Prior to Clark County sheriff’s deputies fatally shooting Kfin Karuo on Oct. 17, it was the Vancouver Police Department closing in on the 28-year-old.
Now that Vancouver police are the lead agency investigating his shooting, state and local activists who have recently championed police accountability and transparency say the department should step away.
Court documents show Vancouver police started the investigation into Karuo after he allegedly pointed a handgun at a man in a parking lot on Sept. 29. Vancouver police had also placed a GPS tracker on Karuo’s white 2003 Ford Expedition, which was in place the night he died.
Vancouver’s tie to the case is “an obvious red flag” to Leslie Cushman, of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. She said Vancouver’s police work is no issue. But she said the public would struggle to see the agency as an independent player in the shooting’s review.
“I don’t think this is a hard line to draw. The Vancouver Police Department had a relationship to the case, so they should not be involved in this investigation,” Cushman said. “Confidence in the process – and a credible process – is critical to believe and have faith in the end result here.”
Nickeia Hunter, chair of the NAACP Vancouver’s legal redress committee and whose brother Carlos Hunter was killed by police in 2019, said many people are already leery whenever police investigate police.
“He had a criminal history, so they knew where to find him,” Hunter said. “They could have put together a team to go out and collect him without killing him, and putting that whole neighborhood in harm’s way.”
Kim Kapp, a Vancouver police spokesperson, said a conflict of interest does not exist in the case, and that no Vancouver police officer had any involvement in Karuo’s death. She added that none of the officers now investigating were part of the original case.
“So there is no conflict,” Kapp said in an email.
It was around 2:30 a.m., investigators say, when at least one Clark County deputy tried to pull Karuo over. When Karuo didn’t stop, deputies forced his SUV into a berm. The car came to a stop near the intersection of Northeast 122nd Avenue and Northeast 49th Street.
Investigators haven’t released a beat-by-beat detail of the shooting. At some point, after Karuo hit the berm, he pointed a gun, according to police. The deputies — identified as Forrest Gonzalez and David Delin — opened fire.
It’s unclear if there are any witnesses or footage of the encounter. Several bullets pierced a manufactured home behind the berm. Lorenzo Soriano, 21, who lives in the home with his sister and grandmother, said Karuo’s body rested in their driveway for hours.
The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office said Karuo died from a gunshot wound to the torso.
While it was the pair of Clark County deputies involved in the shooting, it was Vancouver’s police work that set the stage for the encounter, according to documents obtained by OPB.
Shortly before midnight Sept. 29, court records show a Vancouver patrolman fielded a 911 call from a man who had been parked at Tobacco Zone, located at 11320 NE 49th St. The man said a white SUV pulled up to him, and the driver asked if he was a police officer. When the man told him to mind his business, the SUV’s driver reportedly pointed a handgun at him and told him to leave.
The man captured the encounter on his dashboard camera. He shared the footage with Vancouver Det. Dennis Devlin. The man also identified Karuo out of a six-person photo array, the documents show.
“I asked (the man) what he was thinking at the time he saw the handgun produced and pointed at him,” Devlin wrote. “(He) believed he was going to be shot.”
According to the affidavit, the man lived out of his car and slept in the lot often. He told Devlin that his daughter lived in the area and that he had two nearby storage units.
Devlin sought to arrest Karuo for first-degree assault and unlawful possession of a firearm. Karuo had felony convictions for robbery, assault, theft and criminal impersonation, he wrote.
“I know from my training and experience that a GPS device is a useful tool for investigating crimes,” Devlin wrote in the affidavit. The trackers help develop leads, pinpoint suspects and aid with surveillance, he wrote. Eventually, he said, it would lead to an arrest.
“The use of a GPS device will provide the ability of VPD officers to facilitate the safe arrest of wanted fugitive Kfin Karuo,” Devlin wrote on Oct. 1. Clark County Superior Court Judge Scott Collier approved the tracking device the same day.
Vancouver police placed the GPS tracker three days later, Kapp said.
It’s unclear yet how the tracker was used. When asked how precisely the GPS relayed Karuo’s location to Vancouver police, Kapp said she couldn’t say.
“The police report related to the Sept 29th case, which referenced the tracker, did not reference any GPS coordinates or location,” Kapp said in an email.
When asked if Vancouver police had been tracking Karuo’s car the weekend of his death, Kapp said no. She mentioned only a bulletin that the Vancouver Special Investigations Unit released on Oct. 6 as it related to the initial search.
According to a separate search warrant — written by Vancouver Det. Jason Mills after Karuo’s death — the two sheriff’s deputies knew Karuo was wanted after reading a bulletin.
“Probable cause exists for arrest of Kfin Karuo for Assault 1,” the bulletin read. “Karuo is believed to be armed with a handgun. Officers should use extreme caution if contact is made with the subject based on recent events.”
In 2018, Washington began requiring deadly force incidents to be reviewed by an independent investigative team, or IIT.
In the event of deadly force, a patchwork of regional teams come together to form the IIT. Then IIT then interviews officers, witnesses, examines the scene and other steps to review the incident. Ultimately, a legal expert will use the review to determine whether to charge the involved officers or determine their deadly force justified.
The IIT investigating Karuo’s death, according to Kapp, is made up of eight Vancouver police officers, three Battle Ground police officers and one Camas police officer.
The law also requires that any time an IIT forms, each member must fill out forms to identify any potential conflicts of interest. Kapp said there were no conflicts identified in the forms. The forms are reviewed by community members with no police background.
Tim Reynon, who alongside Cushman helped enact the current independent investigation law and helped write the state rules governing how the teams are formed, said rules work to root out any perceived conflicts of interest to instill more trust from the public.
“Even if a law enforcement department was able to do a perfect investigation, it’s still the appearance of it to the general public that is questionable,” Reynon said.