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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Residents press Clark County Council for policing changes in wake of Donald shooting

Jenoah Donald of Battle Ground was shot by Clark County sheriff's deputies during a traffic stop

By Jack Heffernan, Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published: February 17, 2021, 11:22am

Momentum appears to be building toward body-worn cameras for Clark County sheriff’s deputies. Public pressure has intensified, including during a Clark County Council meeting Tuesday night, in the wake of two recent shooting deaths of Black men by deputies.

County Councilor Gary Medvigy, who chairs the Clark County Law and Justice Council, said during the meeting that there is “movement” on the issue, and Sheriff Chuck Atkins told The Columbian on Wednesday that he believes county councilors are “serious about sharpening their pencils and finding the money for” the program.

Atkins, who offered no comment during the virtual meeting Tuesday, said that his office supports body cameras and plans to request implementation of the program when the council adopts a supplemental budget later this year.

“All of the chiefs and the sheriff, I haven’t heard anyone say they don’t want to have body cams — and dashcams, for that matter,” Medvigy said. “I’m looking forward to the sheriff making that budget submission to the county manager and us working on it in earnest.”

The comments came after roughly two dozen people submitted verbal and written comments for the meeting Tuesday night, expressing dismay and calling for transparency and changes to policing. Nearly two weeks earlier, Jenoah Donald, 30, of Battle Ground, was shot by a Clark County sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop in Hazel Dell and later died from his injuries.

Much remains unknown about the incident, but several police experts and trainers have since raised questions about whether responding deputies could have done more to de-escalate the situation.

Commenters on Tuesday criticized local law enforcement’s handling of the shooting, which took place three months after and less than a mile from where sheriff’s deputies shot Kevin Peterson Jr., a 21-year-old Black man.

Several called for transparency in the Donald case. Others questioned whether the Vancouver Police Department could be unbiased in its investigation of the incident.

“The killing of Jenoah Donald has left our community with more questions than answers,” Clark County resident Chelsea Unger said. “Although the Vancouver police are not the Clark County sheriff, they’re certainly not a neutral party that would seem appropriate to investigate such a case. I am also unclear how this incident escalated to the point it did.”

‘It needs to be addressed’

Karen Morrison, founder of Odyssey World International Education Services, said that she, as a Black woman, has concerns about her safety and the safety of other local people of color.

“I know I don’t stand alone in this, but it needs to be addressed,” Morrison said. “If I had the same power you all had, I would declare a state of emergency for losing all the lives we do.”

Morrison, whose father was a police officer, said that law enforcement needs to establish better relationships with people of color. She also pushed back on budgetary concerns as departments review the need for dash and body-worn cameras.

“I just wonder what value you put on our lives when we ask for dashcams and body cams,” Morrison said.

During planning for the county’s two most recent annual budgets, and before the shootings of Peterson and Donald, the sheriff’s office asked the county to “begin planning for $700,000 … to implement a body-cam program.”

“This is not an appropriation request as much as an anticipation of public and or legal circumstances that would lead the county to need to implement a body-worn camera program, perhaps on short-notice,” county budget documents read. “Recent events of police use of force, including deadly officer-involved shootings, have led to inquiries from community members in (Southwest) Washington about the need for body-worn cameras. The primary public interest to-date has been directed at (the Vancouver Police Department).”

None of the budgets approved by the county council included funding for a body-worn camera program. But Atkins and Medvigy have said for several months that local law enforcement officials have echoed the public’s desire for the program.

“We’re going to have to look really hard at the budget,” Medvigy said Tuesday. “We can’t wait for Congress. We can’t wait for the (state) Legislature. We’re going to have to find that money.”

If and when that happens, it would appear to be welcome news to commenters Tuesday, the majority of whom directly called for such a program.

“Training and body cams will protect both the officers and the public,” wrote Samantha Guse of Salmon Creek, who has several members of her family working in law enforcement. “The training will help (ensure) the officers do not cause or worsen any issues they deal with in the course of their work. The body cams will provide video proof should an issue occur — as one inevitably will.”

Shooting scene

Around 7:40 p.m. Feb. 4, three deputies responded to the area of Northeast 68th Street and Northeast Second Avenue for a report of “suspicious activity.” K-9 handler Deputy Sean Boyle stopped a bronze-colored Mercedes-Benz, driven by Donald, for a “defective rear light,” according to an initial account of the shooting investigation.

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Boyle wrestled with Donald in the driver’s seat of Donald’s car, investigators and court records say. Boyle allegedly fired twice and struck Donald once after the car began moving forward with the deputy partially inside.

According to an evidence receipt filed last week following a search of his car, Donald had no firearms inside the vehicle. A sharp object described by one of the involved deputies, which apparently prompted the escalation, may have been a cordless drill on the front passenger’s seat, according to the evidence receipt.

Court records and investigators have not indicated that Donald reached for the item at any time. Investigators have not said what, if any, further description was offered by the 911 caller who reported the suspicious activity as two vehicles circling the area.

Reporter Jerzy Shedlock contributed to this story.

Columbian county government and small cities reporter