SEATTLE — The Redmond police officer who shot and killed Andrea Churna, an unarmed 39-year-old mother as she tried to surrender to officers in September 2020, had been dismissed as a probationary Whatcom County sheriff’s deputy 14 months earlier for poor performance, according to records.
Daniel Mendoza, 26, struggled with virtually every aspect of police work during his seven months as a probationary sheriff’s deputy, unable to recite statutes, routinely getting lost while responding to calls, writing muddled reports and failing tests on topics ranging from when using force was appropriate to the county’s pursuit policies.
The preceding 720 hours he spent learning to become a peace officer at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training academy wasn’t much better — while he looked sharp and was enthusiastic, he was last in his class academically, and repeatedly failed a key test mock scenario, preventing his graduation. The academy only certified him as a peace officer after Whatcom County intervened to help him pass on his third and last try, according to personnel records obtained through public disclosure by The Seattle Times.
“Deputy Mendoza also has had knowledge deficiencies in the area [of] RCW [Revised Code of Washington], policy and case law,” wrote Whatcom County Deputy Chief Doug Chadwick in a memo to field training Lt. Rodger Funk in May 2019, after Mendoza’s second failed attempt at passing the first phase of field training under an experienced training officer. The revised code is a compilation of all permanent state laws.
“He does not have a working knowledge of common RCWs that he should have a strong knowledge of coming out of the academy. Examples of this have been the definition of ‘necessary’ “ — a key component in the law governing when police can use deadly force.
“Every recruit is required to recite [the definition] verbatim regularly at the academy, yet he could not,” Chadwick wrote.
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, in a separation letter addressed to Mendoza dated May 10, 2019, noted that the “post-academy field training program has been a challenge for you, and the training cadre has concluded that you are unable to successfully complete your phase one training requirement after two attempts to do so.
“Phase one is a basic level of field training and must be completed before you can be released to more difficult and independent phases” of law enforcement, the sheriff wrote, noting particularly that Mendoza could not consistently write coherent police reports, a “skill [that] is paramount and critical in terms of meeting the basic job requirements for deputy sheriff.
After a “thorough review” of Mendoza’s overall performance, Elfo accepted recommendations from his staff “that [Mendoza] not be retained as a deputy sheriff” and fired him.
Within a month, Redmond would hire him as a rookie police officer. The current Redmond chief, Darrell Love, said Mendoza was hired by his predecessor, former Chief Kristi Wilson, and that he could not comment on her decision. Wilson, who left the Redmond PD on June 7, 2019, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Messages seeking comment from Mendoza left with his union attorney, Lisa Elliott, and Chief Love, were not returned.
A public disclosure request seeking Mendoza’s personnel records with Redmond filed by The Times on Dec. 31, 2021, remains pending.
Minutes of a Redmond Civil Service Commission meeting on April 15, 2020, noted that Mendoza had completed the department’s field training requirements and had graduated to patrol officer, a job the department confirmed he holds today.
On Sept. 20, 2020, Mendoza, armed with a high-powered rifle, shot Andrea Churna, the divorced mother of a 7-year-old boy, six times from a distance of 30 feet as she lay outside the door of her upscale Redmond apartment. Churna was on her stomach, her arms outstretched and ankles crossed — “proned out,” was the description Mendoza gave radio dispatchers.
Churna, the daughter of a retired Michigan State Police commander, was having a mental crisis and called police for help because she thought someone was trying to break into her apartment to kill her. Before officers arrived, Churna had fired a single shot from a handgun into the door of her apartment, according to records. The handgun had malfunctioned and was found on a patio table in her apartment after she was killed, according to the investigation.
Shortly after officers responded to Churna’s 911 call for help, she had exited her apartment purportedly carrying a handgun, and two other Redmond officers — Ty Tomlinson and Evan Barnard — claim she pointed the weapon at them. They fired at least eight rounds in a crossfire that sent bullets through neighboring apartment walls. The investigation concluded that Churna, who ran back into her apartment unscathed, did not fire at the officers.
According to officer statements, she came out of the apartment a second time unarmed, hands up, dressed in a T-shirt and yoga pants, and was ordered to the floor. At least six officers were crowded at the end of the corridor, guns drawn, some yelling obscenity-laced commands. At least one officer was carrying a bulletproof ballistic shield.
Churna had a cellphone and had called her ex-husband, telling officers she wanted to surrender to him. Tim Churna was in the parking lot, being questioned by officers, when the shots were fired.
In written statements given to the King County Sheriff’s Office days after the shooting by their union attorney, several Redmond officers said Churna was squirming on the floor and slowly rotating to face her apartment door. They wrote that they feared that she was going to retrieve a gun from her apartment.
Mendoza, however, was the only officer who fired his weapon at that point. He has never provided a statement to King County detectives and has declined to be interviewed, according to sheriff’s documents.
The King County Prosecutor’s Office has said it will not make a final decision on whether criminal charges should be filed pending a coroner’s inquest, which could be years away. The Churna shooting is 43rd on a list of at least 52 pending inquests.
Chief Lowe has ordered an internal investigation to determine whether any department policies were violated. The results are pending.
Mendoza, who had spent the previous four years in the Navy, was hired by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 2, 2018, and sent to the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy, where records show he struggled with academics and missed several classes.
However, in a series of weekly letters written to training officers in Whatcom County, Mendoza remained enthusiastic and determined to do well and noted that he was particularly adept at firearms training.
On Dec. 5, 2018, he wrote, “I am excelling in firearms, but am considering on taking extra training to work more on my draw and sight alignment.
“Although I understand I may never use my weapon while in the field, I want to stay proficient in all aspects of my training,” he wrote. Later, in a letter explaining why he had missed 14 hours of training in firearms, control tactics and criminal law due to family issues, he noted that he had been working on his shooting at his “home range” and promised to make up the missed classes.
However, the personnel records show that Mendoza did poorly on academy tests in criminal law, defensive tactics, criminal investigations and the Basic Law Enforcement Academy comprehensive final, and twice failed the academy’s field-interview mock scenario, failing to find a gun on one suspect and drugs on another. As a result, he did not graduate with his class, according to a letter sent to Elfo, the sheriff, by the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy commander Rex Caldwell on Feb. 27, 2019. Caldwell said a third failure in the mock scenario would wash him out of the academy.
In response, Whatcom County put Mendoza through a week of remedial training that included one-on-one coaching on case law and tactics. Only then, according to a May 9, 2019, memo from Chief Criminal Deputy Doug Chadwick to former Undersheriff Jeff Parks, was Mendoza able to pass the mock scenario and win police officer certification.
Records show he repeatedly got lost on his way to service calls and often had to refer to manuals and other materials to refresh his memory of commonly used laws and policies. His report writing routinely lacked the necessary details and was rife with typographical and grammatical errors.
“It was also noted that Deputy Mendoza did not appear to retain knowledge from the academy with respect to common RCWs,” Chadwick wrote. “During verbal quizzes, Deputy Mendoza as often unable to properly identify the elements of the crime for common violation of law that deputies encounter on a regular basis.
“In reviewing the totality of the circumstances, Deputy Mendoza is unable to meet the performance expectations of the sheriff’s office,” Chadwick concluded, and recommended to Elfo that he be terminated. The following day, he was.