The Washington Attorney General’s Office has found that Clark County law enforcement failed to fully comply with legal requirements during two police shooting investigations.
The Southwest Washington Independent Investigative Response Team did not include two non-law enforcement community representatives while investigating the fatal shootings of William E. Abbe, 50, killed April 28 in Vancouver, and Edwin L. Glessner, 32, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound March 12 when Camas and Washougal police officers responded to a disturbance call.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office investigated the Abbe case; the Vancouver Police Department investigated Glessner’s death.
Because community representatives were not involved in those investigations, press releases were not reviewed by a member of the public before being issued, and conflict-of-interest assessments were not reviewed, according to the report issued Friday by the office of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Under Initiative 940 — approved by voters in 2018 to require law enforcement to receive violence de-escalation, mental-health and first-aid training, among other requirements — regional teams are supposed to increase the credibility and transparency of investigations involving deadly force used by police.
The non-law enforcement members’ roles are to ensure there are no conflicts of interest between the team and the involved officers, as well as sit in on weekly briefings and review press releases for accuracy. The members are also tasked with reviewing notifications of the use of specialized equipment belonging to the involved agency, and participating directly in the vetting, interviewing and/or selection of investigators.
Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said the two shootings happened as the regional team was establishing new protocols and non-law enforcement community members were still being vetted and selected.
The community representatives have since been chosen for the team, Kapp said. They participated in three investigations in 2020 and one in 2021, she said.
The state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission has adopted a protocol for the Southwest Washington team to follow. It’s being reviewed for “process improvement,” Kapp said.
Despite the issues with the two local investigations, the report concluded that overall, 12 regional teams that responded to an inquiry generally made good-faith efforts to comply with the law.
“Most instances of non-compliance stemmed from a genuine misunderstanding about the rules’ requirements. It is not uncommon for government agencies to struggle with brand new regulations at the outset of implementation, particularly when the requirements are extensive and the agencies are provided a short window from adoption to implementation, as they were in this case,” the report says.
An essential aspect of building trust is to include non-law enforcement community representatives, the report continues. The Office of the Attorney General concluded that teams statewide must improve compliance with that requirement.
The office “found that more than half of the (investigative teams) surveyed failed to fulfill this requirement in the first six months following the implementation of the new regulations, several (teams) subsequently reported improved processes to comply with the new regulations, including the provision regarding non-law enforcement community representatives,” the report says.
Ferguson’s inquiry into investigations reviewing police use of deadly force covers the first half of 2020. The majority of investigating teams complied with most of the state’s new requirements, including appointing a family liaison, providing weekly updates to the public and involving at least two non-law enforcement community representatives.
The attorney general launched the inquiry after the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office revealed months into its investigation of Manuel Ellis’ death that it was an involved agency because one of its deputies was involved in restraining Ellis at the scene. Ellis, 33, died March 3, 2020, during an arrest by police officers in Tacoma.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office subsequently acknowledged additional non-compliance with the independent investigation criteria. For example, it didn’t appoint non-law enforcement community representatives or a family liaison.
The Attorney General’s Office says Pierce County also refused to participate in the inquiry. The Region III Critical Incident Investigation Team — Thurston, Lewis, Pacific, Grays Harbor and Mason counties — also refused to complete surveys about three investigations.
Ferguson identified 22 investigations into police use of deadly force between January and June, conducted by 14 regional investigative teams that were required to comply with the new rules imposed by I-940. The report covers 18 investigations due to Region III not participating.
The inquiry found five of the 18 investigations fully complied with the I-940 requirements, including involving at least two non-law enforcement community representatives.
“The people of the state adopted these requirements to ensure completely independent investigations into officer involved deadly force incidents,” Ferguson said. “They are important, and it is incumbent on investigative teams to comply with the law.”
Based on the report, Sue Rahr, executive director of the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, penned a letter with several recommendations to strengthen and clarify the law’s requirements.
The recommendations say clarification is needed on the minimum number of non-law enforcement community representatives required for an investigation, because in some investigations, only one representative was involved.
Clearer language is needed regarding the type of information that can be shared with the involved agency; more clarification is needed about what criminal background information on a victim should be shared; more guidance is required about whether conflict assessments need to be in writing; there needs to be a consistent process for selecting and “onboarding” non-law enforcement community representatives; and lastly, the commission should consider issuing best practices for the community representatives’ ability to access investigative files without compromising them.
Additional reforms in the works include House Bill 1089, which authorizes the state auditor to review a deadly force investigation to determine whether the involved agencies complied with the new requirements.
Introduced last month by Rep. Bill Ramos, the bill had 31 co-sponsors, including Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver. It passed the House on Feb. 10 by a vote of 80-18. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.