in nature for malicious mischief."

DeZiel has a lengthy disciplinary record. He was previously suspended for five days in February for harassing a female coworker. According to King County Sherriff’s Office disciplinary records, DeZiel repeatedly told her she was "a woman working in a man's job.” The senior deputy was also disciplined for allegedly kicking in a person's door over a parking violation, entering another person’s home over an animal complaint and being rude, watching a TV show or movie in a patrol car while driving, and failing to follow up on a robbery report.

The pepper spray incident was first reported internally by DeZiel’s partner, an entry-level deputy named Ryan Sprecher, who witnessed the officer putting pepper spray on a homeless man's Camelback flip-top water bottle during a patrol of a small encampment under a bridge outside of Snoqualmie in November of 2016. In a later interview with the King County Sheriff's Office internal investigations unit (IIU) and King County's Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), DeZiel admitted that he did it to "deter people from coming back."

Sprecher, DeZiel's partner, had initiated a project to clear people from the four or five-person encampment under the bridge by first issuing warnings for trespass offenses, and eventually, making arrests or filing formal charges. But their efforts didn’t work to clear the encampment. DeZiel told an IIU investigator that one of the people living in the encampment "wasn't getting it," so he put pepper spray on the man’s water bottle to send him a message.

DeZiel also claimed he used pepper spray in this manner a "couple times in the past", and didn't see a problem with it then.

"Some people said we used to slash tents, but we don't do that anymore so we'll, we might put a little pepper spray down to deter people from coming back," DeZiel said. The deputy insisted he never meant for someone to ingest the pepper spray.

DeZiel also reportedly reprimanded Sprecher when he learned that his partner had gone to the higher ups. “Who the fuck did you talk to and what the fuck did you say,” DeZiel said to Sprecher on the phone, according to interview transcripts.

King County Police Officers Guild vice president Bob Lurry, who was present and representing DeZiel at his interview, downplayed the notion that DeZiel did something egregious for a police officer.

Lurry asked DeZiel if the pepper spray was "organic" and "edible." When DeZiel answered that it was, Lurry said he knew someone who would put pepper spray on tacos. The union vice president proceeded to suggest that it was "living in the Seattle area and how the homeless problems have been in the news" that made putting pepper spray on someone's water bottle a bad idea.

Lurry also referenced law enforcement spraying Dakota Access pipeline water activists with cold water in 15 degree weather and the Coast Guard using water to spray people off boats as other "protest control technique[s]."

"The point I'm trying to make is that it's, it's trying to deter behavior," Lurry said, "but obviously since we're in this setting, Derek, it's something you shouldn't have done, correct?" (Scroll down to hear audio excerpted from DeZiel's interview, including Lurry's questions to the deputy.)

Lieutenant Dana Warr, public affairs officer for the Coast Guard's 13th District, told The Stranger that the Coast Guard does not spray people off their boats—at least not in the 20 years that he's served. Warr added that the Coast Guard has not used pepper spray on anyone in 2017, and only twice in 2016; it's used, he said, as a last resort.

Dr. Judy Stone, an infectious disease specialist who has written about the lack of clinical research on the effects of police pepper spray, considers Lurry's insistence that pepper spray is organic and edible to be nonsense.

"I think it's awful and not benign, mostly because a) cruel and b) much stronger concentration than people would normally ingest," Stone wrote in an e-mail.

According to a story in Medical News Today that was reviewed by the University of Illinois-Chicago School of Medicine, the concentration of capsaicin—the pain-causing inflammatory agent that's also found in peppers—in bear spray is just 1 to 2 percent. Pepper spray used by police officers reportedly has capsaicin concentration levels between 10 and 30 percent.

In addition to pain, ingesting pepper spray could also result in elevated blood pressure, which could increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke, Stone wrote.

The Stranger has reached out to King County police union officials Lurry and Steve Eggert, guild president, to ask if they think putting pepper spray on homeless people's water bottles is wrong regardless of the setting. We'll update if we hear back.

"I don't find the fact that you pepper sprayed the water bottle of a homeless person 'benign.' Not in the least," Urquhart wrote in DeZiel’s termination letter. "I find it an attack on the most vulnerable and powerless segment of society by the most powerful segment of society....a police officer!"

The Sheriff also blasted DeZiel for his call to his partner, Ryan Sprecher. "The entire police profession is continually fighting the public's perception of the 'blue wall,'" Urquhart wrote. "You professed, via your interview with IIU, that the best way to handle 'disagreements' is to 'just work it out.' That is certainly one definition of the Blue Wall."

"And it is made worse by the status difference between you and Deputy Sprecher," Urquhart continued. "You are an eight-year senior deputy (...) and Deputy Sprecher is barely in Phase 3. In the legal world and considering all the factors mentioned, your call borders on intimidating a witness."

DeZiel's last day at the Sheriff's Office was May 5.

Here's a clip of the investigative interview with DeZiel. Voices, in order of appearance:
• Tess Mullarkey, OLEO
• Derek DeZiel, former senior King County Sheriff's Office deputy
• Bob Lurry, King County Police Officers Guild vice president
• Sgt. Tim Gillette, IIU investigator

This article has been updated to include comments from the US Coast Guard.