Recent police shootings in South Puget Sound have placed a spotlight on what information law enforcement departments release and how quickly they do so.
The answers run the gamut.
About 10 hours after an Olympia police officer shot two suspected shoplifters May 21, the agency released the names of all involved parties and an audio recording of the dispatch call.
That’s in stark contrast to the 20 days Lakewood police took to name the two officers who on April 21 fatally shot a man who police say pointed a cellphone, not a weapon, at the officers.
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Most agencies fall somewhere in the middle.
In their most recent shootings, Tacoma police waited five days to identify the officer, and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department provided details within three days.
“The sooner you get that information out there, the better,” Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell said. “It quashes rumors and misinformation.”
In Thurston County, there are fewer police-involved shootings than in Pierce County, so it’s difficult to compare how different agencies react. In the past 12 months, there have been two police shootings in Thurston County: the May 21 event involving an Olympia officer and two young men; and a September 2014 incident in which a Lacey officer shot and killed a domestic violence suspect who had shot at police.
In the Lacey shooting, the Thurston County Coroner’s Office released the name of the victim, Kerry Brown, the following day, after Brown’s family had been notified of his death. Brown was suspected of domestic violence, and shot at police shortly before his death.
Lacey police released details of the event the morning after the shooting.
Officers and deputies who fire their weapons in a fatal shooting are immediately placed on paid administrative leave.
In Thurston County, police-involved shootings are investigated by the Critical Incident Task Force, made up of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, Washington State Patrol, and the Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater police departments. Investigation protocol is laid out in an agreement between the agencies.
Olympia Lt. Paul Lower said that an officer can’t return to duty until the Critical Incident Task Force investigation is complete and the officer has undergone an internal review.
If the task force investigation shows that the officer may have committed a crime, the officer is only allowed to return to duty when the criminal process has run its course, and if the officer is found not guilty.
The internal review board — made up of another police officer, a citizen at large, a representative from the city attorney’s office and a Police Department manager — reviews the task force’s investigation to determine whether the officer violated department policy, Lower said. If they decide the officer was in the wrong, disciplinary action will be taken.
“That all depends on how serious it was,” Lower said. “Disciplinary action can range from a verbal warning to termination.”
But if the officer isn’t criminally charged, and if the board doesn’t find evidence of wrongdoing, the officer can return to duty after being cleared by a counselor, Lower said. If the officer has been off-duty for more than three months, he or she will need to undergo some basic training before returning to work.
There is no universal standard in Thurston County for when law enforcement agencies interview officers involved in a shooting or when they release information to the public.
The Critical Incident Task Force agreement defers to different agencies’ collective bargaining agreements when it comes to interviewing an officer following a shooting. The Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater agreements all state an officer may be interviewed 48 hours after a shooting, unless the officer waives the wait time. The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office agreement doesn’t provide a timeline.
In the case of the May 21 shooting in Olympia, Officer Ryan Donald was interviewed the Tuesday morning following the Thursday shooting — about five days later. Chief Deputy Brad Watkins of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office said that’s because the shooting occurred right before the Memorial Day weekend.
“It was a holiday weekend,” Watkins said. “We had to wait at least 48 hours, so the earliest we could do it was Saturday. But it was Memorial Day weekend, so we decided to do it on Tuesday. It wasn’t to give him any type of advantage.”
He said staff members who would conduct the interview weren’t on duty Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
As in Thurston County, the timeline and circumstances for interviewing Tacoma and Lakewood officers officers involved in shootings is written into contracts with their union or guild.
Tacoma officers can take up to 14 days off but must provide a statement and pass a review within that time. Detectives typically try to get a statement within three to seven days, said Lt. Ed Wade, who oversees the department’s Internal Affairs Division.
The union contract with Lakewood officers does not give a timeline for providing a voluntary statement. Lakewood’s interim police chief, Mike Zaro, said the two officers involved in last month’s fatal shooting of Daniel Covarrubias took longer than usual — nine days — because they said they were concerned about the changing environment of police work.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department interviews its deputies much more quickly than other agencies, usually within a few hours of the shooting, spokesman Ed Troyer said.
“We do not have a long cooling-off period for deputies,” he said. “They are expected to answer up shortly after the incident. We do it while the incident is fresh in everybody’s mind because that’s the way we do it with other shootings and homicides.”
Most agencies wait a few days before scheduling an interview with officers. Studies have shown waiting helps police better recall what happened with accuracy.
Officers are not read the Miranda warning against self-incrimination before being interviewed the way citizens are.
Law enforcement agencies also do not force officers to give statements, because compelled statements cannot be used in prosecution if the officer later is charged with a crime.
By volunteering a statement, officers basically forfeit their right to not incriminate themselves, and prosecutors can use the statements as evidence in a criminal case.
Most agencies wait until the officer or deputy has given a statement before releasing his or her name to the public and offering details about what led up to the shooting.
Olympia police bucked that trend May 21 by releasing Officer Ryan Donald’s name, the names of the two men shot — half brothers Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson — and a recording of the dispatch call in about 10 hours.
Police Chief Ronnie Roberts said the department chose to release information as it became available “to be as transparent as possible.”
Transparency and community relations have played a bigger role in police shootings since incidents in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
In one of their last officer-involved shootings Aug. 22, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office waited three days to release the names of deputies Jessica Johnson and Jason Youngman.
When Tacoma officer Jimmy Welsh fatally shot a man May 10, the department identified the officer in five days.
It took Lakewood 20 days after its last police shooting, on April 21, to name officers David Butts and Ryan Hamilton and provide details about what happened in the lumberyard.
Before that, the agency took eight days to release information after officer Austin Lee shot an armed suicidal man outside an apartment Oct. 15, 2014.
“I know people want information right away, but I’m not going to be in a hurry to be wrong,” Zaro said.
“I know there’s a lot of pressure to talk right away, but I’d rather stand up to that criticism than an investigation that’s flawed or being wrong and having to explain that and lose credibility.”