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Sept. 26, 2021

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King County sheriff’s failure to adopt reforms contributed to fatal shooting of Black Diamond man, report finds

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The King County Sheriff’s Office’s failure to embrace reforms after a 2017 shooting of a Des Moines teen directly contributed to deputies needlessly escalating a confrontation with an unarmed man in Black Diamond two years later, costing the man his life and one of the detectives his job, according to a new report.

The civilian-run Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) review of the 2019 shooting death of Anthony “Tony” Chilcott, presented Tuesday to the Metropolitan King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee, is sharply critical of the sheriff’s internal review of the shooting, preferential treatment given to the deputies involved — even though one was eventually fired — and failure to recognize themes that have been present in other controversial KCSO shootings.

The report pulls no punches in laying out a string of bad decisions on the part of the detectives, and policy and training failures or weaknesses within the sheriff’s office that OLEO concluded contributed to an unnecessary fatal outcome.

“KCSO review of the incident lacked analysis that would lead to better internal recommendations for continuous improvement at an individual deputy level and at the department level,” the report concluded.

The report, overseen by OLEO interim Director Adrienne Wat, contains 23 recommendations for sheriff’s policy and training modifications. Among other things, the recommendations would clarify for deputies, particularly those working in plainclothes, when they should risk taking law enforcement action and how they should identify themselves if they do.

In a written response, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht contested or disagreed with some of the OLEO recommendations, but added that the office “is in general alignment with your assessment of the incident.”

At the King County council committee meeting Tuesday morning where the report was presented, Johanknecht said what happened “is not acceptable by any stretch.”

“I apologize to the Anthony Chilcott family today,” an emotional Johanknecht said. “I’m greatly saddened by this loss to them and the community.”

The deputies who shot Chilcott were bearded and in ballcaps and civilian clothes, driving an SUV with out-of-state plates, raising questions about whether Chilcott or nearby witnesses knew that the men who rammed him and then pounded on his car windows with a hammer and guns were police, the report said.

“Unless there is an imminent threat of serious bodily harm, having appropriate and sufficient markings before taking law enforcement action is imperative to ensuring the safety of all proximate parties,” it said.

The report also underscored the failure of the detectives who killed Chilcott to follow de-escalation protocols and training — using time, cover and distance while waiting for backup — that could have saved his life. Instead, the report said virtually every action they took increased the likelihood that deadly force would be required.

“The tactical decisions and actions made throughout the Chilcott incident unnecessarily escalated the situation and endangered the suspect, the detectives themselves, and proximate third parties,” the report said.

The OLEO report by policy does not name the two detectives. However, Johanknecht has identified them as George Alvarez, a 21-year KCSO veteran with a troubled history — including five shootings — and his partner, Josh Lerum. Both were members of a plainclothes Special Emphasis Team, whose job is to fight crime “by employing unconventional and non-traditional investigative methods.”

Alvarez was fired for his role in Chilcott’s death, with the sheriff concluding that his aggressive actions and poor decisions escalated the situation to a point where Chilcott became a threat, forcing Alvarez to use deadly force. While the sheriff found the shooting itself justified, she said it likely wouldn’t have been necessary had Alvarez not acted as he did.

Lerum was reprimanded for failing to wear a protective vest and properly identify himself. He remains a deputy.

The two detectives, working undercover and driving a rented GMC Yukon with Oklahoma plates, were part of an emphasis patrol in Black Diamond, trying to capture and arrest Chilcott, who had stolen a souped-up Ford Raptor F-150 pickup truck from a gas station on Nov. 22, 2019. Inside the truck was the owner’s pet poodle, named Monkey. (The dog was unharmed and ultimately returned to his owners.)

On Nov. 25, the truck was seen around Black Diamond and several deputies and Washington State Patrol troopers converged on the area. Alvarez and Lerum were supposed to provide undercover surveillance, hang back and direct uniformed lawmen to the area if the truck was spotted.

Instead, when they saw Chilcott, parked alongside Cumberland-Kanaskat Road smoking a cigarette, they pulled up alongside. What happened next is disputed only in that Alvarez said he feared for several civilians who were across the street. So when Chilcott pulled forward, Alvarez drove into the side of the Raptor and pushed it across the intersection, where it high-centered on several boulders.

Lerum claimed on the radio that Chilcott had rammed them, but an investigation by the Seattle Police Department included 10 witnesses who said the Yukon struck the Raptor broadside.

The report questioned whether the civilians — two children and an adult — were in any danger at all until Alvarez decided they were.

“Chilcott’s proximity to them … was not an imminent threat,” the report says. “Rather, it was the detective’s decision to engage Chilcott that escalated the situation, created the imminent threat, and caused the series of events that led to the multiple uses of deadly force.”

According to OLEO, it was impetuous for either man to attempt to confront Chilcott after his vehicle was pushed onto the rock, and they should have waited for uniformed backup, which was close. Instead, they both exited their vehicle, guns drawn, and attempted to remove Chilcott from a truck with tinted windows and that sat high off the ground, putting them at a tactical and physical disadvantage.

Another alternative, the report said, would have been for the detectives to “act in a community caretaker” capacity and, instead of trying to apprehend Chilcott, approach the civilians, identify themselves, and protect them.

Rather, Alvarez used a hammer to smash the driver’s side window and, standing on a running board, attempted to subdue Chilcott, at one point striking him repeatedly with the muzzle of his handgun. The OLEO investigation was sharply critical of the technique and said it should be banned.

Seconds later, Alvarez shot Chilcott point-blank in the side of the head after he said Chilcott tried to grab his firearm. The OLEO report said Chilcott might have been trying to protect himself from further muzzle strikes.

Lerum also shot Chilcott in the head from inches away.

The OLEO report is pointed in its criticism of the sheriff’s office for failing to address several of these issues previously outlined in an independent review of the 2017 shooting death of 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens. That report, presented to the County Council in 2020, concluded that suggested policy reforms and lessons learned from that shooting were left to “die on the vine.”

Johanknecht disputed that conclusion then and now, writing that a number of the recommendations regarding plainclothes operations and the use of unmarked vehicles have been, or are being, adopted, including a new “mock scenario” emergency vehicle operations course developed as a result of what occurred with Chilcott.

Dunlap-Gittens was shot after he and a friend were lured out by several plainclothes deputies, including one posing as a prostitute, to buy liquor the boys were selling online. The sheriff’s office wrongly believed Dunlap-Gittens’ friend had been involved in the hit-and-run death of another police officer’s son, and came up with the sting to arrest him.

Dunlap-Gittens was shot in the back after he ran when the detectives jumped from the back of an unmarked van. The sheriff’s office claimed the boy had a gun and fired at deputies. A gun was recovered, but it had not been fired.

The county paid $2.25 million to settle a lawsuit filed by his parents.

The OLEO report on the Chilcott shooting concluded that several issues raised in the Dunlap-Gittens case were not properly addressed — or addressed at all — and contributed to its unnecessarily fatal outcome.

In both shootings, it was not clear that the detectives, wearing street clothes, were adequately identified as law enforcement. They were using unmarked vehicles without lights or sirens, and in both cases the deputies involved were not required to give statements afterward, a consideration OLEO says undermines public trust in the process.

The sheriff’s office General Orders Manual requires that officers provide written statements, if compelled by a supervisor, within 48 hours of an incident. Alvarez and Lerum didn’t turn their written statements in for eight days, according to the report.

OLEO has long recommended that deputies involved in critical incidents be interviewed in person before the end of the shift — the same sort of urgency detectives expect from civilian witnesses.

However, the detectives who shot Chilcott were not interviewed for eight months, and only then after an internal investigation was undertaken. OLEO notes that neither deputy signed his statement.

“Failing to promptly obtain a statement from involved personnel also decreases the public confidence that the investigative process will accurately determine what unfolded during the investigation,” the OLEO report said.

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