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Groups call Vancouver Police Department to account in shootings

Open letter insists on closer look at April 28 fatal shooting of Abbe

By , Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published:

A coalition of local groups is demanding accountability from the Vancouver Police Department after three officers fatally shot a man April 28, linking his death to a string of police shootings over the last 18 months.

In an open letter to city, county, state and federal government officials, the group called for oversight into the investigation of the incident. They also called for prosecution and discipline of those culpable, and accountability from Vancouver police leadership.

“This homicide marks the latest in a series of inexcusable incidents of deadly Vancouver police actions — largely involving vulnerable civilian populations such as those who are Black, experiencing homelessness, mentally ill or immigrant,” the letter states. “Instead of meaningful de-escalation, assessment of mental health care needs and a trained response appropriate to the level of threat, another citizen has been deprived of life and due process.”

Signees included NAACP Vancouver President Bridgette Fahnbulleh, Southwest WA League of United Latin American Citizens President Ed Hamilton Rosales and four Washington State University Vancouver faculty members, among other community leaders.

The letter refers to William Abbe, a 50-year-old Vancouver resident shot by the police officers who had responded to reports of a physical disturbance in central Vancouver. According to the Vancouver Police Department, arriving officers found one man lying unconscious on the ground, while the other man, Abbe, refused police commands to drop objects he was holding.

Witnesses said Abbe was throwing pieces of sharpened pipe or construction rebar at officers just before they shot him. A review of the investigation into whether the fatal force was justified is still pending.

The officers’ actions, the letter asserts, amount to one more case in a string of “repeated acts of unnecessarily deadly Vancouver police violence.”

“VPD last year even received a nearly $315,000 grant to hire appropriate crisis responders for mental health issues,” the letter states. “Yet our community is mired in a pattern of police violence, with Abbe — who may have been holding a pipe and possibly experiencing a mental health crisis or other impairment while in a standoff with six or more gun-wielding officers — being shot multiple times rather than apprehended with nonlethal tactics to have his day in court.”

The call to action in the letter, sent Tuesday afternoon, comes at a time when police departments are being widely criticized for excessive force.

Protests against police brutality and racial injustice have been going strong across the country for two weeks, sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd. In an incident captured on video, Floyd died after Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain released a statement May 30 condemning Chauvin’s actions, calling the incident “disturbing, upsetting and heartbreaking.”

The Vancouver Police Department’s use of force has been subject to heightened public scrutiny since early 2019, when three fatal shootings by police occurred over the course of about a month. They resulted in the deaths of 16-year-old Clayton Joseph, 29-year-old Michael Pierce and 43-year-old Carlos Hunter.

In all three shootings, the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office concluded that police officers had acted lawfully when they used fatal force.

A running database maintained by The Columbian indicates that Vancouver police officers have been involved in at least 34 shootings dating back to 1994.

Of those encounters, 19 were fatal. One of the deaths resulted from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Community relations

In response to heightened tensions between police departments and their communities, the Vancouver Police Department recently updated its website with a page aimed at addressing public concerns and answering frequently asked questions.

“We understand this is an unsettling time in our country and our community,” the page states.

It details officers’ training requirements, including time devoted to learning de-escalation tactics, as well as which types of holds officers are allowed to use to restrain someone.

De-escalation training is mandatory for all Vancouver police officers. Training specific to Initiative 940 — a measure adopted by voters in 2018 that overhauls the state’s controversial law on police shootings to lower the bar for prosecuting officers who use deadly force — is still being developed.

The police department said training based on I-940 is pending until its development is finalized.

“In the interim, we have been in close discussions with (the Criminal Justice Training Center) and attended the train-the-trainer course to ensure we implement the most up-to-date training to our officers,” the webpage says.

People nationwide have spoken out against the use of chokeholds by police since Floyd’s death. Last week, the Minneapolis City Council agreed to ban officers from using such a technique. On Monday, lawmakers in New York passed the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act.

Local residents have questioned whether Vancouver police use the technique. On the webpage, the department called the force used on Floyd disturbing and noted that it does not train its officers to use “the tactics observed in the video.”

Absent an imminent threat to life, Vancouver officers are reportedly not allowed to choke a person. The police department says it does train and allow officers to use a “vascular neck restraint,” stating it’s not a chokehold and isn’t intended to impede breathing. The restraint is applied infrequently and certain policies limit its use.

More details about chokeholds and de-escalation were not provided in time for publication, but The Columbian plans to follow up in the coming days.

According to the webpage, new officers receive 720 hours of basic law enforcement training — about 4 1/2 months, assuming 40-hour weeks. In addition, new officers must take 96 hours of training, with 40 of those hours devoted to crisis intervention. Sworn officers take a two-hour course in crisis intervention training once a year.

The webpage also addresses calls for body-worn cameras, which Vancouver officers currently do not wear.

Last year, following the string of police shootings, the department started looking into body-worn cameras for its officers.

“The BWC study, and public engagement plans, were recently put on hold as a result of the COVID-19 crisis response due to the significant impact COVID-19 has had on city resources; however, there are ongoing discussions around this based on community interest in this program,” the webpage states.

The page also mentions the costs involved in a body camera program — not just the expense of buying the cameras and storing the data, but also for staff to manage the thousands of hours of video footage subject to public records requests and discovery in court cases.

Currently, there’s no funding allocated for body cameras in the city budget.

“Additionally, we need to implement clearly defined policies, as well as negotiate with the Police Guild, because state law requires us as a public employer to collectively bargain changes in working conditions with affected unions,” the page states.

The department’s new FAQ page can be read in full at https://www.cityofvancouver.us/police/page/community-concerns-faqs.

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Columbian staff writer
Columbian Breaking News Reporter

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