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As police reforms near passage, Washington State Patrol sexual misconduct case tests state oversight

Former Sgt. Sean Carr resigned from the Washington State Patrol after admitting to on-duty sex. He has a hearing this week as the state tries to strip him of his law enforcement commission.
Washington State Patrol
Former Sgt. Sean Carr resigned from the Washington State Patrol after admitting to on-duty sex. He has a hearing this week as the state tries to strip him of his law enforcement commission.

The son-in-law of the Washington State Patrol chief resigned as a trooper after investigations into allegations of on-the-job sex and sexual assault. He is now fighting to keep his badge, testing the state's narrow law for decertifying police.

Before he resigned as a sergeant with the Washington State Patrol, Sean Carr was accused of grabbing and bruising a co-worker’s arm and trying to get her to perform a sex act, sending her explicit videos of himself, and coercing her to have sex at a highway weigh station — all while in uniform and on duty.

The woman told WSP investigators she was raped, and the Thurston County Sheriff recommended charges be filed. She was unwilling to testify, but she told prosecutors she had one wish: that Carr — the State Patrol chief’s son-in-law — never be allowed to police again.

Carr denied assaulting the woman, but admitted to a consensual relationship. He resigned before the WSP could determine whether to fire him, and the state is now trying to strip him of his law enforcement certification — a requirement to carry a badge and gun.

Carr is mounting a defense and Washington’s process for revoking police certification is so narrow that the state could face some steep challenges in pressing its case.

To decertify Carr, the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) will have to convince a panel he broke the law as a trooper, even though he was ultimately not charged with a crime — a tall order for an under-resourced state agency which can face stiff opposition from officers’ attorneys.

Washington has about 11,000 certified officers at any given time. Since 2003, the state has decertified about 230 officers, at least four of them for on-duty sex. One had his case overturned on appeal.

The Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office declined to pursue charges in the case last year when the woman was unwilling to testify. The Seattle Times and public radio Northwest News Network, which obtained investigative records of the case, are not naming her because she is a victim of alleged sexual assault.

“I believe that the events occurred like she said they did,” wrote Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Megan Winder in a letter to the sheriff’s office. But a lack of physical evidence due to the time that had elapsed, Winder explained, would make it hard to prove guilt.

Now, Carr’s state hearing is set to begin this week, as the state legislature is on the verge of final passage of a bill that would lower the bar for decertification, removing a requirement for criminal misconduct.

“Shameful event”

Police — with broad autonomy and the power conferred by the badge — have opportunities to exploit their authority. An Associated Press investigation in 2015 uncovered about 1,000 officers in the U.S. who lost their badges in a six-year period for sex crimes or misconduct such as propositioning citizens or having consensual but prohibited on-duty intercourse.

Over the past 10 years the Washington State Patrol has investigated and confirmed four cases of sex on duty, according to the agency, including Carr’s.

His case was particularly sensitive for the agency because he is married to WSP Chief John Batiste’s daughter, who is also a sergeant with the Patrol.

Shortly after the allegations against Carr came to light, Batiste was “walled off” from having any involvement in the investigation, according to internal documents. Through a spokesman, Batiste declined to comment. There’s no evidence that Carr received favorable treatment because the chief is his father-in-law.

“This is an embarrassing and shameful event in our history,” said Chris Loftis, a spokesperson for the Patrol. “For us to maintain the public trust, we have to act in an exemplary fashion at all times, and in this case a member of the Washington State Patrol did not act in an exemplary fashion.”

Carr declined to be interviewed for this story.

“He is deeply remorseful and has accepted full responsibility for his error in judgment. However, the relationship, while wrong, was at all times fully consensual,” his attorney, Nick Gross, wrote in a statement.

“Mr. Carr is a dedicated public servant,” the statement continued. “He seeks only an opportunity to continue to serve our community.”

On-duty misconduct

Carr met the woman, a civilian WSP worker, on the job in 2012 and struck up an online friendship. Several months later, they both told investigators, the relationship turned sexual, including a late-night meetup at a Park and Ride lot in Federal Way along Interstate 5.

“[H]e told me that that would be a good place to meet because there were no cameras in that specific Park and Ride,” the woman told State Patrol investigators.

Carr admitted to six sexual encounters over the next five years with the woman, five of which happened either while he was on duty, on state property or driving a state patrol vehicle and in uniform. She recalled as many as 20, all but one when he was on duty. In at least one instance, records indicate, the woman was also on the job.

Throughout some of his patrol shifts, they would send each other sexually explicit videos and messages, typically through Facebook Messenger. On one shift, Carr and the woman carried on a back-and-forth conversation that lasted for nearly 10 hours.

He was “deeply ashamed and regretful of my actions and my poor decisions,” Carr told the investigators. “I’m being paid to be out there working and supervising and earning a paycheck, not chatting up my girlfriend.”

While the woman said most of their encounters were consensual, she described three incidents when she said Carr pressured her for sex while on duty.

One situation that would lead Thurston County Sheriff’s investigators to recommend criminal charges happened in the first part of 2017. Carr, in his patrol car, pulled off the highway in Olympia and met the woman in a church parking lot obscured by the main building.

The woman had started dating another man and Carr wanted to know who it was. When she wouldn’t reveal the name and tried to leave, she said, he grabbed her arm hard enough to leave bruises.

Carr gave her two choices, she said, as they stood behind the church: give up the name of the other man or give Carr oral sex. Carr later told investigators he said that in a “joking context.” The woman said she ceded to his sexual demand, which she said was “not consensual.”

“He raped me on the side of the road,” the woman told WSP investigators. If it had been anyone else besides Carr, she also told sheriff’s investigators, she would have called 911.

Carr acknowledged meeting the woman at the church, grabbing her arm in a “flirtatious” way to keep her from leaving, and engaging in sex, which he “vehemently” denied was forced.

“I did not force her to perform any sexual act,” Carr told WSP investigators. “That was completely consensual.”

A second time, the woman said, Carr backed her into a corner of a highway weigh station house near Montesano, and insisted she have sex with him. She called it “coerced.” Carr again said the consent was mutual.

Despite Carr “stepping over the line,” the woman said she kept in touch with him because she was going through hard times in her life and he “talked me through everything.” They even met later on the same day of the weigh station episode.

Unwanted advances

Carr’s transgressions might have escaped scrutiny had the woman, after leaving the agency, not confided in another Patrol employee, who then mentioned the situation to someone at headquarters, triggering an investigation. In 2019 the woman formally reported Carr to the WSP’s Office of Professional Standards.

Records show the Patrol immediately confiscated Carr’s badge and gun and placed him on home assignment, where he remained until resigning. The Patrol referred the case to the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office because of the potential criminal nature of the allegations.

Carr’s personnel file includes other on-the-job violations, including using a Taser on a drunk-driving suspect who was handcuffed. That incident resulted in discipline for a “major” violation of WSP policy.

Records show that in February 2013, Carr was accused of frequenting a coffee stand in Pierce County and making unwanted advances toward an employee by waiting near her car until her shift ended, and making derogatory comments about her boyfriend.

After an investigation, the WSP found Carr violated standards of employee conduct and the patrol’s code of ethics. He lost two days of time off as his punishment.

Later that year Carr married the chief’s daughter in the rotunda of the state Capitol. A state patrol chaplain officiated, according to a WSP newsletter.

High bar for decertification

Police accused of misconduct in Washington can have their certification revoked under four specific categories: perjury or dishonesty; use or possession of illegal drugs; actions that lead to a loss of gun rights, such as domestic violence; or criminal behavior conducted “under color of authority.”

Partially because it is understaffed to take on complex legal fights, the state CJTC rarely pursues “under the color of authority” cases, such as Carr’s.

The state has to meet a high bar. It must prove the conduct broke the law, and the alleged crime was related to an officer’s powers, whether or not the officer was charged criminally, said Anne Levinson, a former judge and Seattle police oversight official who helped write the pending reform bill.

While the state rarely decertifies officers for on-duty sex, last month the CJTC heard one such case involving Cody McCoy, a former Snohomish County Sheriff’s deputy. A final decision is pending.

In Carr’s case, the CJTC alleges his behavior constituted official misconduct and failure of duty, without mentioning sexual assault allegations. Instead, it contends he used state resources for his own benefit, or neglected his duties, when he sexted the woman and “engaged in sexual activity.”

The bill pending before the Legislature would allow decertification for a “pattern of conduct” that “fails to meet the ethical and professional standards required of a peace officer” or “jeopardizes public trust or confidence in the law enforcement profession.”

“What’s needed is a state law that fully comports with the public’s expectation,” Levinson said.

Those who avoid decertification are eligible to be rehired by any Washington law enforcement agency.

While Carr admitted to misconduct, he also defended his service as a trooper during the WSP investigation, summarizing his accomplishments: helping his troopers advance their careers, catching 50 drunk drivers in a year and doing outreach to the NAACP.

But he also acknowledged that his on-duty misconduct affected his work.

“I’m regretting the fact that I could have done a lot more if I hadn’t been engaged in this kind of thing,” he told investigators.

Carr admitted to repeated violations, including neglect of duty, and resigned in July 2020 before the WSP could decide whether to terminate him.

Now, the CJTC has scheduled a three-day decertification hearing starting April 13, allowing Carr an opportunity to argue for continuing his law enforcement career.

“I don’t think he should be a police officer anymore,” the woman told investigators. “I think he’s abusing his authority and his position to do things he shouldn’t be doing.”

This story has been updated and was reported in conjunction with The Seattle Times.

Copyright 2021 Northwest News Network

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Mike Reicher of The Seattle Times
Austin Jenkins
Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."