A closer look at civilian oversight of law enforcement in Clark County

Jerzy Shedlock, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.
·10 min read

Feb. 28—An initiative-driven effort to increase civilian oversight into investigations of fatal police shootings has instead drawn volunteers in Southwest Washington with connections to law enforcement and public safety communities.

A review of the non-law enforcement members of the Southwest Washington Independent Investigative Response Team found retired law enforcement officers, a polygraph operator, a retired defense attorney and a participant in the Clark County Sheriff's Office Citizens' Academy.

Volunteer members of the investigative team are barred from observing interviews, examining evidence, visiting the shooting scene or identifying issues to investigate. They are required to sign a confidentiality agreement that prevents them from talking about an investigation until a prosecutor makes a legal determination about use of force.

Their selection and the operation of the investigation team in general has drawn criticism from impacted groups, who say the efforts do not go far enough in increasing the transparency following police shootings, nor in reversing systemic racism.

Voter-driven change

The Southwest Washington Independent Investigative Response Team was created as a result of Initiative 940, approved by voters in 2018 to require law enforcement personnel to receive violence de-escalation, mental-health and first-aid training. The initiative changed standards for use of deadly force, adding a "good faith" standard and the independent investigation aspect carried out by regional teams.

Civilian Oversight

Law enforcement officials from multiple agencies converge at the parking lot of a Hazel Dell US Bank branch on Oct. A closer look at civilian oversight of law enforcement in Clark County

Volunteers on team to review fatal police shootings have ties to law enforcement, public safety communities

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Recruitment for non-law enforcement members in Clark and Skamania counties began in March 2020. An initial 30-day application period was extended until April 30 due to COVID-19, though public records show the second push for applicants was partly influenced by the small number of people who appeared to be interested in participating.

The law governing the non-law enforcement members states they "must have credibility with and ties to communities impacted by police use of deadly force."

In the Southwest Washington group, however, most of the 19 people who had applied had direct connections to law enforcement, public safety and criminal justice. One applicant not selected was a daughter of an active Vancouver Police Department sergeant.

Other members include:

—Christopher Brong, a 33-year retired federal law enforcement officer whose activities have included working patrol for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and as a special agent and investigator for BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

—Jennifer Barr, a case resource manager with the Developmental Disabilities Administration who previously took part in the Clark County Sheriff's Office Citizens' Academy and has done a ride-along with the Portland Police Bureau.

—Monty Buettner, owner and operator of Truth Verification Services, which provides polygraph services primarily for probation officers and treatment providers. He previously worked in law enforcement, including for four years as a military police officer and for about 30 as a deputy with the Skamania County Sheriff's Office.

—Nancy Schultz, a defense attorney with the Fresno County, Calif. Public Defender's Office for nearly two decades, now a patrol volunteer with the Vancouver Police Department's Neighbors on Watch program. She is also a graduate and volunteer of the area's Community Emergency Response Team, and a certified emergency worker through Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency.

"All those that I mention are qualified in terms of the conditions to apply but seem to have a very positive outlook on (law enforcement), but do say they can make tough decisions," Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins said in a May 6 email to people involved in the selection.

"My gut says that we have to move forward with what we have, but we will be criticized that our selections are too connected to" local law enforcement, he wrote.

'Credibility' within community

Vancouver Police Department Chief James McElvain shared similar concerns, stating that more needed to be done to encourage a greater diversity of non-law enforcement members.

McElvain said in a June 3 email that outreach included contacting community partners, such as NAACP Vancouver, to request that they ask around in their circles about who'd be willing to join. The police chief said as communications began with the initial pool of applicants, five withdrew.

One applicant did so because they acknowledged a need for diversity; another applicant, Gregory Shaw, who had worked with law enforcement officers throughout his career and included a letter of reference from an FBI agent in his application, withdrew in the aftermath of George Floyd's death.

The newest members are Antonio Gomez, a 20-year resident of Clark County who works as a community health promotion program coordinator for Providence; Karyn Kameroff, employed with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe as the program coordinator for Pathways to Healing, which provides services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault; and Chris Langlois, who works in information technology for a company in Tigard, Ore.

When asked if moving forward was the right move, and whether the selected members meet the law's requirement about ties to impacted communities, McElvain said the answer was difficult, particularly when speaking about "credibility." He noted that all of the chosen members live in the region, including four Vancouver residents.

"We have only had a few incidents (gratefully) that would cause the non-law enforcement community members to engage in the process. With too many volunteers, it greatly reduces the opportunity to be called upon. As such, people may lose interest if they are not being utilized," the police chief said.

Atkins said it was decided as a group to process the applicants and make them part of the team, but it led to conversations about how they'll be chosen in the future. The sheriff similarly said some of the requirements imposed by law are unclear.

"I've tried to dissect the credibility within the community component," Atkins said. "In my mind, everyone in our community, regardless of race, gender, trust in law enforcement, lives here and is impacted by the actions we take. So what does that really mean? Does it mean if a white man or white woman is shot in Rose Village in Vancouver, we need to get somebody from that area to sit in on the investigation?"

Atkins said he agreed that some members of the community are more impacted than others and not represented as well as they feel they should be.

"They're fearful about coming forward and being part of the process," Atkins said. "Hopefully that will change as this continues."

Drawing from the pool

When a fatal police shooting happens, the investigating agency goes down the list of applicants until it reaches a member who can participate. All members are pulled from the same pool, said Vancouver Police Department Assistant Chief Mike Lester.

There were three investigations last year that included the non-law enforcement members, officials said. They are now participating in another: the fatal shooting of Battle Ground resident Jenoah Donald, a 30-year-old Black man, in Hazel Dell earlier this month.

The non-law enforcement members' roles are to sit in on weekly briefings, review press releases for accuracy and ensure there are no conflicts of interest between the team and the involved officers.

J.J. Paul, a retired criminal defense lawyer from Indianapolis who moved to Clark County in 2019, has been called to participate in the investigations of the fatal shootings of Kevin Peterson Jr., 21, and Andrew Williams, 41. He said he felt there were no limitations placed on his ability to do the work.

"It's working to at least achieve an end, and that is, hopefully for the public to feel as though there is some community oversight of the police," Paul said.

Ken Hines, a Washougal resident and small-business owner, said when he was called to serve as a non-law enforcement member of the team investigating the police shooting of 23-year-old Irving Rodriguez, it offered a clearer glimpse into the workings of local law enforcement.

"I was really surprised at the amount of energy, resources, coordination and effort put into trying to save lives and do the right thing," said Hines.

Hines said he did not know what to expect when he was called to participate. He said that he, along with a second non-law enforcement member, reviewed a significant amount of information to ensure the officers being chosen for the investigation had no conflicts of interest. The press releases that were published were consistent with the collected evidence, he said.

When Hines asked questions, they were answered. When he offered a comment, they were addressed and acknowledged, he said. There were no major issues, but Hines said the process is still finding its own equilibrium.

"(Investigators) were grateful for the general public to be involved. There's a lot of misinformation out there, so there's an opportunity for those of us that have been involved in an investigation, to share what we saw and educate the public," Hines said.

Paul, the member involved in the Peterson investigation, also spoke positively of the experience overall, but he noted that there was a disagreement over the report given to the public compared to what he had reviewed.

He declined to comment further, but emails obtained through a public records request show Paul expressed concerns to Cowlitz County Deputy Troy Brightbill about the way evidence was reported in the final press release about Peterson's fatal shooting.

Paul said a statement in the press release about Peterson's social media account indicating a violence toward law enforcement struck an incorrect tone. Presenting the information as it was in the release could suggest officers were predisposed toward aggressive action toward Peterson, he said.

He also suggested that the press release not include claims that deputies had seen Peterson raise his firearm as they heard multiple gunshots, leading them to believe that Peterson had fired the weapon, when evidence clearly showed he had raised the firearm but never fired.

Brightbill responded that he noted Paul's opinion but the information came from the investigation, and his office was moving forward with the release.

Achieving its goals

Other members who agreed to be interviewed had less perspective to share on the team, as they hadn't been called to participate in an investigation.

Tim Call, a Clark County resident of 35 years who ran a small residential construction company, said he believes the team is achieving the goal of ensuring investigations of police shootings are more independent.

Storme Telford, a city of Vancouver maintenance specialist, said in an email that she felt her membership was a support to the community. She said she was satisfied with the provided training and did not have any issues with the process.

"The team is very good," Telford said.

Leo Short said he has personal concerns about being involved in something so volatile but feels the public scrutiny is important to achieve the goal of unbiased police shooting investigations.

The amount of training given to the non-law enforcement members was sufficient, said Short, a commander with the Oregon Air National Guard. However, he said he thinks a deeper understanding of them will come with experience.

Members received two virtual training sessions in November. One was identical to the use-of-force training given at the local agencies' citizen academies and to the Chief's Diversity Advisory Team at the police department.

Vancouver assistant chief Lester said there is nothing in I-940 that requires agencies to provide training to the members. The training was simply a way to engage them and explain their roles and responsibilities, he said.

Officials said there is no further training planned for 2021 for the non-law enforcement members.