The family of a man shot and killed by Clark County deputies during an attempted drug sting in October 2020 filed a lawsuit on Thursday alleging wrongful death.
Kevin Peterson Jr., a 21-year-old Black man, died after being shot four times as he fled the scene of the sting. A regional drug task force had set up the sting over Snapchat, intending to charge Peterson with illegally selling Xanax pills.
The complaint names the county, Sheriff Chuck Atkins and two of the three deputies involved: Robert Anderson and Jonathan Feller. The third deputy, Jeremy Brown, died in an on-duty slaying in July 2021.
Peterson’s family filed the complaint in the U.S. District Court of Western Washington.
The lawsuit asserts that negligence by the county and Atkins led to Peterson’s death. Attorneys contend the county’s “deliberate indifference” fostered poorly trained deputies and prejudice.
This is the second wrongful death lawsuit facing the sheriff’s office this year. In February, the family of Jenoah Donald, 30, sued over his fatal shooting by a deputy during a traffic stop in 2021. Both families are represented by Tacoma-based Herrmann Law Group.
Like Donald’s, prosecutors later deemed Peterson’s fatal shooting justified. Pierce County prosecutors, who took over the review for Clark County, said the sting was a lawful effort to stop illicit drug sales and said Peterson had “ample time” to drop a loaded Glock handgun he carried, but never did.
“It’s important to understand that there’s a vast difference between a criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit,” attorney Mark Lindquist said in a Thursday press conference. “There will be justice and accountability in this case, but it will come from our civil prosecution.”
It’s unclear how much money the family may be seeking in their suit. Lawsuits filed in federal court do not require a monetary amount.
In filing the lawsuit, members of Peterson’s family said they hoped to spur greater change within the office. They called on Clark County to start using body cameras and scrutinize how they train deputies.
“It would mean the world to see change,” said Tammi Bell, Peterson’s mother. “We need real change so we can have a life.”
Sgt. Brent Waddell, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said the agency is “not going to be commenting on ongoing litigation.”
The shooting occurred Oct. 29, 2020, after a regional drug task force received a tip from a confidential informant about a Snapchat user named $pla$h. The task force, which includes the sheriff’s office and the Vancouver Police Department, set up a deal that day to buy 50 Xanax pills from the user, later identified as Peterson.
Around 5:30 p.m., the drug task force agents moved on Peterson by boxing-in his parked car at a budget motel parking lot. Peterson, whom investigators later found to be carrying a cellphone and a loaded Glock handgun, fled around the property.
Drug task force agents sought to contain the scene. Within minutes, they spotted Peterson two properties south at the parking lot of a shuttered bank. Two of the agents — Anderson and Brown — confronted Peterson, while Feller arrived in response to the task force’s radio call for backup.
The deputies later told investigators that Peterson had been holding his cellphone, and had fished his handgun out of his sweatshirt pocket. They commanded him to drop the gun, they said. Other task force agents also reported seeing Peterson drop his gun while running from the scene, then turning and retrieving it.
Peterson ultimately turned and ran from the deputies in the parking lot. As he ran, the three deputies fired a combined 34 rounds.
“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 later told investigators, noting he feared Peterson’s escape could endanger other deputies working to contain the scene. “He continued to run, I started shooting.”
Three of Peterson’s bullet wounds were “back to front” gunshots, the family’s lawsuit said, intimating that the shots struck as he ran from police. One of those bullets struck his neck.
Video surveillance shows Peterson tumbled to the ground after the first volley of shots. He then leaned himself off the ground, the footage showed, and extended his arm with an object in his hand. Deputies believed it to be a handgun, according to investigators, and fired again. A fourth bullet struck Peterson in the chest, the lawsuit said.