Use of Deadly Force Inquiry Omits Lewis County’s Region Because Agencies Didn’t Fill Out Survey

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In a report released last week, Attorney General Bob Ferguson found most law enforcement agencies hadn’t fully complied with a new Washington state law stemming from Initiative 940 that requires independent investigations after an officer uses deadly force, but that they made good faith efforts to do so.

However, investigations by a team that’s made up of the sheriff’s offices in Thurston, Mason, Lewis, Grays Harbor, and Pacific counties, as well as the Washington State Patrol, were left out of that report.

The AG inquiry relied on surveys that the Region III Critical Incident Investigation Team refused to complete. Instead, the team offered to turn over its investigative files.

The Region III CIIT conducted three investigations that would have been part of the report, which included incidents between Jan. 6, 2020, when the law took effect, and June 30.

The final report includes blank survey forms for these Region III incidents:

• 60-year-old Sok Chin Son, who was fatally shot by a Thurston County Sheriff’s Deputy in January 2020;

• 32-year-old Kathryn Hale, who was fatally shot by a Mason County Sheriff’s deputy last March; and

• An incident involving an “Unidentified Individual” March 26.

There was no March 26 investigation in Region III, according to Mason County Chief Deputy Jason Dracobly. Mason County Sheriff’s Office is currently leading the Region III team, a role that’s on a two-year rotation.

However, there was an incident May 26, when a woman was shot in the jaw while exchanging gunfire with a state trooper on Interstate 5 in Chehalis.

Elected sheriffs from the five counties sent a letter last summer explaining their position to Deputy Legislative Director Brittany Gregory, who led work on the inquiry in the Attorney General’s Office. The questions posed in the survey wouldn’t “adequately provide ‘the public accountability and transparency concerning these investigations’” that the Office sought, they wrote.

“Investigations into police use of deadly force are complex because each incident has unique intricacies and context,” the letter reads. “We believe that the questionnaire is a blunt instrument that will strip away the context that is so important when trying to understand the steps taken in a complex investigation.”

Upon request, the sheriffs wrote, they would provide full investigative files for each incident so the office could review them for the requested information while understanding the context for decisions made. The AG’s Office responded in mid-September, according to spokesperson Brionna Aho, informing the sheriffs that the office wouldn’t be able to complete the survey on their behalf.

There are several reasons for that, Aho wrote in an email to McClatchy. For meaningful results, the Office had to be consistent with methodology. The survey also included narrative questions. They wouldn’t be able to answer every survey question even with the files in hand, according to Aho.

“For example, we asked how the community representatives were connected to the affected community and the process for selection of community representatives,” Aho wrote. “This kind of information is not available in the files.”

The response to the sheriffs also included that if the surveys weren’t completed and returned, the Office would have to mark Region III as not participating in the review.

The Office didn’t receive any similar push back from other teams, according to Aho.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office refused to complete a survey about the investigation into Manuel Ellis’ death for the inquiry. Sheriff Ed Troyer said the decision was made on the advice of the Prosecutor’s Office, The News Tribune has reported.

The Attorney General launched his inquiry after state officials found the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department violated I-940 while looking into Ellis’ death in Tacoma Police Department custody. Gov. Jay Inslee directed the State Patrol to take the lead in that investigation.

“The fact that the AG’s office had no interest in accepting the offer of the Region III team indicates that the AG is not interested in gaining insight about the context and complexity of these investigations and how the I-940 requirements are implemented into an investigation,” Mason County Undersheriff Travis Adams wrote in an email to McClatchy on Monday. “Our offer to the AG’s office stands.”

Surveys from 12 teams are included in the report — Region III would have accounted for the most investigations from a given team with its three. Others accounted for one or two incidents each.

Asked to respond to Region III sheriffs’ assertion that the survey was a “blunt instrument that will strip away context,” Aho wrote that the survey was “carefully designed to gather key information and provide investigating agencies opportunities to provide narrative answers for all parts of the survey in their own words.”

Many investigating agencies chose to provide more context, she wrote, and the office worked that into the report “where appropriate.”

“Our report speaks for itself,” she wrote. “We incorporated a ‘Takeaway’ section that provides the public with context for the survey information.”

In state law, deadly force is defined as “the intentional application of force through the use of firearms or any other means reasonably likely to cause death or serious physical injury.” Rules stemming from Initiative 940 that require independent investigations into such incidents went into effect Jan. 6, 2020.

State lawmakers are considering a bill that would authorize the State Auditor to review use of deadly force incidents to determine whether the law enforcement agency, investigative body, and prosecutor’s office complied with laws and procedures for investigating and reporting.

The bill passed out of the House last month on a bipartisan 80-18 vote and is scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Committee on Law & Justice this week.

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