NAACP wants civilian reviews of police-involved shootings

ARLINGTON — The Snohomish County branch of the NAACP hopes to see additional oversight of investigations when police are involved in shootings, including one in Arlington last month.

The group is asking for a civilian review in investigations into officer-involved shootings or claims of excessive force. It also wants to see an independent civilian commission that could receive and investigate complaints about law enforcement, along with other concerns in the community.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People included the recommendations in a Tuesday media release. In the statement, it announced a Saturday press conference in which the sister of an African-American teen shot by police in Arlington on Feb. 14 is scheduled to speak.

The injured girl, whose name has not been publicly released, was shot in the chest and her lower right side. She initially was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries, but has since been released. She is a high school student also enrolled in community college courses. She has no criminal history.

Janice Greene, president of the Snohomish County NAACP branch, said her organization was contacted by the Seattle Human Rights Commission and asked to offer assistance to the girl’s family. What led up to the shooting is being investigated by SMART, a group of detectives drawn from throughout the county to gather facts and evidence in cases where police use deadly force. The team presents its findings to Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe, who decides whether anybody committed a potential crime.

The SMART investigation from the Arlington case has not been forwarded to the prosecutor.

Greene said she is not anti-law enforcement and described SMART as a crucial step toward “increasing the objectivity of officer-involved shooting investigations.” Even so, her organization argues that “even with the highest level of professionalism, it is inherently difficult to maintain objectivity” when officers investigate the conduct of their colleagues.

“It is our contention that this case warrants an additional independent review,” Greene said.

“In this particular case, I think police were overly aggressive with a child,” she said.

Roe said he would not discuss the ongoing case, but said the existing system is effective.

“We have over 20 years of handling these type of incidents in a way that has become something of a statewide model,” he said. “We will handle and review this one the same way: thoroughly, thoughtfully and fairly.”

Roe said he looks at each case independently and has pursued criminal charges against law enforcement officers in the past. He said that “doesn’t happen often because officers don’t often commit many crimes, but when they do, we charge them.”

“I’ll review it like the other 70-plus SMART cases I have reviewed in the last 20 years,” he said.

In the Arlington case, officers received a call about a disturbance shortly before 5 a.m. Feb. 14. They found a couple arguing in a gravel parking lot in the 500 block of N. Olympic Avenue.

Police tried to separate the pair. The girl reportedly had a knife.

Police say the shots were fired after an attempt to subdue the girl with an electric shock from a stun gun proved ineffective. Two Arlington police officers fired their guns. The girl was taken to the hospital in a medical helicopter.

A knife was found at the scene.

The officers were cleared to return to work earlier this month after interviews with SMART detectives.

Attorneys for the girl’s family have said that nobody should draw conclusions based on early reports, and they are troubled by how police have released information so far. Key facts are in dispute, they said.

It was the fourth officer-involved shooting in the county since December. Investigations are ongoing into a death on Highway 99 in Lynnwood on Jan. 30 and another in Everett on Dec. 17. Both those shootings involved Lynnwood officers.

On Feb. 9, a man was fatally shot by a Lake Stevens officer. The man, 33, reportedly had called 911 and said that he wanted “to kill cops.”

Washington’s statute on the use of deadly force is one of the nation’s most protective of law enforcement officers.

Under the law, an officer cannot be held criminally liable for using deadly force if they acted “without malice” and with a “good faith” belief their actions were justified. Washington is the only state with the malice standard.

Last year, a 26-member task force spent several months debating possible changes in the law that make it extremely difficult for prosecutors to charge an officer with a crime after an incident in which they wrongfully kill someone.

Bills introduced in the House and Senate lapsed in February due mostly to staunch opposition from the state’s largest associations of police and sheriff’s deputies. Greene said the local branch of NAACP is disappointed that neither bill moved forward.

Sponsors of the two bills continue to negotiate with those organizations and community groups on a compromise which would spur the legislation’s resurrection.

In the meantime, there is strong support for providing officers with increased training in de-escalation tactics and less-lethal weapons such as stun guns.

Senate Republicans provide $1.2 million in their proposed two-year budget released Tuesday. House Democrats will release their spending plan next week.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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