A close look at the internal investigation of OPD Officer Ryan Donald
WIP has conducted an extensive review into documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) relating to the Olympia Police Department’s Shooting Review Board internal investigation into Officer Ryan Donald’s shooting of brothers Bryson and André Chaplin-Thompson on May 21, 2015. WIP found that members of the Board shared many of the same questions about Donald’s use of force that the community has raised. However, due to OPD Use of Force guidelines, Donald was exonerated and returned to service with no written plan for reintroduction. Both Chaplin and Thompson were hospitalized after the shooting, and Chaplin is paralyzed from the waist down, a bullet lodged near his spine. It is not clear if he will walk again.
Eight days to decide
The Shooting Review Board [SRB, or Board] met on September 21, 2015, and was given a comprehensive 886-page binder with only eight days to examine it before reconvening on September 29, 2015. The Board consisted of three members of the OPD: Deputy Chief Steve Nelson, Lieutenant Aaron Jelcick and Officer Jason Winner, as well as Deputy City Attorney Darren Nienaber and Edward Prince, Executive Director of the Commission of African American Affairs. No other community stakeholders were allowed to participate.
The binder contained documents produced by the investigation into the shooting conducted by the Thurston County Critical Incident Team led by the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office [TCSO], including investigators from the Lacey and Tumwater Police Departments. There were witness statements, investigative, forensic and medical reports, transcripts of audio recordings, scene schematics as well as photographs of the scene of the shooting, evidence collected and the men’s injuries. There were also excerpts from OPD’s use of force guidelines.
All members were given the confidential binder with instructions not to write in it or alter it in anyway. The board was instructed to use a provided notepad to make any notes and was informed that any written material produced would be retained and become part of the public record.
Two questions to consider
The Board was tasked with answering two questions. The first was, “Did the force used by Officer Donald adhere to the policies of the Olympia Police Department?” and the second, “Did the actions of Officer Donald precipitate the course of events that ultimately led to the use(s) of force? If so, were those actions reasonable and appropriate?”
SRB presses Donald for answers
On September 29, 2016, the Board reconvened to visit the site of the shooting. They then heard testimony from OPD Officers Paul Evers and Luke O’Brien, who were on the scene at the time of the shooting, before interviewing Officer Donald.
Notes made by the SRB show they had questions about Donald’s actions. During Donald’s testimony “members were afforded the opportunity to ask the officers any questions about the incident, about department policies, and about the involved officer’s training and experience” according to the Review Board Memorandum found on the city’s website.
Lt. Jelcick had prepared four typewritten pages of questions. It wasn’t clear if all were asked of Donald, but Jelcick made notes of Donald’s responses to about a third of the questions, most involving Donald’s second contact with the suspects. [See sidebar for an overview including a transcript of Jelcick’s handwritten notes on page 12]
Many members expressed concern if it was reasonable for Donald to attempt to detain the suspects without backup and wanted to know if he considered waiting, as the danger to the public was “weak” according to a note made by Chief Nelson. One member wrote there was “no light on the road, black, pitch black,” which is contrary to the best practice of conducting such interactions in well- lit areas.
Chief Nelson noted that Donald had not turned on the light bar on his dark black vehicle, nor his emergency lights, which would have both established his authority and made the situation safer for himself, the suspects and any other vehicles coming upon the scene. Chief Nelson’s notes read that when Donald was asked if he identified himself he replied, “Not at this time.” Another member questioned “How did they know you were police?” There is no answer recorded in their notes.
At this point, Donald was taking cover behind the driver’s side door of his patrol car as the men approached the front of the vehicle. Donald drew his .45-caliber service weapon. According to Chief Nelson’s notes, Donald testified, “I knew probable cause for assault… I was prepared for them if they were going to be assaultive for me. I got myself in position to defend myself.” Next to this quote Chief Nelson wrote one word, “WHY!”
André and Bryson Chaplin-Thompson then started walking faster, trying to get past the police car. Instead of letting them go, Donald left his protective cover and cut the men off near the rear of his vehicle. Referring to Donald’s testimony in front of the SRB, Chief Nelson wrote of “significant warning factors to stay back. He [unintelligible], though his intention was not to physically engage suspect. He put himself too close tactically and was grabbed by suspect who lunged for his arm.” This action is also detailed in a highlighted section of a copy of Donald’s May 26th statement, next to which Nelson wrote, “BAD CHOICE.”
This is where the first set of shots was fired after Donald accused Bryson Chaplin of trying to hit him with his skateboard. The two men then ran north on Cooper Point Road—one hiding behind a fence, the other escaping into the woods. It is believed Chaplin had been shot for the first time during the scuffle. Donald left his vehicle and gave pursuit. [See “Did Bryson Chaplin use his skateboard as a weapon?” sidebar.]
The SRB also wanted to determine why Donald left cover once he had already allegedly been assaulted and considered the skateboard a deadly weapon. Almost every member of the Board had notes questioning this decision. One SRB member wrote that Donald’s decision “increased safety risk.”
Notes show Donald alleges he was trying to set up a perimeter to contain the suspects when he engaged them and fired his weapon again, injuring both men. [Please see http://olywip.org/more-questions-than-answers/ for an in depth look at the events of the night.]
Conflict of interest
Multiple members of the Board also wondered about Officer Evers’ actions to pass Donald and park around the corner on 14th Street. This left Donald alone “because his back-up unit failed/chose not to stop with him.” Another note remarks that Evers “never thought suspect would re-engage after the [first] gunfight.” In his witness statement dated May 21, 2016, Evers credited his presence for possibly altering the suspect’s behavior, “Our turning onto the road [14th] deterred them from going in that direction. And…may have caused them to backtrack.”
This raises the question of whether Officer Evers followed proper procedure. A FOIA request to see any disciplinary records for Evers for the past five years produced no results.
There is also potential conflict of interest with Evers being both a witness and having a position as Police Guild President. Evers escorted Officer Donald to OPD headquarters for processing, which placed the two officers alone in Evers’ vehicle for the trip downtown. This may have allowed collusion between the officers and could have been easily prevented by Donald being transported by an officer from a different agency.
On a related note, on a page of notes entitled “Random Questions to Consider,” Chief Nelson is curious about Evers’ involvement when Donald gave his initial statement to the TCSO on May 26, 2015. He wrote, “Why is Evers asking RD questions during Thurston County Sheriff’s (TCSO) interview?” In the official transcript of the interview released by the Thurston County Prosecutor’s office, Evers is not even listed as being present. Most likely he was there due to his Guild position, but since he was also witness to the shooting there is again a conflict in having him present when Donald was being interviewed.
OPD use of force guidelines
In his notes, Edward Prince of the Shooting Review Board summarizes the OPD’s definitions and guidelines for use of force, giving the reader a sense of the rules that the SRB used when making their decision.
- Protection of life is more important than apprehension of criminal offenders or the protection of property.
- The responsibility to protect life includes our employee’s own life. Deadly force may be employed only when necessary to protect the officer or others from what he/she reasonably believes is an immediate threat of death or serious injury.
- Life-threatening behavior is behavior by a subject that supports a reasonable perception that death or serious body harm to an individual or officer is imminent or highly probable.
- Deadly force is designed to be employed with subjects who display life-threatening behavior.
- Deadly force is the application of force, by any means, that is reasonably likely to cause death or serious physical injury.
Resolution of the inquiry
The SRB then took hours in a thorough review before making a final decision about disciplinary action against Donald. Ultimately, despite their misgivings over Donald’s decisions, the Board unanimously determined that his actions “adhere to the policies of the OPD,” and furthermore they “did not precipitate the course of events that ultimately led to the uses(s) of force.” [See sidebar below for complete transcript of the SRB decision.]
The decision was then given to OPD’s Chief Roberts, who concurred with the findings. This means that Donald faced no disciplinary consequences for shooting two men and endangering the community.
No plan for reintroduction
In a document entitled “Review Board Inquiry Summary” found on the City of Olympia’s website, the city states that “because of the trauma of the event and the length of his absence, the Department has a plan to reintegrate Officer Donald before assigning his routine duties.”
WIP tried to obtain documentation of this reintegration plan through FOIA requests and was told by Amy Iverson of the OPD that she had “contacted the Lieutenants and verified with them that there was no written plan. There is no responsive record for this request.”
Works in Progress opinion
The largest questions that WIP continues to have centers on whether Donald should have waited for backup in the first place, and furthermore should not have pursued the men, who were ostensibly not a threat to the community. Certainly less threat than a stray bullet through a bedroom window.
An FAQ on the city’s website gives less than satisfactory answers. To the question of “Why would an officer attempt to locate suspects in a low-level crime?” the city states, “When the police receive a report of a potential crime, regardless of its severity, we are expected by our community to respond. The community also expects we will attempt to locate suspects of a crime in order to prevent them from causing other crimes. Once suspects are detained by police, the rest of the criminal justice process is initiated.”
The Shooting Review Board stated that Donald was “familiar with tactical guidelines on high-risk field interviews” which include waiting in a well-lit area for backup Donald did neither.
To the question “Why would an officer contact suspects by him/herself?” the city’s website states, “…It is routine for officers to make initial contact with suspects by themselves. Usually, other officers will respond to the location for the safety of all parties. Sometimes, there are circumstances where the officer needs to take action before other officers arrive, such as to stop physical harm, prevent a suspect from fleeing, or to render aid to anyone who is injured.”
Under this explanation, Officer Donald took action to prevent the suspects from fleeing since the other two reasons do not apply. At the time of contact, Donald was aware backup was on the way, including a K-9 officer, according to his statement given on May 26, 2015.
Donald did not positively identify himself or take command of the situation. In his book, To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police, Norm Stamper, former Seattle Police Chief, says law enforcement needs to “bring to the scene problem-solving rather than problem-causing behaviors” and should avoid using “loose, lazy and ineffective language.”
In his May 26, 2015, statement Donald says “both subjects appeared to be taller, heavier and bigger in physical size to me.” Again, this begs the question as to why Donald initiated contact in the first place.
Between the men being intoxicated and Donald drawing his weapon early in the confrontation gives clues as to how first contact was made. It is unknown how or why the situation escalated. A SRB member asked Donald why he used his gun. The handwritten note says Donald “thought he might rush me.” Yet the men continued walking on the other side of Donald’s car, indicating they were trying to get away. It was Donald who left his position of cover to initiate contact with the men at the rear of his patrol car. Donald accuses one of the men of lunging at him. This does not seem consistent with the men’s other evasive actions, both before this contact and after.
A scuffle allegedly took place, and Donald fired his weapon multiple times, sending a shot into a nearby house and most likely hitting Chaplin for the first time. A note in the SRB binder says that Donald “brought the first confrontation to the suspects.”
The men then tried to escape, running away and finding hiding places, which again seems to mean they were trying to avoid further contact from Donald. At this point, they were no longer a threat to Donald. The safest thing for Donald to have done would have been to stay with his vehicle and wait. In both his written and oral statements given on May 26th, Donald stresses his fear, yet his actions were aggressive.
Despite the SRB ruling, it is not hard to imagine a different scenario had Donald taken better control of the situation from the first moment of contact, or had even delayed contact until backup arrived.
Norm Stamper discusses the urge police have to pursue, saying, “The hardest thing in the world for most cops to do is back off. From the classroom to the locker room, the culture teaches them: you cannot back away, or back down, and you certainly cannot lose. Whether it’s a fistfight or a car chase, you must come out on top. Allowing certain suspects, under certain circumstances, to evade arrest just might be the smartest thing a police officer could do in a given situation, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Every fiber of a cop’s being is dedicated to catching those who flee, especially those who have hurt other people. It’s a noble aspiration, but one that demands strong policies, tactical smarts, close supervision, and steely self-discipline.”
Excessive use of force is often a consequence of fear in the officer, “Because fear tends to be a socially unacceptable, indeed an inexpressible emotion within the cop culture… A scared cop overcompensates, which means he or she is likely to come across as loud, abrasive and arrogant. And mean – a bully. And that leads to an inescapable conclusion: scared cops are a danger – to themselves, and to the people they’ve been hired to protect and serve,” explains Stamper.
Given the evidence, it is hard to take the position that Donald did not directly contribute to the events that led to André and Bryson Chaplin-Thompson being shot. Even Edward Prince of the SRB noted in his findings, “I believe Officer Donald made a tactical error by moving to the rear of the car which contributed to the assault in the first use of force. In my opinion, all other uses of force stem from the first incident.” Deputy City Attorney Darren Nienaber expressed similar concern in his findings, saying “going to the back of the car may have increased the risk of attack on him more than needed.” Chief Nelson agreed that “Donald put himself too close to them tactically.”
Had Ryan Donald stood back, had he listened to his alleged fear, Bryson Chaplin and André Thompson would not now be living with life-changing injuries and a community would not have been traumatized.
Candace Mercer is an artist/writer/activist who has lived in Olympia for 20 years. She has worked with the Thurston-Mason Crisis Clinic, the Northwest Justice Project, Olympia Rafah Sister City Project and the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice. She has written for Dissident Voice, Electronic Intifada and weedist.com.