Civil rights groups say they weren’t shocked to learn the deadly April shooting of a homeless man by Vancouver police has been deemed “justified.”
“The finding of justification is not surprising,” Shareefah Hoover, chair of the NAACP Vancouver’s legal redress committee, told OPB.
“Even in the seemingly most obvious cases of potentially excessive force, officers are most likely to be found justified,” Hoover added. “That’s just a fact and a huge hurdle that’s part of the challenge of seeking accountability.”
The comments follow a finding Monday by the Thurston County prosecutor’s office, brought in as an independent agency, that multiple Vancouver police officers acted lawfully when they shot and killed 50-year-old William Abbe. The finding was first reported by The Columbian newspaper.
The Clark County prosecutor’s office outsourced the criminal review of the shooting in June. A week prior, a coalition of groups had called for more oversight of the shooting.
“Having this deadly incident reviewed outside our immediate region was an important step toward greater scrutiny that these kinds of incidents potentially require,” Hoover said Wednesday. “It wasn’t ideal, but it’s a start.”
Three Vancouver police officers – Sgt. Jay Alie and officers Sean Suarez and Sammy Abdala – fatally shot Abbe the morning of April 28, along the busy Vancouver corridor of Fourth Plain Boulevard.
According to reports, prior to the arrival of police, Abbe, who is believed to have been living outside, used sharpened metal rods to beat another man near a bus stop. When police arrived, he threw one of the rods and a large rock at them, refused commands and shouted, “You’re going to have to shoot me.”
One of the officers fired a Taser at Abbe, but “did not appear to effectively hit Mr. Abbe and he was not incapacitated,” the Thurston County prosecutor’s report found.
Cell phone footage from a bystander that morning, cited in Thurston County’s report as “the best evidence of what transpired,” showed six police officers in Abbe’s vicinity, several with guns drawn.
The footage does not show what is said during between Abbe and the officers in the confrontation. When interviewed during the investigation, Alie said Abbe told him, “I’m going to kill you.”
The footage shows Abbe walking toward Alie, who raises a gun and fires. The two other officers also fired, according to the report, firing a total of four rounds in roughly three seconds.
Thurston County deputy prosecutor Scott Jackson deemed the shooting justified because, he said, Abbe committed assault, resisted arrest, and posed a threat to commit more violence.
“The evidence supports that a reasonable officer … would believe the use of deadly force against Mr. Abbe was necessary to prevent death or serious physical harm to one of officers or another individual,” Jackson wrote. “All three of the officers that fired their weapons either feared for their own safety or the safety of the other officers and civilians at the scene.”
The finding comes three months after Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik requested his counterparts in Thurston County take the case. Golik has advocated for outside prosecutors to review officer-involved shootings.
Golik told OPB that Thurston County’s eight-page review was a “very professional and thorough analysis.”
“It should be very clear to everyone that this was a completely independent review, done at arm’s length from any of the involved agencies in the Clark County criminal justice community,” Golik said.
Still, legal observers and members of the coalition of civil rights groups continue to raise questions whether the investigation and review pass legal muster.
Washington’s Initiative 940, signed into law in 2019, mandates an independent investigation when police use deadly force. It also mandates that a pool of citizens to serve on that team.
The team launched after Abbe’s shooting did not include citizens. Police told reporters that creating the pool of citizens was disrupted by the novel coronavirus. Thurston County’s report does not mention that no citizens took part in the investigation.
Danielle Jokela, a member alongside Hoover in the civil rights group coalition, said the coalition continues to have “serious questions about the nature of the investigation.”
Jokela said they are “deeply concerned that gaps in the existing legislation continue to allow law enforcement to use deadly force with impunity.”
Defense attorney D. Angus Lee said the case needs to be reviewed by the state attorney general’s office.
“This is an example of the kind of decision and investigation you get when the investigation was conducted in open violation of the state’s transparency and oversight law,” Lee said.
Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Southwest Washington, was dismayed that less lethal tools “seem to never be available,” and raised doubts police are properly trained to de-escalate situations.
“When will we, the people, be able to sit in judgment of those who are constantly given waiver for taking lives?” he said in a text message.
Rosales added that petitioning for the state attorney general’s review is a “consideration.”
When asked if the review should be re-examined because there was no citizen oversight, Golik said no.
“The reviewing prosecutor took everything into consideration, the totality of the facts and the investigation, and obviously felt comfortable – based on the facts of this case – issuing a review,” he said.