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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Let improved system work in police shooting

The Columbian
Published: June 3, 2023, 6:03am

Thus far, we don’t know all the facts about a fatal police shooting Tuesday in central Vancouver. But because of increased scrutiny placed on such shootings, we are confident that those facts will emerge, providing transparency and accountability.

Washington has taken steps in recent years to improve investigations into the use of deadly force by officers. The measures are essential to bolstering public faith in law enforcement, protecting the vast majority of officers who are noble public servants and improving police procedures and training.

That will play a role in determining what happened Tuesday.

According to Vancouver Police Department officials, as reported by The Columbian, a detective from the Neighborhood Response Team spotted a robbery suspect driving west in the 6700 block of East Mill Plain Boulevard. Two additional detectives arrived and saw the man park his vehicle in the Heights Shopping Center lot. He went inside a Safeway supermarket. Police waited until they saw him leave the store, then tried to arrest him in the parking lot.

When the man saw the detectives, “He dropped a bag of items, displayed a firearm, ran westbound through the parking lot and during the attempt to apprehend him, the suspect fired at officers, and they returned fire,” department officials said in a statement.

Police later said the man was wanted as a suspect in multiple armed robberies.

The key phrase in all of that is “according to Vancouver Police Department officials.” For generations, police officers throughout the country have had the final word on incidents involving the use of force. Determining the veracity of those words is important for accountability.

In one particularly egregious example, the initial statement from the Minneapolis Police Department following the death of George Floyd in 2020 read, in part, “Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance.”

There was no mention of Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. Chauvin has since been convicted of second-degree murder. Without a bystander’s video of the event, the narrative of Floyd’s murder would have been written solely by officers on the scene.

In Washington, under sweeping reforms passed in 2021, state law states, “a peace officer may use deadly force against another person only when necessary to protect against an immediate threat of serious physical injury or death to the officer or another person.”

Most important is the process for determining what level of threat was present. Also in 2021, the state established an Office of Independent Investigations, a citizen-led agency to examine police actions. That office is not yet operational and will not look into Tuesday’s shooting. The incident points out the urgency of getting the department up and running.

But another recent reform might foster transparency. The Vancouver Police Department in February incorporated body cameras for officers. Cameras often can provide clarity regarding the use of deadly force.

The vast majority of police shootings are deemed necessary to protect officers and the public. If the suspect in Tuesday’s shooting did, indeed, fire a gun, the threat would appear to be obvious.

Until all facts are presented, the public should avoid drawing conclusions about the events. But we can take comfort in the belief that those facts will soon be known.