A Washington state prosecutor has found three Clark County sheriff’s deputies acted lawfully when they shot and killed Kevin Peterson Jr. last fall during an attempted drug sting.
After Peterson fled the Oct. 29 sting, detectives Robert Anderson and Jeremy Brown and deputy John Feller confronted him at a nearby bank. Peterson ran again, while carrying a cell phone and a handgun, and the trio opened fire.
Pierce County prosecutors, who took over the review for Clark County, said deputies acted lawfully because the sting was a legal effort to stop illicit prescription drugs sales, and that Peterson, 21, had “ample time” to drop the gun but never did.
Anderson, who shot first, told investigators he pulled the trigger as Peterson ran away because he refused multiple orders to drop the gun. Anderson said he feared Peterson would run into more deputies moving to arrest.
“There was no legal requirement for the officers to allow Mr. Peterson to fire first before defending themselves,” wrote Prosecutor Mary E. Robnett and Chief Criminal Deputy James Schact. “They did not have to wait for him to pull the trigger.”
Peterson’s family said the Monday decision stunned them.
“We are shocked an officer gets to shoot Kevin in the back because he’s tired of chasing him,” the family said in a statement. “This is unfair and unsafe for everyone in the community.”
A key issue of the case — whether Peterson ever aimed his gun at deputies — remains unclear, according to Mark Lindquist, an attorney representing Peterson’s family in their lawsuit against Clark County.
Peterson fell to the ground after the first volley of gunfire. Security footage at a nearby bank showed he extended his arm with an object in his hand. The three then shot again. Combined, they fired more than 30 rounds.
Lindquist said it’s possible Peterson, who was on a video call with his girlfriend at the time, could have been holding his phone. He said even if Peterson did aim a gun, it was only after he was already shot while running away. Lindquist cast doubt on why Anderson fired in the first place.
“Our laws do not allow an officer to shoot a suspect for running away,” he said an emailed statement. “I’m confident justice will prevail in the family’s civil lawsuit against the county.”
Lindquist and the family announced in March they intend to sue the county. They have not yet filed.
Like many recent Black Americans killed by law enforcement, Peterson’s death outraged many. Activists descended on the scene of the shooting after it occurred.
Their anger rose the next day when Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins told reporters there was evidence that Peterson fired at deputies. However, investigators quickly said there was no such evidence.
The next weekend, demonstrators held vigils at the bank where Peterson died and marched through downtown Vancouver. Weeks later, they held more vigils at the bank and marched through the surrounding neighborhoods.
The 20-page review effectively clears any wrongdoing in the operation — from the initial drug sting to the shooting and to the investigation that followed.
The sting began around 5:30 p.m. An informant tipped off a regional drug task force that Peterson was illegally selling prescription drugs, such as Xanax. Via Snapchat, the task force arranged to meet Peterson at a budget motel north of Vancouver.
Prior to Peterson’s arrival, he questioned if he was talking to police, according to communication records obtained by investigators. Investigators also showed an undated photo of Peterson quoting rap lyrics and using emojis to show a gun firing at a police officer, which prosecutors cited in the finding.
A search of Peterson’s car eventually yielded a container and two bags with roughly 30 pills combined.
When officers moved to arrest Peterson at the motel, they boxed in his Mercedes-Benz. That’s when Peterson fled on foot, running behind some of the motel’s buildings and along the fence line. At one point, one detective said he saw Peterson drop the gun and told him not to pick it up, but he did.
“I see him drop something black. Um, to me, it looks like a gun,” said Det. Jeremiah Fields, who said he was 50 feet away at most. “Can I say 100% sure? No, probably not. But when I see it happening in front of me, I start yelling at him, ‘Don’t reach for the gun. Don’t go for the gun. Don’t go for the gun,’ and he does.”
Peterson ran the perimeter, then cut across a car dealership next door. Then he ran along the back parking lot of the shuttered U.S. Bank to the south.
Brown, a detective on the task force, parked at the bank in an unmarked truck. As Peterson came into view, Anderson, in an unmarked SUV, had driven south from the motel and pulled into the lot to confront Peterson. Feller, in a marked SUV, had responded as backup and followed close behind Anderson.
The three all reported seeing Peterson holding a cellphone. Brown said he thought Peterson was live streaming.
In the review, prosecutors reviewed statements by the officers who pulled the trigger, as well as witnesses who said they saw at least some portion of the fatal moments. Those witnesses included drivers on nearby Highway 99, people at neighboring businesses, and other officers.
A security camera at the bank and another at an auto shop also captured the scene, but the former’s picture quality and the latter’s distance hamper their detail.
According to Anderson, he exited his SUV and confronted Peterson. He said Peterson then fished the handgun out of his pocket. Anderson said he began ordering Peterson to drop the gun.
Peterson, however, turned and ran back toward the car dealership. Anderson told investigators that he worried what would happen if Peterson ran into more officers coming from the motel.
“I kinda just drew the line in the sand and I was — I said, ‘I’ve given suspect enough commands. If he takes another step, I’m gonna shoot him,’” Anderson told investigators. “Um, he continued to run, I started shooting.”
Feller said he started firing when he heard shots.
Security footage from across the street showed Peterson run a short distance before he tumbled to the ground. He then leaned up, the footage showed, and extended his arm with an object in his hand.
The deputies on scene said Peterson aimed a gun. Prosecutors, in the review, wrote the object is “consistent with a handgun.”
Brown, the last sheriff’s deputy to fire, said he had not seen a gun at that point. He later told investigators he was “keenly aware of today’s (political) climate.”
“I’ve been doing this job for, you know, 13 years. And this whole time I’ve decided I will not pull the trigger unless I absolutely have to,” he said. Brown fired eight rounds at Peterson, according to records.
Olivia Selto, Peterson’s girlfriend and mother of his child, was on the phone with him during the encounter and recorded some of the details. However, prosecutors noted she declined interviews with investigators and provided a redacted copy of the footage through her attorney.
Selto said in a statement Monday that Peterson “wasn’t a threat.”
“When you can hear it in someone’s voice and see it in their eyes that they are terrified, you know they aren’t a threat to anyone,” Selto said. “I’m worried about raising my daughter in a community, a world, that murderers walk away free.”
Robnett and Schact, the prosecutors, called the encounter a tragedy.
“It is tragic that Mr. Peterson lost his life,” they wrote. “But he made the regrettable decision to distribute drugs and, in the course of felony drug dealing, threaten to shoot the police.”
Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik, who asked Robnett to lead the review, called it accurate, thoughtful and professional.
”While the loss of life in this case was tragic, I concur with the well-reasoned analysis of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office in this case,” Golik said in a statement.
In his own statement, Undersheriff John Chapman said the process aimed to show the public “improved transparency and increased accountability” in reviewing the shooting.
“Incidents such as this are very difficult on everyone. The loss of life is tragic for all the parties involved,” Chapman wrote. “Although some may have expected or wished for a different outcome, we have placed our trust in the independent investigation protocols as put in place by the State of Washington.”