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Spokane veteran accused of firing at unmarked car questions undercover police tactics

Red unmarked police car (Mr.choppers/WikiCommons)

Not long before midnight on Aug. 12, Jordan Brown was on edge.

He left his apartment on the lower South Hill, got into his black Suburban with a friend and drove off.

As he drove through the neighborhood, he noticed a car “waiting for me at the end of the block.” The driver turned the car’s headlights on and started following him, Brown said.

When the car got to within feet of his rear bumper, he recently told The Spokesman-Review, he heard a loud thump as something struck his car.

“It’s dark, something hits my car, someone is trying to block me from leaving. I’m like, ‘Is it explosive?’ You know. There’s a million things it could be,” Brown said.

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Brown, 28, lives with post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction that he ties to his Army service in Afghanistan.

Brown said he had been suspicious after an acquaintance told him earlier in the day “someone is coming to rob you for something you did in the past.”

After feeling the thump to his car, Brown turned his Suburban around, rolled down his window and shot at the red car that had been following him, according to court documents.

But the car tailing Brown wasn’t driven by a dangerous associate from his criminal past. It was an undercover police officer.

Brown is awaiting trial for assault in the first degree, unlawful possession of a firearm, two counts of possession of a controlled substance, and drive-by shooting.

Brown claims he didn’t know he was being followed by police, though the friend in the Suburban said he did.

The Spokane Police Night Anti-Crime Team had Brown under surveillance. Officers were waiting to arrest Brown for violating his probation by possessing marijuana. He had been convicted earlier of theft and drug possession in Spokane.

The car following Brown was a red unmarked police car driven by Cpl. Shane Oien. The officer never turned on the interior light bar in his car to alert Brown he was an officer, according to the police report.

Police accounts of that night note officers’ fear that Brown would not stop if they turned their lights on and attempted to pull him over.

“I was attempting to close space at a reasonable pace as to not alert the driver that I was the police,” Oien’s report reads.

Oien attempted to get close enough to launch a secretive GPS tracker called StarChase. The device can be deployed from a launcher installed on police cars. When the tracker is affixed to a suspect’s vehicle, police receive real-time data on the vehicle they are tracking.

In the case of Brown’s surveillance, the loud thump Brown said he felt was a StarChase GPS.

According to the police report, Brown ran the stop sign and began to turn before abruptly slamming on the brakes.

Oien said the StarChase system on the front of his car was “inoperable” after he rear-ended the Suburban and does not indicate that he launched the device. However, the officer who executed the search warrant on the Suburban after the incident documented his retrieval of the StarChase device from the back of the Suburban.

Police are unwilling to discuss their use of the GPS tracking devices because they consider them protected tactics.

After Oien’s undercover car rear-ended Brown, Brown sped away and attempted to lose the car tailing him.

When that didn’t work, court documents state Brown turned his Suburban around to face his pursuer.

That’s when Brown rolled down his window, according to Oien.

“This maneuver appeared to be deliberately planned and placed the Suburban at a definite tactical advantage over me,” Oien wrote in his report.

The officer said he “recognized this to likely be an ambush” and laid down sideways in the car and accelerated as 4 to 6 shots came from the Suburban.

Oien tried to drive away but didn’t make it far, due to his car being damaged.

Oien’s body camera was not activated during the chase, but he stated in his report that he believed he activated his body camera while attempting to catch up to the Suburban and did not realize he hadn’t turned it on until his car came to a stop.

Brown says he was scared for his life and unsure what was happening during the pursuit.

After the shots were fired, the Suburban drove away, but police located Brown and Kyle Kozza, who was also in the car, hours later and took them both into custody.

Kozza told police it was Brown who shot the gun and had said “(expletive), it’s the cops,” after they were rear-ended, according to police records.

Brown admitted he shot the gun in his initial police interview, according to police records.

Brown explained to Officer Winston Brooks that he believed the car following him was someone trying to rob him and that after the car rear-ended him he “began shooting his handgun at the vehicle in ‘self-defense,’ ” the police report stated.

“(Brown) kept repeating ‘There were no police lights on so I didn’t know it was the police,’ ” the report says.

To prove someone was acting in self-defense they have to both believe that they were in danger and have a “sincere belief that they’re about to be harmed,” but also that fear has to be of something that another reasonable person would be afraid of, said local lawyer Jeffry Finer.

“Until it’s clear that it’s police, anybody operating legally or illegally might take real fear being tailed aggressively, and so it sounds like this person had a subjective belief that they were in danger of being harmed by an unknown person,” Finer said.

“You can’t even argue self-defense to a jury unless a judge says, ‘I hear the necessary two elements,’ ” Finer said.

Months later, in an interview at the Spokane County Jail, Brown said that when police reference their pursuit of him, he doesn’t see it the same way.

“I mean, first and foremost, if you’re going to be in a pursuit you turn your lights on, right?” Brown said.

After making phone calls to multiple city officials, including people at the police department, Brown’s grandmother, Cyndi Darling, got a call from Lt. Dave Staben who oversees the police anti-crime team. He didn’t specifically reference Brown’s case and was “very diplomatic,” according to Darling.

Staben did make one thing clear, Darling said: Police don’t want to talk about their use of StarChase technology.

“He was not pleased with this information getting out,” Darling said. “That was the one thing that he was clear about.”

“It made me feel like because I had made so many calls all around and nobody knew about the technology that Staben had been getting calls about the PACT team and this technology from people that I called,” Darling said.

Staben declined to discuss StarChase with The Spokesman-Review.

Brown believes the acquaintance who called him and told him he was going to get robbed was a police confidential informant.

“For someone to put you in a position where you think you need to defend your life and then play both sides of it … that’s a whole other thing in itself,” Brown said.

He also believes the police initiated the incident to get a warrant to search the home Brown shares with several others, Brown said.

“Who’s to say that this whole thing wasn’t incited to be able to search my house?” Brown said.

Police did search Brown’s home the night of the incident and found heroin and methamphetamine along with various kinds of ammunition and Polaroid photos of guns in his bedroom.

“If you would have called me, I would have done a 21-day violation (for the Department of Corrections warrant). That’s not a reason to search my house and turn my whole life upside down and threaten me with 20 years and not give me a lawyer to tell me what’s really going on,” Brown said.

After being booked into jail and charged, Brown said he never saw his public defender, John Whaley, until he made a court appearance.

Brown said Whaley discussed his case in front of the prosecutor without identifying who the prosecutor was.

“He came in court and he addressed me with the prosecutor right by his side, I thought it was his legal aid,” Brown said. “Right after that he (the prosecutor) threatened to increase my charges.”

Whaley did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the situation.

The only other time he saw Whaley was during his psychological evaluation, Brown said.

The evaluation took place just over a month after Brown was arrested and indicated that Brown has post-traumatic stress disorder, opioid-use disorder and alcohol-use disorder.

Brown dropped out of high school in 11th grade and joined the Army at 17 years old, according to the evaluation. He received his GED and studied mechanical engineering at Eastern Washington University, but did not graduate.

Brown’s first contact with police was at age 17 and was related to underage drinking.

He served in the Army for five years and was deployed to Afghanistan for about a year.

“I was in almost 400 direct and indirect fire engagements,” Brown said.

“Probably the biggest thing that dealing with the those engagements in Afghanistan … believe it or not, there are drugs in Afghanistan,” Brown said.

After first trying heroin in Afghanistan, Brown told the psychologist, he started using again when his brother and grandfather died in the same year.

Brown also told the psychologist about injuries, including a shattered hand and severe head injuries, he received during his deployment.

Brown told the psychologist that his drug use intensified over the months before his arrest and that he had used methamphetamine the night of his arrest.

The psychologist said Brown was competent to stand trial.

“Well, I’m not trying to make it an excuse for any bad behavior, but he definitely has not been the same since he came back from the war,” said Darling, his grandmother. “He has gone to rehab. He’s very close to finishing his engineering degree. He’s had times where he’s going to college, doing well, doing what he’s supposed to do, but overall it has been difficult.”

After the competency evaluation, Brown said, he never saw Whaley again and that the lawyer often sent his colleagues to represent Brown at court hearings, something that public defenders commonly do.

He petitioned the judge himself to change attorneys and is now represented by Brooke Hagara. Brown’s trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 20.

Brown continues to argue that he acted in self-defense and that the police acted inappropriately that night. Brown said that type of conduct isn’t something that just affects him, but others as well.

“Yeah, it’s me today, but who is it going to be tomorrow?” Brown said. “Who was it in the past? Who has already been put away?”

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© 2020 The Spokesman-Review