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How Officer-Involved Shootings Are Investigated in Auburn

In May 2019 the Auburn Police Department was involved in two separate officer-involved shootings.  Enosa (EJ) Strickland Jr., 26, died after an altercation with police ended in a fatal shooting on May 20th.  Eleven days later, May 31st, Jesse Sarey, 26, was shot by an officer during an altercation after resisting arrest.  He later died in the hospital.  These two officer-involved shootings prompted independent investigations into the cause, and justification of the shooting.

When an officer-involved shooting occurs in Auburn, three separate entities investigate the incident.  The Valley Investigations Team (VIT), the Medical Examiner, and the county.  As Auburn falls within both King and Pierce counties, how an officer-involved shooting is investigated in each county differs.

The Valley Investigation Team

Both officer-involved shooting incidents are being investigated by the Valley Investigations Team (VIT).  Formed in 2012, the VIT is comprised of seven law enforcement agencies: Auburn, Des Moines, Federal Way, Kent, Renton, Tukwila, and Port of Seattle.  The VIT has been deployed to approximately 31 incidents since 2014.

“VIT is utilized for officer-involved shootings investigations, in custody death investigations, and at the discretion of the Chiefs of Police,” explained Commander Kurt Schwan, Federal Way Police Department Public Information Officer. “The VIT agencies are on a set rotational list for assignment,” continued Schwan. “Unless of course, the involved agency is next on the rotation; they would then be skipped, and a different agency would be assigned as the lead. Once the incident [has ended, the scene] is static, and VIT has been called, the involved agency is not involved in any aspect of the investigation of the incident.”

The Federal Way Police Department (FWPD) is investigating the officer-involved shooting of Strickland.  Port of Seattle Detectives are investigating the officer-involved shooting death of Sarey.

Last week a timeline was released by FWPD, and posted on the Auburn Police Department Facebook page.  The VIT investigation into this officer-involved shooting, however, has not concluded.  According to Schwan, the investigation is estimated to take an additional two to three months, pending toxicology results.

Port of Seattle has not yet released any information related to their investigation.

The Medical Examiner’s Investigation

A Medical Examiner is responsible for independently documenting all injuries. Part of this investigation process is performing the autopsy. Once the Medical Examiner completes their review, the cause and manner of death are (usually) determined.  These results are provided to the investigating agencies.

As per RCW 36.24.020, the Medical Examiner “at his or her discretion may hold an inquest in certain cases, and the Medical Examiner shall have jurisdiction over the deceased in officer-involved fatal incidents.” Medical Examiners may only hold a coroner’s inquest if they find key elements or evidence of the case that is in dispute, or if protocols were not correctly followed.

How Pierce County Investigates Officer-Involved Fatalities

The officer-involved shooting of Strickland occurred in Pierce County. “Voter-approved I-940 requires an investigation of an officer-involved fatal incident that is completely independent of the involved police agency. The Legislature later passed a substitute of I-940, but that requirement remains,” explained Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office Media Relations Officer Adam Faber.

“In the spirit of I-940’s requirements, the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is conducting an independent investigation of this incident.  The chief investigator of our Investigative Services Bureau has started that process. After that investigation, P.A. Robnett will make a legal determination regarding this incident.”PCPAO, Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, pierce county prosecutor

This is the second officer-involved shooting investigation the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will conduct this year. “The first was the Lakewood incident from January; no determination has been made yet in that case. It should be noted that even before I-940, the [Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office] has been conducting independent investigations into these incidents for many years,” said Faber.

The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office follows an outlined protocol for officer-involved shootings.  The full protocol can be read here.  Faber confirmed there is no set timetable on these investigations.

King County’s Process for Officer-Involved Deaths

The May 31st officer-involved shooting death of Sarey occurred in King County.  This gives jurisdiction to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.  Their office does not perform their own, separate, investigation into an officer-involved shooting.  The investigating agency, in this case, the VIT, submits their findings to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Their office then reviews that report and the investigation’s findings.  After review, a recommendation is made to the Executive’s Office as to whether an inquest would need to be conducted.

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King County Executive Dow Constantine | File Photo

King County Executive Dow Constantine signed an Executive Order in October 2018 instituting several reforms to the inquests that investigate law-enforcement involved deaths.

“I believe the new Executive Order will provide families, law enforcement officers, and community members with greater transparency and accountability,” said Executive Constantine in an October 3, 2018 release. “I believe it will give the public more confidence in the inquest process, and it will give law enforcement and policy-makers greater ability to reflect on how training and policies come into play in often difficult situations, and how they may be improved.”

The October 3rd release states several of the provisions outlined in the Executive Order signed on October 3rd:
  • “A pool of retired judges will serve as pro tem Inquest Administrators to oversee the process. King County Superior Court will provide a courtroom as required by state law.
  • A Staff Attorney hired on a pro tem basis will assist. The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will no longer serve as a neutral facilitator. The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will continue to serve an administrative role, assembling the investigative files, and making the recommendation to the Executive to order an inquest, as required by County Charter.
  • Officials from the investigating agency will offer testimony about the facts of the event. The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will no longer have the power to subpoena the responsible officer, and that officer cannot be compelled to testify.
  • Separately, the chief law enforcement officer of the involved agency (or their designee) will testify about the department’s use of force policy and training.
  • State law requires a jury of no more than six, and no less than four. Jurors will be asked to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding the death. Instead of being asked whether the officer had reason to fear for their life, jurors will now be asked to determine whether the officer’s actions complied with department training and policy.
  • Involved parties may call expert witnesses such as medical examiner and ballistics experts.”

The full text of the Executive Order can be read here.

If criminal charges are filed in either case, the respective prosecuting attorney’s office will handle the trial, should there be one.

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