UPDATE (7 a.m. PT, June 17) — The investigation into Vancouver police's fatal shooting of an unhoused man will be reviewed by elected officials three counties away, the Clark County prosecutor's office has decided.
The leader of a local civil rights group, however, worries outsourcing the decision further mutes the public’s ability to hold officers accountable.
Last week, Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik tapped his counterpart in Thurston County to review whether three officers acted lawfully on April 28 when they shot and killed 50-year-old William Abbe.
His decision came as civil rights groups in Vancouver had penned a letter saying they weren't confident county officials could judge the review impartially.
Golik told OPB on Tuesday that he had already intended to send the review to another county prosecutor. He said it’s a common practice when concerns over conflicts of interest arise.
“If a local prosecutor has an actual conflict or a perceived conflict, a very standard course is to have another county prosecutor review the case, and make whatever decision is appropriate,” he said.
While Golik told OPB last week that he felt very confident in his office’s rulings on police shootings in the past, he also supported changing policies so local prosecutors aren’t reviewing those investigations in their own communities.
“This is a discussion that’s been going on among prosecutors statewide,” Golik said. “And I’ve made it clear that … I’m a proponent of change.”
Although the decision to move the review may thwart any tangles between the prosecutor’s office and local law enforcement, civil rights groups said the move still doesn’t address the problem.
Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Southwest Washington, said by sending the decision elsewhere, the review is now in the hands of a prosecutor who doesn’t answer to Clark County voters.
“There is no accountability,” Rosales said.
When asked to comment on whether it’s the right move to send investigations to other counties, Golik called it a “time-tested model.” He said the state attorney general can also review cases.
But Rosales added that the decision shouldn’t be in the county prosecutor’s hands from the start. As stated in the letter last week, Rosales said citizens need more oversight of police, especially when police shootings occur.
“We still don’t have the type of transparency we expect in our community, and that goes against the requirements of [Initiative 940],” Rosales said.
Initiative 940 went into effect this year, creating independent investigative teams for police shootings. Such a team was created after Abbe’s killing, headed by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Camas and Battle Ground.
However, as first reported by The Columbian, the investigation did not appear to satisfy the state law. The team did not include two community representatives from outside law enforcement.
Local prosecutor D. Angus Lee drew attention to that shortcoming when he wrote a letter to Golik on Friday calling the investigation invalid.
“The apparent refusal or failure by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office to comply with state law calls into question the entire investigation,” Lee wrote. “If the investigation is to have any credibility, it is incumbent upon the Prosecutor’s Office to call for a new investigation to be conducted in full compliance with [the new law].”
Law enforcement agencies in Clark and Skamania counties are responsible for creating a pool of people to serve as the community representatives on investigative teams, but have not yet done so. Kim Kapp, Vancouver Police Department spokesperson, the process was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Kapp said there are currently 15 applicants who must be background-checked and trained. She did not know how long it would be before any applicants are prepared to serve on the teams.
Correction: This story has been updated to correctly reflect that several law enforcement agencies help create the pool of people who serve as community representatives on the investigative teams. OPB regrets the error.