VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) — Community groups are calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into the largest law enforcement agencies in southwest Washington over alleged excessive force and discriminatory policing.
The move comes after the fatal shootings of eight people by Vancouver Police Department officers or Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputies since February 2019, The Columbian reported.
Three of the men killed were Black and two were Pacific Islanders. Others were in mental health crisis or suicidal, according to a letter the groups sent to the Justice Department.
The fatal shootings by the two agencies over the two and a half years mark the highest rate of deadly force by law enforcement in Washington state, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the NAACP in Vancouver.
The ACLU and NAACP allege the two agencies treat people of color differently compared to members of far-right extremist groups active in the area.
“There is a dire need to ‘bring to light’ whether there is a persistent pattern of misconduct and remedy any systemic deficiencies,” their letter says.
Joining the ACLU and NAACP are people whose relatives have been killed by officers.
The letter said Vancouver police failed to respond in October 2020 when members of the far-right Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys extremist groups drove trucks through a vigil where people had gathered in memory of Kevin Peterson Jr., a young Black man who was fatally shot by Clark County deputies.
“We come together to mourn, and we’re attacked by extremists. We come together to protest inequality and we’re attacked, and the police look the other way,” said Nickeia Hunter, whose brother Carlos Hunter was shot and killed by Vancouver police in 2019.
The organizations are asking the Justice Department to investigate under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
“Federal intervention is necessary for all residents in Clark County to receive equal and fair treatment, constitutional policing, and to feel safe in their communities,” Enoka Herat, police practices and immigration counsel at the ACLU of Washington, said in a statement.
The Justice Department confirmed receipt of the letter.
“We will review the information provided,” Aryele N. Bradford, a department spokesman based in Washington, D.C., told The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.
Law enforcement agencies didn’t immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The federal government recently started broad investigations into the policies and conduct of police departments in Minneapolis and Louisville, where police killings of Black residents last year sparked nationwide protests, as well as in Phoenix, where federal officials said special attention would be paid to how police treated people experiencing homelessness.
Nearby, Portland’s Police Bureau has been under Justice Department oversight since the city signed a settlement in 2014 that calls for policy, training and other reforms after federal investigators found officers used excessive force against people with mental health issues.
The letter to the Justice Department cites eight fatal shootings by officers or deputies from February 2019 to October of this year. Excluding the most recent shooting in Vancouver on Oct. 17, a prosecuting attorney found the officers involved acted lawfully in each.
In its letter to the federal government, the civil rights groups also cited concerns about the Clark County criminal justice system’s treatment of people of color.
They referenced a Clark County judge’s derogatory remarks about Peterson, who was shot and killed by deputies in 2020 after he ran from an undercover drug bust with a gun.
Days later, Zimmerman apologized and soon after, he retired.