Special police teams in Southwest Washington that investigate when fellow officers use deadly force have followed many best practices in their first investigations, yet have also made several administrative errors.
That’s according to a handful of recently published reports from the Washington State Auditor’s Office. The documents show a dozen errors in procedure during the deadly force reviews. In one case, the auditors found investigators failed to monitor who is accessing reports during an active investigation.
The audits shed some light on how police agencies are adapting to new police reform laws in Washington state, many of which are less than five years old.
The audits, which themselves are required by recently passed police reform laws, are welcomed by police reform advocates.
“Being sure a new law is followed is essential if the law is to have meaning,” said Joyce Brekke, of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability.
Across five investigations in Southwest Washington — all of which stemmed from police shooting a person, oftentimes fatally — auditors noted 12 times investigators erred in their process.
The auditors published three new reports Thursday. They had also published two in December.
The auditors do not determine whether the deadly force is justified. County prosecutors still handle that function. No police officers in Southwest Washington have broken the law when using deadly force, according to prosecutors.
Instead, the audits take a microscope to the investigation’s controls and bureaucracies.
One audit, for example, found that a day after a regional drug task force in Vancouver shot and killed 21-year-old Kevin Peterson Jr., an unauthorized officer “accessed a report,” the commander told auditors. The audit doesn’t make clear which agency employed the officer.
The auditors noted that the investigation had restricted its files’ access, yet those firewalls did not start quick enough to prevent the breach. In a response letter, the lead agency wrote there was a miscommunication among the patchwork of agencies.
“The officer’s agency has been contacted about this issue,” wrote Troy Brightbill, chief criminal deputy for the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office.
In two separate investigations into officers shooting and killing a person, investigators reportedly failed to keep the public properly informed as the investigation unfolded. One new standard in Washington requires investigators to release weekly public updates detailing case developments.
In two separate instances, investigators also failed to stay in touch with families of someone police had shot and similarly keep them abreast of new information. The audits said the families of Irving Diaz-Rodriguez and William Abbe, both shot by Vancouver Police Department officers, remained in the dark.
Brightbill, in an email to OPB, said the auditing process had “a lot of room for improvement.” He contended the state agency used contract companies. He said he told the agency that the process could be “better organized.”
“I have given my feedback to the (auditor’s office) and they seemed receptive,” Brightbill said.
Many of the laws at play came into being around 2018. That’s when voters approved Initiative 940, a measure that pushed for more public involvement in cases of police using deadly force. It created the regional teams and required that two members of the general public serve on each investigation.
In Southwest Washington, there are two predominant teams doing those investigations. The Southwest Washington Independent Investigative Response Team handles Clark and Skamania counties. That agency is at the center of the audits published Thursday.
The other agency is the Lower Columbia Major Crimes Team, which covers Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties. Auditors published two reports on that team’s investigations in late December.
Statewide, there are 17 such investigative teams.