Investigations of deadly force must be transparent and credible to regain public trust in policing
A February report from Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson reveals that the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) refused to cooperate with an AG inquiry into whether law enforcement agencies are complying with Initiative 940. Among other mandates, the law created by 1-940 requires that investigations of police use of deadly force be conducted by an agency independent of those involved. It also calls for appointing a family liaison, providing weekly updates to the public, and involving at least two non-law enforcement community representatives.
TCSO is part of the Region III Critical Incident Investigation Team (CIIT), along with four other area sheriffs’ offices. The AG report covered incidents occurring between January 6, 2020, when I-940 became law, and June 30. The Region III CIIT conducted three use-of-deadly-force investigations during that time — the most of any agency. These include investigations into the shooting deaths of 60-year-old Sok Chin Son in January 2020, Kathryn Hale in March 2020, and the killing of an “Unidentified Individual.”
The Region III Team refused the surveys needed by the AG inquiry instead offering their investigation files for review: “Investigations into police use of deadly force are complex because each incident has unique intricacies and context. We believe that the questionnaire is a blunt instrument that will strip away the context that is so important when trying to understand the steps taken in a complex investigation.”
Can the TCSO investigation of Michael Reinoehl’s killing be reliable?
Officers from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, Lakewood Police and the Washington Department of Corrections made up the task force assembled by US Marshal Ryan Kimmel on September 3 that carried out the extrajudicial killing of Michael Reinoehl. Reinoehl, a Portland activist wanted in the shooting death of a far-right activist, was gunned down outside Olympia. Shortly before the fatal encounter, Trump infamously tweeted, “Do your job, and do it fast. Everybody knows who this thug is.”
The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office led the investigation into Reinhoel’s killing. TCSO has not released their full report, but a review of the shooting turned over on March 31 to the Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney is riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies, and questionable claims by the officers involved. Police said Reinoehl fired his gun, initiating the gunfire exchange, but they didn’t find a bullet. Reinoehl’s gun was found in his pants pocket with a full magazine. There was no forensic evidence he fired his gun and no exit hole found through his car. Police fired 40 rounds, five of which pierced Reinhoel’s body.
Reported witness statements contradict the TCSO review
Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica spoke to several witnesses who contradicted the officers’ claims to have been “readily identifiable.” They said that as police pulled up quickly in unmarked vehicles, they didn’t hear them identify themselves. “There was no ‘drop your weapon’ or ‘freeze’ or ‘police’—no warning at all,” said Garrett Louis, who witnessed part of the shooting. The New York Times spoke to 21 people near the scene who did not hear the officers identify themselves or give any commands before they started shooting.
According to Fred Langer, a Seattle personal injury lawyer hired by Reinoehl’s family, the findings open the door for a wrongful death lawsuit. “This is a case that cries out for investigation,” he said. “What we have is police acting as judge, jury and executioner, all in one nanosecond.” A ruling on whether the killing was justified is anticipated by the end of May.
TCSO did not follow state law investigating the Reinoehl killing
A fundamental purpose of I-940 was to restore public trust in the integrity of investigations of deadly force incidents. In addition to requiring that investigations be independent, new rules call for transparency, communication and that the investigators be credible. Thus, one requirement is that every law enforcement agency include at least two civilian community members on their investigative team. The community representatives help choose officers to serve on the team by reviewing their qualifications and examining potential conflicts of interest.
According to state law, “Chiefs and Sheriffs of each regional team shall create a transparent process for soliciting names and creating a roster of individuals willing to serve in this capacity.”
A TCSO press release from September 10, 2020 states, “We are working closely with our community representatives in this case.” Out of the 31 press releases issued by the Thurston County Sheriff about the Reinoehl investigation, this is the only mention of community representatives. In fact, the September 10 and October 22 releases are the only place on the Sheriff’s entire website that mentions I-940.
In response to a contact from this reporter, TCSO Lt. Ray Brady said people can apply to join a panel from which community representatives are selected by calling him or Team Leader Cameron Simper. According to state law, sheriffs and chiefs decide who will serve on the panel prescribed by I-940. Brady said the current panel was put together in 2019.
This is in stark contrast to other area law enforcement agencies who have worked with local government to notify their communities, including through press releases and their websites, of how to serve as an I-940 community representative. In many cases, this also includes information about the process for how representatives are chosen.
For example, the City of Olympia has an entire page dedicated to I-940. They list the I-940 Community Representatives for Police Use of Force Events on their Advisory Committees. The City of Lacey Police Department has a Community Safety Act (I-940) Citizen Representative Application easily found by searching the internet. And a three-page November 2020 press release from the City of Tumwater Police Department shares detailed information on the need for, roles, and responsibilities of I-940 community representatives, as well as instructions on how to apply.
Finally, under the rules for I-940, “No member of the involved agency nor the IIT will provide the media with criminal background information of the person against whom deadly force has been used, unless required by law.” TCSO violated I-940 by releasing criminal background information about Reinoehl in two weekly news releases.
The September 4 news release describes Reinoehl as “a wanted homicide suspect, “and the final news release on March 31 states, “At the time of this incident, Michael Reinoehl had an active Felony warrant out of Multnomah County Circuit Court in Oregon for Murder in the Second Degree with a firearm.”
The head of the TCSO fails the law’s requirement of impartiality and ethical behavior
Considering the following indications of pro-Trump, anti-BLM sentiments, Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza’s role at the head of the investigation into Reinoehl’s killing is alarming—and can only undermine the credibility of any conclusions.
At an October 2019 gun rights rally in Yelm, where attendees floated the idea of attempting a citizen’s arrest of Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Snaza asserted he had the authority to swear in a militia (though said he wouldn’t do so at that time). The Seattle Times pointed out state law does not appear to empower Snaza or any other sheriff to raise a militia.
“Many wore insignia of the Washington Three Percenters — a group whose website says its goal is to ‘utilize the fail safes put in place by our founders to reign (sic) in an overreaching government and push back against tyranny,’” reported The Seattle Times.
Masking not required—then a COVID outbreak
Sheriff Snaza also refused to require TCSO deputies and corrections officers to wear masks. A June 2020 news release from TCSO states it will not require deputies to wear masks. It leaves the decision to wear a mask “up to the individual deputy and situation they encounter.” The Olympian reported the same policy was applied to corrections officers.
A photo of Snaza at a Blue Lives Matter rally in Yelm in July 2020, at the height of local BLM demonstrations, shows him maskless while hugging an attendee. Amid a COVID outbreak at the jail in September 2020, Snaza was reprimanded by County Commissioner John Hutchings (a former Olympia cop and Snaza ally) during a Board meeting for failing to require staff to follow COVID-19 precautions. At least nine inmates and four staff tested positive for COVID during that outbreak.
When the Commissioners learned that some deputies and corrections officers hadn’t been wearing masks or social distancing while on duty, they voted to stop the hazard pay increase TCSO employees had been enjoying for the previous six months—a total of $333,000 was paid out. During a second outbreak in January 2021, at least eight inmates and three staff, including Snaza, tested positive for COVID.
In the meantime, TCSO’s budget consumes 37% of the County’s general fund spending. And the loss of the hazard pay might not be such a big deal—in 2019, Snaza’s salary was $146,160 while Undersheriff Tim Braniff was paid $177,936, just $2,000 less than Governor Inslee. Chief deputies were making almost $164,000; the operations lieutenant and a captain made more than $146,000.
A new office to investigate use of force
Will I-940’s goal to enhance transparency, credibility and communication be achieved? Attorney General Ferguson followed up his inquiry by recommending ways to strengthen the investigative rules that implement I-940. In April 2021, Washington lawmakers passed HB 1267, which creates the Office of Independent Investigations, a new non-law enforcement agency tasked with investigating police deadly force incidents. The bill was opposed by law enforcement groups.
It will be some time before the office has the capacity to investigate more than a handful of cases per year, so teams like the Region 3 CIIT will continue to handle many deadly force cases. According to the Fatal Encounters database, which tracks all manner of deaths by police, police in Washington killed 55 people in 2020.
Eleanor Steinhagen is a 15-year resident of Olympia.
The current requirements for investigations of use of force incidents are at WAC 139-12-030. Information for the article is in published news sources.