Activists in Washington state are urging a local sheriff to resign after he called 911 on a Black newspaper delivery driver and claimed the driver “threatened” to kill him. The sheriff later recanted those details while speaking to police.
Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer, who is white, has denied racially profiling the driver, 24-year-old Sedrick Altheimer. But community members say Troyer’s actions could have gotten Altheimer killed and pose a threat to public safety.
Altheimer told The Seattle Times that he had been working his regular delivery route in Tacoma on Jan. 27 when he noticed a large white SUV following him.
“I’m throwing papers out the window, left and right, both windows are down ... and I see this SUV hit the block,” Altheimer told the Times. He said he didn’t realize it was the county sheriff following him in the unmarked vehicle.
The driver of the SUV continued to monitor him as he stopped at various houses along his route, Altheimer said.
“I continue what I’m doing, because, you know, I’m working,” he told the Times. “I’m not doing any harm to the neighborhood. I work here every night.”
At one point, after dropping off a paper at one of the houses on his route, Altheimer said he walked over to the SUV and asked why he was being followed. Troyer didn’t identify himself, said Altheimer, who thought Troyer looked familiar but didn’t recognize him as the sheriff.
Altheimer said Troyer questioned why he was in the neighborhood and accused him of trying to steal packages from people’s porches. Altheimer told the Times that he never threatened Troyer and didn’t identify himself as a newspaper delivery person because he didn’t feel it was a stranger’s business to know.
When Altheimer asked Troyer whether he was following him because he’s a Black man, Troyer denied that he was racist and said his wife is Black, Altheimer told the Times. (Troyer, whose wife is of Pacific Islander descent, claimed he never told Altheimer that she is Black.)
Altheimer said he returned to his car and Troyer continued to follow him. He then turned his car around to face the SUV. The two cars flashed their lights at each other, according to Altheimer.
It was during this final standoff around 2 a.m. that Troyer called 911, alleging he had “caught someone in my driveway who just threatened to kill me.” The call was dispatched at the highest priority, prompting over 40 deputies and officers to respond, according to an incident report filed by a Tacoma police officer.
The officer, Chad Lawless, said Altheimer identified himself as a newspaper delivery driver after police arrived on the scene. The back seat of Altheimer’s car was “filled with newspapers,” according to the report. An officer frisked Altheimer and found no weapons.
Troyer told police that he had been at home in bed when he heard a noise and observed Altheimer pulling in and out of driveways. Troyer said he got into his personal vehicle and attempted to make contact with Altheimer, according to the incident report.
Despite telling the 911 dispatcher that Altheimer had threatened to kill him, Troyer told police who responded to his call for help that Altheimer never threatened him nor did he display any weapons at any point. But it was clear Altheimer “wanted to fight,” Troyer told police.
After police informed Troyer that Altheimer was a newspaper delivery driver working his regular route, Troyer advised that Altheimer should be released, according to the incident report.
Troyer, a 35-year veteran of the force, told the Times that his decision to follow Altheimer that night had “nothing to do with him being Black.” He said he only noticed Altheimer was Black when Altheimer approached his vehicle.
Troyer, apparently contradicting his own comments to the 911 dispatcher, told the Times that he “never talked” to Altheimer. However, Troyer told a KIRO-FM reporter that Altheimer had threatened to “take” him “out.”
In a statement Friday, Troyer said he stood by his “original recorded statement to dispatch, where I reported that there were verbal threats made.”
“I am saddened to learn that Mr. Altheimer felt he was treated in an unfair manner,” Troyer said in his statement. “I am committed to continuing the ongoing dialogue with our community to ensure that policing in Pierce County is free of racial bias and performed in a manner that upholds the public trust.”
Troyer’s actions have drawn anger and upset from community members who say the sheriff put Altheimer’s life in danger that night. There’s a long history of white people calling 911 on Black people for engaging in mundane activities. These reports are reckless and dangerous given that Black people and other people of color are disproportionately killed by police.
“Whether or not he has repaired one-on-one individual harm, this is about public safety,” Sakara Remmu, lead strategist for the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, told local CBS affiliate KREM 2. “He leads the sheriff’s department. The sheriff’s department is often relied upon by other law enforcement agencies, within and outside its jurisdiction, and his judgment is impaired by explicit racial bias.”
Jamika Scott, a community organizer for the Tacoma Action Collective, compared the incident to the scandal-plagued investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man who died in Tacoma police custody in March 2020. Troyer had said at the time that none of the officers had choked Ellis, but video recorded by a witness appeared to show otherwise.
“It does not make this community feel safe,” Scott told KREM 2. “It does not make this community feel willing to trust law enforcement when we can’t even trust them to be transparent about bad behavior from people within their own ranks.”
The Seattle Times’ editorial board on Sunday called on Troyer to apologize to Altheimer, calling “the arrogance” of the sheriff’s actions “shocking.”
“If Troyer can’t get his story straight given so many opportunities, voters are right to question his fitness to hold office,” the editorial board wrote, adding: “It is on Troyer to atone for this incident. Other community leaders, elected and otherwise, and voters should not rest until he comes clean.”