Prosecutor’s Office releases ruling on fatal shooting by police in Puyallup

The Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office has determined an officer-involved fatal shooting last year in Puyallup was justified.

The investigation was conducted by Metro Cooperative Cities Crime Response Unit, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Investigative Services Unit and the Medical Examiner’s Office.

According to previous reports by The News Tribune, Fife and Puyallup police received reports of a driver swerving into oncoming traffic and driving onto sidewalks and making U-turns in the middle of the road in January 2018.

A Puyallup officer found the car in the center turn lane of Valley Avenue in front of the Puyallup Recreation Center at 808 Valley Ave. NW.

Police then found 36-year-old Juan Valencia behind a utility pole behind the recreation center. They negotiated with Valencia for about half an hour before he fired a rifle at least once at officers. Officers from Puyallup and Milton returned fire. Valencia was hit and pronounced dead at the scene.

According to a letter from the Prosecutor’s Office to the chief of police in Puyallup and Milton, the shooting was justified under state law that says “homicide or the use of deadly force is justifiable ... when necessarily used by a peace officer.”

It also states that officers may use deadly force to arrest or apprehend a person if officers have probable cause to believe that “if not apprehended, (the suspect) poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or a threat of serious physical harm to others.” Circumstances listed include the suspect threatening a peace officer with a weapon or that the suspect has committed a crime involving the weapon.

Because the shooting occurred before Initiative 940 passed, the determination was made under previous rules.

The initiative was approved by voters in November 2018. It created a “good faith test” to determine the justification of use of deadly force by police. It also required police to receive de-escalation and mental health training, and required law enforcement officers to provide first aid.

It later was amended by House Bill 1064, which changed the good-faith test to a different test: whether another officer acting reasonably in the same circumstances would have believed deadly force was necessary.

The amended law also requires the state to reimburse officers for “defense costs if charges against the officer are dismissed or if they are found not guilty of charges surrounding unjustified use of deadly force,” according to Ballotpedia and the bill.

The Prosecutor’s Office found that “there is ample evidence that Mr. Valencia had committed a crime and posed a deadly threat to the law enforcement officers and the public. The officers, acting to protect themselves, each other, and the public, necessarily used deadly force when they returned their fire. Their use of deadly force was justified and lawful.”

The letter also states that the determination would be the same under the good faith standard, which states a reasonable officer, who knows all of the information of a case, believes that using deadly force is necessary to prevent death or serious physical harm to the officer or someone else, and if the officer intended to use deadly force for a lawful purpose and believed deadly force was warranted or necessary.