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Tacoma cop fired after female officer's neck restraint complaint

A man in a police uniform raises his right hand as a man in a suit across from him recites a pledge with his right hand raised. A Washington state flag and U.S. flag are in the background.
Tacoma Police Department
Former Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell (left) swore in former police officer Matthew Morse in April 2020. Morse was fired by current Police Chief Avery Moore in June 2023.

A Tacoma police officer accused of excessive force and putting a female colleague into a neck restraint was recently fired after about eight months of paid leave, according to public records reviewed by KNKX.

City of Tacoma spokesperson Maria Lee said Police Chief Avery Moore reviewed the investigations of former officer Matthew Morse and chose to fire him on June 7. The chief put Morse on paid leave in early October 2022 following the neck restraint allegation.

The complainant officer told investigators the neck restraint incident was upsetting to her but presumed Morse viewed it as horseplay. She said she thought Morse wouldn't have acted the same way toward a male officer.

At the time, Morse was already under investigation for pushing and tripping a handcuffed assault suspect with gunshot wounds.

Emails show both the excessive force and workplace violence investigations were completed early this year. A third investigation was opened in April after Morse showed up at a police station where one of his accusers worked, despite being barred from department buildings during administrative leave.

Deputy Police Chief Paul Junger, who was briefed on the April incident, referred KNKX to a spokesperson and the public records request process when asked about the circumstances surrounding Morse's firing.

Police committee calls for transparency

Members of Tacoma's Community Police Advisory Committee said the lack of transparency surrounding the complaints against Morse and his firing two months ago bolsters the committee's request for greater oversight authority from city officials. The committee, known as CPAC, makes policy recommendations and reviews civilian complaint investigations. Members have said a more transparent internal affairs process would increase trust among community members.

CPAC has proposed a system where it would be notified of all internal affairs complaints almost immediately and have a full-time staffer to track the investigative process. CPAC currently gets quarterly reports summarizing completed internal investigations, but only those started by civilians. Members have to file public records requests for full reports, and the complaints lodged by officers against their colleagues never go before the committee.

"There’s this sort of cloud mystery around what happens with internal affairs complaints," CPAC Vice Chair Shayna Raphael told KNKX. "And in Tacoma, there’s clearly a fractured relationship with a lot of the community members and TPD."

Raphael said she understands the importance of transparency in the internal affairs process from experience. She joined CPAC several years ago after she wasn’t satisfied with the police department's investigation of her infant daughter’s death at daycare. She said the detective in charge was eventually disciplined after multiple internal investigations.

CPAC's proposal is under review by the city manager's office and would likely require negotiations with the police union representing rank-and-file officers.

Public records reviewed by KNKX show all of the recent complaints against Morse were initiated by other officers.

The Tacoma Police Department hired Morse in March 2020 after he’d spent nearly three years as a Fife police officer.

Morse was previously counseled in Fife after internal investigations into his report writing, driving, and use of a marked patrol car to visit family during pandemic lockdowns. In Tacoma, he was reprimanded for causing two collisions on duty and cursing at civilians during police responses.

A workplace violence complaint

Tacoma Police Chief Avery Moore put Morse on leave in October 2022 after he was briefed on multiple allegations against Morse from a female officer.

The female officer told her sergeant that in late September, Morse came up from behind her in an office area and wrapped his arm around her neck as if about to put her in a Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint. The hold is meant to incapacitate someone by restricting blood flow to the brain. The state Legislature banned police from using neck restraints and chokeholds more than a year earlier in 2021, due to the potential for serious injury and death.

The officer who accused Morse of putting her in a neck restraint said the incident made her extremely uncomfortable and said she would have considered it deadly force if it had happened to her on the street. She said she bit Morse’s arm to get free once he began squeezing her neck. She did not refer to the incident as an assault and initially filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint.

The officer later told her sergeant that she thought Morse may have put her in the neck hold because they’d previously been jokingly arguing over who got to sit in a certain chair.

In an internal affairs interview, Morse said he’d jokingly argued with the other officer about who got to sit in a certain chair and she said something about fighting him for the seat.

Morse said he put the officer in a fake neck hold when her back was turned as a joke but didn’t apply pressure. Morse said he’d never put a coworker in a neck hold before and that the Tacoma Police Department hadn’t trained him on it. He said he received some training in Fife.

Emails obtained by KNKX show the internal investigation was completed in late February.

Over a month later, on April 6, Morse remained on paid leave and showed up at the female officer’s substation with donuts around 8 p.m. Other officers told her Morse said he was extending an olive branch to the assistant chief overseeing internal affairs investigations.

The officer said she happened to be in a training class and likely would have been at her desk otherwise.

A police lieutenant wrote in a memo that the officer was visibly upset when reporting the incident to supervisors and said she did not feel safe working at that location. The lieutenant circulated information about the incident to shift commanders and reiterated to officers that Morse was not allowed inside department buildings.

A concurrent investigation into Morse's use of force

At the same time, Morse was also under investigation for excessive force after other officers raised concerns about him tripping a handcuffed assault suspect who’d been shot multiple times in late August 2022.

Morse told internal investigators that he put his leg behind the man’s feet and pushed him onto the ground with both hands because he wanted to treat the gunshot wounds to his torso and leg. Two officers had been on either side of the handcuffed man but he’d resisted sitting down for medical aid.

Police supervisors determined pushing and tripping the handcuffed suspect was excessive force and an assistant chief recommended a written reprimand from Moore, the police chief. Moore issued the written reprimand but found Morse guilty of unsatisfactory performance rather than excessive force.

Morse defended his actions in the excessive force case during a pre-disciplinary meeting with Moore in May. He said he was trying to save the man's life and has been criticized in the past for his medical aid decisions, such as cutting a gunshot wound victim's clothes off at a homicide scene to prepare him for trauma care. He said detectives told him not to do it again.

"I'm sure there's a lot of rumors that you've probably heard about me," Morse first told the police chief. In closing remarks, he said, "I do still wish to continue to be a hardworking and serving member of this department. You're not going to have to see me back in here for something like this again."

Morse remains eligible for employment with local law enforcement agencies. The state Criminal Justice Training Commission, which oversees training requirements and peace officer certifications, has not initiated a review of Morse's certification. The majority of certification review cases begin upon a report from the officer's employer.

Jared Brown was a Poynter Media and Journalism Fellow based at KNKX covering the intersections of policing, courts and power with a focus on accountability and solutions.