Two Seattle law firms have jointly filed a wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit against the Vancouver Police Department and Washington Department of Corrections on behalf of the estate and children of Carlos Hunter, who was fatally shot by officers in 2019 in Hazel Dell.
Hunter, a 43-year-old Black man, was shot and killed March 7 by two Vancouver police task force members as they tried to serve a search warrant during a traffic stop in the 2400 block of Northeast 78th Street.
The law firms Schroeter Goldmark & Bender and Corr Cronin filed the lawsuit Friday morning in Clark County Superior Court, which also names the involved officers: Vancouver police Detectives Dennis Devlin and Colton Price, Vancouver police Officer Branden Schoolcraft and corrections Officer Rees Campbell. It seeks an amount of damages to be determined at trial.
The complaint alleges officers with both agencies violated Hunter’s state and federal constitutional rights — specifically, the Fourth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution — when they used a stun gun on him four times and then shot him at least 16 times.
The Camas Police Department led the shooting investigation as part of the Regional Major Crimes Team. In October 2019, the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office found that Devlin and Price acted lawfully when they shot Hunter. According to investigators, Hunter had reached for a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun in his right front pants pocket during the traffic stop.
In an email Friday morning, Assistant City Attorney Dan Lloyd said the city had not yet been provided a copy of the lawsuit.
He said the then-chief deputy prosecutor found the Vancouver officers’ actions “were in response to a fear of deadly assault.”
“The investigation revealed that the officer-involved shooting occurred when Mr. Hunter resisted and reached for a handgun in his pocket instead of cooperating with the officers who were attempting to serve a search warrant authorized by a judge,” Lloyd said. “While the loss of any life is tragic, the city agrees with the conclusion of the prosecuting attorney and intends to defend its officers in this litigation accordingly.”
The DOC declined to comment on the pending litigation.
The lawsuit argues that Hunter’s death was not an isolated incident by Vancouver police.
It references the June 2020 release of the Police Executive Research Forum’s report on the Vancouver Police Department’s use-of-force policies. The review followed a spate of police shootings, three of which were fatal, in about a month’s time in 2019. Two of the fatalities involved people of color, including Hunter, and the third involved a homeless man previously diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The study found that those shootings occurred during a three-year period in which the number of use-of-force incidents by Vancouver police increased by 65 percent. PERF made 84 recommendations to reform the police department’s culture, policies and practices around use of force.
“We are committed to achieving accountability for Carlos Hunter’s senseless death on behalf of his family and young children,” attorney John Bender, of Corr Cronin, said in a news release. “Law enforcement officers are supposed to protect and serve, not escalate interactions to violence.
“Carlos, who died on the way to pick up his kids from school, should be alive today,” Bender added. “While we owe the majority of law enforcement a debt of gratitude, officers who violate their oaths must be held accountable to prevent future tragedies and to help families and communities heal.”
On the morning of the shooting, members of the Safe Streets Task Force had staked out Hunter’s residence on Northeast 83rd Drive, less than a mile from where he was killed. According to investigators, officers wanted to arrest Hunter on suspicion of selling Ecstasy. But the task force decided to arrest Hunter in his vehicle and not at his home, because young children lived there.
Hunter left his residence around 1:30 p.m. and was subsequently pulled over by Devlin, who was later joined by Price, Schoolcraft and Campbell, the lawsuit says.
Minutes later, the officers reported that everything was under control and the scene was safe. Then, within the span of 70 seconds, the officers repeatedly used a stun gun on Hunter and shot him multiple times while he was seated inside his vehicle with his seat belt fastened, the lawsuit says, citing police reports. The firearm was still in Hunter’s pants pocket when he was removed from the vehicle, the suit says.
It argues the officers “created the chaos” by giving Hunter competing commands, surrounding his vehicle and shattering his passenger’s side window to intimidate him.
“This lawsuit is not a part of an anti-police officer movement. We have filed this lawsuit on behalf of the Hunter family because we believe the named officers crossed a clear line and should be held accountable,” attorney Craig Sims, of Schroeter Goldmark & Bender, said in the news release. “We are determined to conduct our investigation with the utmost integrity and cast a bright light on the truth of what really happened to Mr. Hunter.”