Prosecutors decline to charge Clark County deputies who shot Kevin Peterson Jr. after drug bust
Last year’s fatal shooting of Kevin Peterson Jr. by Clark County deputies during an undercover drug sting was “justified and lawful” because Peterson was armed, ignored commands and pointed a gun at the deputies, a Washington state prosecutor concluded.
“It is tragic that Mr. Peterson lost his life,” Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett wrote in a 16-page letter. “But he made the regrettable decision to distribute drugs and, in the course of felony drug dealing, threaten to shoot the police.”
Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik had asked Robnett’s office to review the Oct. 29 shooting for potential criminal charges. Robnett on Monday released the legal analysis behind her decision not to charge the deputies in the death of the 21-year-old Camas man.
Robnett’s analysis zeroed in on several key points: Peterson’s social media statements threatening violence against police, the fact that he was carrying a .40-caliber Glock handgun when he fled his Mercedes, his refusal to obey deputy commands to drop the gun and his decision to point it at deputies.
She said the law does not require police to wait for someone to fire on them before they can act in self- defense and that police need only to believe the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent death or serious injury.
“For those reasons,” she told Golik in the letter, “we have determined that the use of deadly force by the officers in this incident was justified and lawful.”
Peterson did not fire his gun, the investigation found. He died at the scene. The loaded gun was found near his body.
Golik called Robnett’s review “thoughtful and professional.”
“While the loss of life in this case was tragic, I concur with the well-reasoned analysis of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office in this case,” he said in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Peterson’s family denounced Robnett’s findings. Peterson’s parents previously recalled how their son relished his new role as a father. He was the middle of three boys and was close with parents, they said.
“We are shocked an officer gets to shoot Kevin in the back because he’s tired of chasing him,” the family said in a statement through their attorney, Mark Lindquist. “And now the two officers who shot at Kevin while he was running are both back at work. This is unfair and unsafe for everyone in the community.”
The family has filed a $17 million wrongful death claim against Clark County.
Lindquist also was critical of the prosecutor’s analysis. He said one of the deputies, Robert Anderson, told investigators that he had grown tired of giving commands and drew “a line in the sand” before firing on Peterson, who was Black.
Lindquist also said it is unclear whether Peterson pointed his phone or his gun at police and that it wasn’t until after he had been shot that he raised his arm and pointed to police.
At one point while Peterson was running, he made a panicked call to Olivia Selto, his partner. Selto said Peterson pointed his phone at deputies to show her that he was being pursued.
“They’re shooting at me,” Selto said he told her.
Selto, who is raising the couple’s young daughter, said in a statement Monday that Peterson was terrified during their conversation.
“When you can hear it in someone’s voice and see it in their eyes that they are terrified, you know they aren’t a threat to anyone,” she said. “Kevin was scared and running and he was not a threat.”
Selto heard gunfire and the line went silent. She remained on the call for another five minutes and heard one of the people at the scene say Peterson was not breathing.
Vancouver police led the investigation (correct?) into the shooting in Hazel Dell and included an interview with an unidentified witness who told investigators that she saw a Black man walk toward a police car while holding up a cellphone like he was recording or livestreaming. She said she saw the man run from police with what she thought was a cellphone in one hand and a weapon in the other.
At one point the witness said she saw him raise both hands and point the phone and gun at police.
In her analysis, Robnett pointed out a surveillance video from the U.S. Bank that showed Peterson falling to the ground, then momentarily rising up to a seated position and pointing “an object that is consistent with a handgun in the direction of the south bank parking lot where the officers were” before falling back onto the pavement.
The fatal encounter started as an undercover drug sting targeting Peterson. Members of a regional drug task force planned to arrest Peterson on an accusation of attempted delivery of controlled substances for allegedly dealing Xanax, the prescription anxiety medication, according to investigators. The deal had been arranged by a police informant.
Police knew Peterson only by his Snapchat handle, “$pla$h,” according to the police investigation.
Deputies told investigators that they considered Peterson potentially dangerous because of a post on one of his social media accounts. He posted a message that said “crackers catch me n act then ima feed the law,” followed by emojis of a police officer and a gun, according to the investigation.
Robnett said Peterson “articulated his intent or willingness to use gun violence against police.”
“Mr. Peterson’s communications included an explicit threat to use a firearm to repel law enforcement efforts to intervene in his drug distribution activity,” she wrote. “The images sent to the informant — which the task force officers were made aware of — constituted a specific threat against law enforcement.”
The prosecutor wrote that a “reasonable officer would have believed the threat would warrant extreme caution and might necessitate the need for deadly force depending on the specific actions taken by Mr. Peterson in response to the effort to arrest him.”
Confronted by police in the parking lot of a Quality Inn, Peterson got out of his car and ran to a nearby parking lot of the closed U.S. Bank.
That’s where he encountered Anderson and two other deputies, Jonathan Feller and Jeremy Brown.
Anderson said he saw Peterson pull a gun from his sweatshirt pocket and that Peterson held onto it despite “ample opportunity to ditch” it. Anderson told investigators that he continued to give commands, then decided he would shoot Peterson if Peterson continued to run and ignore him.
“At that point, I kinda just drew the line in the sand and I was – I said, ‘I’ve given suspect enough commands. If he takes another step, I’m gonna shoot him.’”
Peterson, he told investigators, continued to run so he shot him.
Feller ordered Peterson to drop the gun, a command that he said Peterson ignored. He said Peterson continued to run and at one point Peterson pointed the gun at the deputy, prompting Feller to fire.
Brown said he saw Peterson “blatantly, quickly point the gun” directly at him. Brown told investigators that he thought Peterson had shot at him. He, too, fired.
The chaotic scene was marked by so much gunfire that both Brown and who? mistakenly thought Peterson had fired on them, according to the investigation.
The three fired a total of 34 rounds. Peterson was struck four times: once in his shoulder, twice in his chest and once in his arm. (not the back? does anyone address Linquist’s claim that he was shot in the back?)
At the time, Peterson’s death prompted tense demonstrations in Vancouver decrying the killing of a Black man by police in the wake of demands for social justice reforms nationwide after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May.
Earlier this year, a longtime Clark County judge made headlines when he was caught on a hot mic disparaging Peterson and Peterson’s father. Judge Darvin Zimmerman referred to Peterson as “dumb” and “the Black guy they are trying to make an angel out of.” He later announced plans to retire.
Last month, Brown, 46, was shot in the chest while on duty and died from his injuries. He was shot as he sat in an unmarked Jeep in a parking lot of an east Vancouver apartment complex, doing surveillance on three people suspected of stealing a stash of firearms from a storage shed in early June.
Earlier this summer, a team of Washington prosecutors concluded that another fatal shooting by a Clark County sheriff deputy was also justified.
In that case, a deputy fired on Jenoah Donald, an unarmed motorist, during a traffic stop. The prosecutors found that the Deputy Sean Boyle was justified in shooting Donald, a Black man who lived in Clark County, to protect himself and other deputies nearby.
Clark County also faces a $17 million wrongful death lawsuit in that case as well. (also represented by lindquist, right?)
— Noelle Crombie; firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-276-7184; @noellecrombie