Since Nov. 28, 2017, five people in Yakima County have been killed in officer-involved shootings.
While Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic said he has verbally told the officers’ respective departments that the shootings were justifiable under state law, he has not written any formal notices declaring his intentions to not pursue criminal charges.
“I could make an argument that I’ve got an exceptionally busy job,” Brusic said in an interview Saturday. “I make no excuses.”
He said if he were going to file charges, he would have announced that right away. He said he plans to issue a written statement this week announcing his findings.
But an attorney representing the family of one man who was fatally shot by Yakima police nearly two years ago said his clients have received no notification about the status of the case.
“It’s another good reason why you have to have civilian accountability in these things,” said Bill Pickett, a Yakima attorney who is representing the family of Jose Miguel Garcia, who was shot after a standoff at the Cascade Apartments in December 2017.
Garcia was one of two people killed by Yakima police officers following standoffs on Dec. 26, 2017. The other man, 28-year-old Adrian Escobar, was killed by a single shot to the head after a six-hour standoff with Yakima and Benton County SWAT officers at a West Pierce Street home.
In a third incident that month, a man wanted for an earlier shooting in Union Gap was shot and wounded by Yakima SWAT officers on Dec. 27. Brusic said that shooting also was justified.
Other fatal shootings included a 26-year-old Yakima robbery suspect in Tieton in November 2017, a 66-year-old man following a high-speed pursuit through Yakima in which he repeatedly rammed police vehicles in December 2018, and a 38-year-old Toppenish man during a domestic-violence call in Toppenish in June.
When an officer is involved in a shooting, a criminal investigation is launched, most recently by the Yakima Valley Special Investigations Unit, which consists of detectives from agencies around the county. Once that investigation is complete, the reports are forwarded to Brusic’s office to determine if the shootings were justifiable, or if charges need to be filed.
Brusic said he’s reviewed all the cases and has notified the departments that the officers are not facing criminal charges. But he said he has not been able to get around to issuing written statements to that effect, laying out his reasoning and the legal premises for the decisions, due to his workload.
In 2018, 2,429 felony cases were filed in Yakima County Superior Court, according to state records.
In the most recent police-shooting case, where then-Toppenish police officers Joshua Rosenow and Casey Briggs fatally shot 38-year-old Alfredo Chino, Brusic said he verbally notified their superiors as soon as he made a decision not to prosecute because the officers were taking positions with the Sunnyside and Yakima police departments, respectively.
Brusic did issue a written statement clearing a Yakima police officer accused of kicking a 17-year-old boy who had already been pepper-sprayed during a fight at the Central Washington State Fair in September 2018. He also issued a statement declining to file charges after a sheriff’s deputy ran over a 13-year-old boy while investigating a home-invasion robbery in the Lower Valley in 2018.
In the case of the fair incident, Brusic said he sent out a statement quickly because of the publicity the case received after video of the incident was posted on social media.
“It was exploding on social media,” Brusic said. Also, he noted in an earlier interview that the case was not complicated.
He found that the boy, whose family is also represented by Pickett, failed to respond to officers’ orders to get down on the ground.
Garcia, whom Pickett said had lost both eyes, was shot following a 2017 standoff with officers investigating a complaint that he had pulled a gun on another tenant in the East Staff Sgt. Pendleton Way apartment building.
Officers said Garcia barricaded himself inside his apartment and threatened to kill anyone who came inside during a five-hour standoff, according to police reports. Officers said they could hear sounds like Garcia working the slide on a gun, the reports said.
Officers forced the door open, and after several minutes of negotiations, officers Shane Stevie and Patrick Shad fatally shot Garcia, the reports said.
Both officers were placed on paid administrative leave after the shooting, per department policy, as investigations took place. They later returned to duty.
Pickett said his clients were never told of Brusic’s decision not to pursue charges against the officers.
“A lot of times these families are kicked to the curb as their loved one is run through the gutter and trashed,” Pickett said.
Pickett said his complaint is not so much with the lack of written reports, but with the process overall. He said officer-involved shootings need to be reviewed by an independent panel of civilians rather than police officers or prosecutors.
It’s a move Pickett said would foster transparency and create more trust among the public that officers are being held accountable when they use deadly force.
“We really don’t have the mechanism in place to hold the government accountable,” Pickett said. “We ask government to investigate themselves, and they are going to do a biased, poor job.”
In an earlier interview regarding the fair incident, Brusic said a civilian panel would more likely be swayed by public clamor than a prosecutor who applies the law.
A state criminal justice training commission is now reviewing new criteria for independent investigations into use of deadly force by law enforcement officers in Washington. The proposed rules would set up regional investigation teams made up of detectives from surrounding agencies, excluding the agency involved. Each team would have two community members.
Pickett pointed out that just because a prosecutor declines to file charges does not mean the officer is vindicated. He said officers could still be found civilly liable if a jury finds that a shooting was more likely than not to be unjustified.
Since November 2017, there were at least two incidents where officers fired at but did not kill people. On Dec. 18, 2017, Ricky Bounds was shot by Zillah police officer Jacob Olivas during a search for a wanted man. Officers said Bounds, who was not the suspect, came out of his house with a gun and was wounded.
On Nov. 25, 2018, Yakima police Sgt. Joe Salinas fired a shot from his department-issued rifle at a suspect in an armed robbery who was fleeing after Salinas stopped his car. Nobody was hit.