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 Thursday, 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.”
There is no universal standard for when law enforcement agencies interview officers involved in a shooting or when they release information to the public. But some things are consistent across local departments.
Officers and deputies who fire their weapons in a fatal shooting are immediately placed on paid administrative leave. Their guns are confiscated and usually replaced with new ones.
They must be cleared by a psychologist and review policies and procedures before returning to work. Tacoma officers also must pass a “confidence shoot” at the firing range.
At least three agencies — the investigating department, the county Prosecutor’s Office and the Medical Examiner’s Office — conduct independent investigations.
Some of the larger departments investigate their own officer-involved shootings. Others rely on a joint task force made up of detectives from multiple departments.
Agencies handle several elements of the investigation differently.
In Tacoma and Lakewood, the timeline and circumstances for interviewing 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.
Protests against police in Baltimore were national news at the time after Freddie Gray died from injuries suffered while being transported by police. Six officers were charged in his death.
Two days after Covarrubias died, Lakewood police saw the first protest over one of their officer-involved shootings. A second protest was held the following week.
“That is something that’s new for us,” Zaro said last week. “Every officer-involved shooting seems to come with a protest right after, even though nothing (about the incident) is known.”
Puyallup police have no specified time in which an officer must provide a statement after a shooting. It is up to the officers to decide when, if ever, they want to be interviewed about what happened.
“We somewhat have to wait for that to happen,” Capt. Scott Engle said. “We can’t require them to give a statement.”
He could think of only one instance in which an officer refused to give a statement, and the investigation was conducted without it.
Officers are not read the Miranda warning against self-incrimination before being interviewed.
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.
The Sheriff’s Department interviews its deputies much quicker 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.
After Thursday’s shooting in Olympia, Thurston County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Brad Watkins said officers are given the same waiting period that victims and witnesses get.
“You are remembering things more clearly as a little bit more time passes,” he explained. If interviewed earlier, “You have adrenaline going, you may say you did this when evidence may show you didn’t do that.”
Investigators plan Tuesday to interview the Olympia police officer who shot two brothers suspected of stealing beer from a Safeway store.
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 Thursday by releasing officer Ryan Donald’s name, the names of the two men shot — 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.
Ramsdell, the Tacoma police chief, said he meets monthly with various community leaders, including two religious groups, to help develop positive connections.
When a police shooting occurs, he said, he personally calls those leaders to answer questions and provide information about what happened.
“The time to build those relationships is long before something like that happens,” Ramsdell said.
Troyer said Sheriff Paul Pastor reaches out to community groups on an as-needed basis and has earned the public’s trust because the department provides information quickly after a shooting.
In one of their last officer-involved shootings, Aug. 22, the Sheriff’s Department 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,” said Lakewood’s chief, Zaro.
“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.”