Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said he is asking a prosecuting attorney’s office outside of the county to determine whether the fatal shooting of a Vancouver man earlier this year was legally justified.
Golik and other senior prosecutors in his office traditionally have reviewed use of deadly force by local law enforcement officers. The prosecutors are tasked with determining whether officers’ actions are reasonable and lawful.
However, last week, a coalition of groups demanded oversight into the investigation of the shooting of William Abbe. Three Vancouver police officers fatally shot Abbe on April 28 while responding to an assault between him and another man at Fourth Plain Boulevard and Stapleton Road.
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.
Video of the shooting has been widely shared online, and has led many people to question whether shooting Abbe was appropriate.
The groups asking for accountability from the police department said in an open letter that Abbe’s “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.”
Golik said there is high community interest in Abbe’s killing, and it’s been suggested to him that the use-of-force review should go to an office outside Clark County, which he called a “very fair point.”
“We need to be introspective and listen to the public right now. I support the call for an outside prosecutor,” Golik said. “It would be an important step to take for these cases to ensure everyone has complete confidence in the process.”
Golik said he is talking with a number of prosecutors about taking on the review and will send it off soon. He said not everyone in his field agrees with the approach, but many do.
“We work shoulder-to-shoulder with local law enforcement, and we know each other. There should be no question about the independence of the review, and this can help,” he said.
His office is likely to hand over reviews of local officer-involved shootings to outside officials for the foreseeable future. Golik said that is the best course of action for such cases until there is a change in law.
Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed creating a new, independent state body to investigate police killings, as well as restricting chokeholds by law enforcement agencies statewide and establishing a legal obligation for law enforcement to report misconduct by their fellow officers. The investigative unit could be a separate agency, or could be a subunit of the Washington State Patrol, Inslee said.
Currently, state law allows the governor and the county prosecutor to grant the attorney general concurrent jurisdiction in an investigation. A county prosecutor can ask another prosecuting attorney’s office to take any case where there is a valid or perceived conflict of interest.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office announced May 28 that the investigation into Abbe’s shooting had been finalized and sent to Golik’s office for review. According to the report, the investigative team was made up of detectives from the sheriff’s office and Camas and Battle Ground police departments.
Defense attorney Angus Lee sent a letter to the prosecutor’s office Friday stating that the absence of any involvement by community representatives in the Abbe investigation violated the requirements of the Law Enforcement Training and Community Safety Act, formerly known as I-940.
The act was “passed into law so that investigations into officer-involved shootings would be transparent, and so that the public could trust the outcome of the investigation,” Lee’s letter says.
“The apparent refusal or failure by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office to comply with state law calls into question the entire investigation,” the letter concludes.
All new rules related to I-940 took effect Jan. 5.
Clark County sheriff’s Sgt. Brent Waddell said the Legislature approached the implementation of the rules knowing that they would take time to implement.
“It just takes time to vet everyone and get them trained,” Waddell said, adding that the pandemic also had an impact on the timeline.
Pandemic slows process
Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said the rules were adopted Dec. 16, and once they were established, local agencies worked together for two months to decide how to proceed.
Kapp said officials are still working on recruiting the two nonlaw enforcement community representatives as required by law.
Nineteen applicants initially responded to the recruitment announcement for the positions, which are unpaid and voluntary, Kapp said. The applications were originally due March 31, but the deadline was extended by 30 days because of COVID-19 priorities and “to allow a wider representation of the community to be able to apply,” Kapp said.
A workgroup consisting of Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins, Skamania County Sheriff Dave Brown, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain and others met Thursday to review applications and a questionnaire that was due May 22.
Fifteen applicants who responded to the questionnaire will move forward with the selection process. Once the background process is complete, the applicants will receive training covering their roles and responsibilities on the team and the processes in place following officer-involved shootings.
“Recruitment for the non-law enforcement community representatives will be ongoing, and we will continue to welcome applications from interested Clark or Skamania County residents in an effort to maintain a pool of members who represent the diversity of our communities,” Kapp said.
The city’s web page on the independent investigation team says officials had hoped to receive more applications from diverse representatives of the community, but that hasn’t happened despite efforts to reach out to various groups like the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens.