Crime

Families of those killed by police question tactics, investigations into the aftermath

Relatives of two men shot dead by Pierce County law enforcement officers last year say they think police were too quick to deploy deadly force and that the process of investigating the aftermath was one-sided.

They said they have lingering doubts about whether the deaths of Patrick O’Meara and Chase Houston were justified, as was determined by Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.

“We pretty much only heard the police side of everything, so I don’t know what really took place,” said Shawna O’Meara. Two Lakewood police officers shot her brother to death in June 2013.

The father of Houston, who was killed by sheriff’s deputies in December, voiced similar views.

“The only thing we have out of this thing is the police side,” Randy Houston said.

Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer, addressing the Houston case, said deputies acted appropriately after being fired upon and that the department releases as much information as possible to the families as the investigation develops.

Lakewood police officials were not prepared late last week to answer the issues raised by the family of O’Meara.

Lindquist ruled both shootings justified after concurrent investigations by his office, the Medical Examiner’s Office and the law enforcement agencies involved.

Patrick O’Meara and Chase Houston, both 28, gave law enforcement officers little choice, the prosecutor said.

Patrick O’Meara refused to put down what later was determined to be a replica gun when confronted by Lakewood officers Darrell Moore and Jeremy Vahle. Chase Houston shot at a deputy during a standoff at a storage unit in Spanaway.

“The officers did everything they could to avoid a gun battle, but the defendant’s violent response necessitated deadly force,” Lindquist said in ruling that deputies did not violate state law when they killed Chase Houston.

Patrick O’Meara was shot about 10:45 p.m. on June 18, 2013, in what Lindquist later called a case of “suicide by cop.”

He was being sought on a felony arrest warrant when Moore, Vahle and other Lakewood officers received information he’d been spotted inside a house in the Tillicum area of Lakewood.

The officers spied O’Meara through a large window, which was broken, and approached the house, according to a news release issued by Lindquist’s office.

The officers later said O’Meara yelled at them as they shone their flashlights through the window. He was partially hidden behind something in the living room and was holding what appeared to be a handgun, they said.

O’Meara, who had been convicted of numerous felonies over the years, refused to comply with multiple commands to drop whatever he was holding and “lunged toward the officers standing outside the window, moving his gun in their direction,” the news release said.

Moore and Vahle opened fire, hitting O’Meara three times. He died at the scene.

Investigators later found what authorities described as a “realistic, toy-replica handgun” inside they house, and said O’Meara had told acquaintances he wasn’t “going to be taken alive” during his next run-in with police.

Lindquist ruled the shooting justified.

“This appears to be another sad example of ‘suicide by cop,’ ” the prosecutor said in a news release. He determined that Moore and Vahle “feared for their lives and fired their duty handguns at O’Meara.”

Relatives of O’Meara told The News Tribune last week that they disagree with that finding.

Deanna Stine, his mother; and Shawna O’Meara, his sister, said O’Meara was not a threat as he was alone in an empty house and that Moore and Vahle could have called in negotiators to diffuse the situation.

“I believe they should have called in a SWAT team,” Shawna O’Meara said. “I think that they should have taken the time to calm him down and get him out of the house before opening fire.”

Stine agreed.

“They could have bean-bagged him,” she said. “They could have gassed the house to get him out. Anything other than shooting him.”

Shawna O’Meara also disputed that her brother was suicidal.

“I never once heard him say he was going to hurt himself,” she said. “Over the years I did hear him say he thought the cops were going to kill him.”

She and her mother also expressed dissatisfaction with the follow-up investigation.

Shawna O’Meara said no one from the police department contacted her family to tell them what was going to happen in the aftermath of the shooting or to interview them.

She said she took it upon herself to call the police to find out what was going on with the investigation and eventually was able to reach a detective two or three times.

“I do believe he was informing me a little bit, but I do believe there was a lot more to it than I was aware of,” Shawna O’Meara said. “I do believe they should have contacted us first. I think that should have been one of their priorities: Letting us know about the process.”

Chase Houston died Dec. 3 at a storage unit near 216th Street East and state Route 7. He left behind a wife and two children.

Deputies initially were dispatched to the unit to perform what’s called a “welfare check” after receiving reports from Houston’s relatives that he had made threats on Facebook and during phone calls.

They also had information that he possibly was armed and high on methamphetamine, according to police accounts.

Randy Houston said his son had never been in any major trouble with the law, and records show he had no felony criminal history.

“It’s not like he was a villain or a criminal or out robbing banks,” Randy Houston said. “He said the wrong thing on the wrong day on Facebook. Yes, he did have firearms, but they were 100 percent legal.”

Troyer said that didn’t matter, that deputies were obligated to contact Chase Houston because they had reports he was threatening to hurt, possibly kill, people.

Deputies dispatched to the storage unit where Chase Houston was holed up called him on his cellphone, and he reportedly told them he would kill them or anyone else who tried to contact him, according to a statement released by the Prosecutor’s Office.

More deputies, including a SWAT team, were called in, and authorities tried to coax Chase Houston out of the unit.

A negotiator at one point persuaded him to come out, but he refused orders to turn around and to put his hands on his head, the statement said. SWAT officers then fired nonlethal rounds at Houston, hitting him, and he retreated into the storage unit.

Randy Houston called that move an unnecessary escalation of the confrontation, one that put his already agitated son on the defensive.

“He had opened the door unarmed, and they shot him in the stomach with a rubber bullet,” Randy Houston said. “At that point, there was nowhere my son could go.”

What happened next is disputed.

Authorities said they tried to tow Chase Houston’s car away from in front of the storage unit. Randy Houston said deputies used an armored vehicle to smash his son’s Honda Accord, badly damaging it.

In any event, Chase Houston then fired a handgun through a garage door, striking a SWAT member in the arm. Two deputies returned fire, and Chase Houston was fatally wounded.

“At that point, we’re done waiting,” Troyer said.

An autopsy showed Chase Houston died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen and that he had meth, marijuana and oxycodone in his system.

Randy Houston said his son basically was trapped in the storage unit. He thinks deputies could have waited for his son to calm down, even if it took several hours, instead of firing the nonlethal shots at him.

“If my son had shot first and then they shot him, I could find some peace with that,” he said. “I could justify that. But they shot first.”

Randy Houston said he’s been frustrated trying to get information from the Sheriff’s Department about retrieving items deputies seized from the storage unit as evidence.

Those items, some of which are expensive merchandise, would be of a big help to his son’s wife and children, who have been struggling financially since Chase Houston’s death, he said.

“I have to initiate everything,” he said. “They don’t call back, or they do it at their leisure. They just don’t communicate. I have no respect for the police department at all.”

Troyer said the Sheriff’s Department must go through a process to determine who is the legal owner of the seized items before relinquishing them.

“When the time’s right, the stuff will be released to the proper people,” he said.

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