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News / Clark County News

Investigation finds Vancouver police shooting of homeless man was justified

William Abbe was fatally shot April 28 on Fourth Plain in central Vancouver

By Jerzy Shedlock, Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published: October 7, 2020, 11:45am

A prosecutor outside of Clark County, tasked with examining the fatal shooting of a Vancouver man earlier this year by city police, has determined that three officers’ use of deadly force was lawful and justified.

Thurston County Deputy Prosecutor Scott M. Jackson reviewed the shooting at the request of Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik.

Three police officers fatally shot William Abbe on April 28 while responding to an assault between him and another man in central Vancouver.

Jackson wrote in his report that Thurston County prosecutors carried out a “careful review of all the information” provided by law enforcement and concluded, “the use of deadly force by Vancouver Police Sgt. Jay Alie, Officer Sean Suarez and Officer Sammy Abdala was lawful and justified under current Washington state law.”

The Independent Investigation Team, required under state law, was made up of detectives from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and Camas and Battle Ground police departments. What typically follows the investigation is a review of the use of force carried out by Golik and other local, senior prosecutors.

However, following Abbe’s death, a coalition of groups demanded oversight into the investigation. Video of the police shooting was widely shared online and led many people to question whether shooting Abbe was appropriate. 

The coalition wrote in a 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.” (Court records show Abbe had likely been homeless for several years.)

As a result, Golik opted to send the shooting review outside the county. He previously told The Columbian he is likely to take similar action for future fatal police shootings.

The Columbian will reach out to the groups who expressed concerns about Abbe’s shooting in the coming days. 

List of disturbances

The following is an account of Jackson’s review:

Abbe was involved in several disturbances the morning he was shot. Around 7:30 a.m., he had a confrontation with a man in which he was hostile and yelling. A couple hours later, he was reportedly threatening people in front of a U.S. Post Office. And later, he “caused a disturbance” near a 7-Eleven, according to the review.

“These events indicated that Mr. Abbe was being hostile and confrontational earlier in the day and may give insight to his state of mind on this day,” Jackson wrote, adding that these morning events were not connected to Abbe until after the shooting.

The events that led to Vancouver police officers’ confrontation with Abbe began around 10:45 a.m. Abbe was pushing a shopping cart full of personal items west on Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard when he encountered Steven Moffa seated on a walker at a bus stop near Stapleton Road.

Video surveillance reportedly captured Abbe confronting Moffa. Abbe raised his arm toward the man several times before taking a metal rod from his cart and swinging it toward the man’s head, pulling back at the last second. A C-Tran bus driver witnessed this interaction and called a security officer.

The security officer asked Moffa to leave the bus stop because he had an open beer can. The security officer stayed in the area and witnessed a second confrontation between the men, during which Abbe followed Moffa and poked him with a “stick” before striking him in the head. Moffa fell to the ground; Abbe continued to beat the man, according to the review. This all occurred as the security officer was on the phone with 911.

Officer Suarez arrived at the scene first and came upon a woman helping Moffa, who was lying on the ground next to a light pole. She was yelling “Get back, get away!” to Abbe, standing 4 feet away with two “pipes” that appeared to have sharpened ends in his hands, according to the review.

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The objects Abbe was holding were later found to be solid, metal rods sharpened into spikes, the review says.

Suarez drew his weapon and demanded Abbe back away and drop the weapons. Abbe reportedly backed up but threw one of the rods at the officer, who retreated behind a vehicle. Other officers began arriving at the scene.

Abbe reportedly said to the officers, “You’re going to have to shoot me. I’m here to finish a job,” the review says.

Suarez indicated there was a request for a 40 mm less-lethal weapon to be brought to the scene, because the officers there did not have the equipment.

As more officers arrived, a bystander started recording the standoff from his car, which was parked in the lot where the shooting subsequently happened. Jackson wrote that the video is the best evidence of what transpired immediately before and after the shooting.

A group of officers drew their guns on Abbe, according to the video and witness statements. Abbe ignored their commands to drop his weapons and made several statements expressing his desire for a confrontation, according to the review. Another officer arrived, and Abbe walked toward the group “in an aggressive manner,” the review says.

Three officers advanced toward Abbe but backed up when he did not retreat. An officer fired a Taser at Abbe, but it was unsuccessful. Abbe walked over to his cart, retrieved a large, heavy jacket and put it on, according to the review. At this point, Sgt. Alie separated from the other officers, about 15 feet to the left of the group. He reportedly did not have his weapon drawn. The review notes that Alie said he called for a canine officer and less-lethal devices to be brought to the scene.

Abbe continued pacing near a sidewalk, rods in hands, before pulling a large, softball-sized rock from his cart. He threw the rock at officers, but it did not strike the officers, according to the review.

The review says the sergeant tried to speak with Abbe directly “in an effort to de-escalate him and the situation.”

“The video recording substantiated there was direct communication between the two, but there was no audio of what was said. Mr. Abbe focused his attention directly toward Sgt. Alie and began to approach his position. At this point, Sgt. Alie was the only officer who had not drawn his weapon,” the review reads.

Alie tried to create some distance while drawing his firearm. In a subsequent interview, the sergeant reported that as Abbe approached, Abbe said, “I am going to kill you.”

Alie fired his weapon, striking Abbe in the chest. Abbe turned to the side and stepped to his left still holding the metal rods. He “started to walk in the direction of where the other officers were positioned, Sgt. Alie fired a second shot.” Suarez fired two shots in quick succession as Abbe fell, and Abdala fired a single shot as Abbe hit the ground, according to the review.

All three officers fired within a span of three seconds, the review says. From the video evidence, Jackson wrote, the officers began rendering aid within a minute. An autopsy later determined Abbe suffered two gunshot wounds to the chest and another to his front pelvic area.

‘Good faith’ standard

Jackson concluded the officers were aware they were attempting to arrest an assault suspect, and Abbe committed assault on them during that attempt. Under state law, an officer may use deadly force to arrest or apprehend a person whom the officer reasonably believes has committed or tried to commit a felony. Officers must believe that its use was necessary to prevent serious physical harm or death to themselves and others.

Jackson wrote the evidence demonstrated that the officers believed Abbe’s actions would cause serious injury or death. The prosecutor further found the officers’ actions reached the “good faith” standard. That is, a similarly situated officer would have also used deadly force under the circumstances.

Thurston County’s determination on the use of deadly force comes on the heels of a Sunday shooting by Vancouver police, who were responding to a domestic violence stabbing. The man shot, identified as Andrew A. Williams, 41, of Portland, died at a hospital Monday.

Columbian Breaking News Reporter