The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office says it has made an arrest in a teenager’s fatal shooting last month, after their initial response to the case highlighted questions about the state’s sweeping new police reform laws.
Franklin Thananga, 16, was shot to death in a department store parking lot near Puyallup the night of July 28. Witnesses told Pierce County sheriff’s deputies that the suspect, dressed in a black shirt and black pants, ran off across the parking lot and behind another store.
Although a deputy with a police dog arrived within minutes of the shooting, the deputy declined to use the dog to try to track the suspect, and other officers who searched the area came up empty. In social media posts, the sheriff’s office suggested that because of a new law that changed when police can use force, the K9 handler “was unable to track with his K9 to search for the suspect who was seen fleeing by witnesses.”
That statement upset activists and relatives of those killed by police, who accused the sheriff’s office — along with a small minority of other departments across the state — of a “disinformation campaign” aimed at undermining support for the reforms. They noted that some departments had also claimed the new laws might hinder their ability to respond to “community care” calls or mental health crises — something a recent memo from the state attorney general’s office dispelled.
During a news conference Tuesday in the parking lot where Thananga was killed, members of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability argued that nothing in the new laws prevent police from using leashed dogs to track suspects.
“They are misrepresenting the laws and blaming the laws for their own harmful choices,” said Enoka Herat of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
Washington lawmakers passed an unprecedented package of police accountability and reform measures following the racial justice protests that erupted after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police last year. Nearly a dozen of the laws took effect July 25.
They cover virtually all aspects of policing, including the background checks officers undergo before they are hired; when they are authorized to use force and how they collect data about it; and the establishment of an entirely new state agency to review police use of deadly force.
Among the most controversial is a measure creating a statewide standard for when police can use force. While police historically have been able to use force when they have reasonable suspicion, it says they now need probable cause — a higher standard, based on evidence that the person committed or was about to commit the crime — before they use force. They can also use force if there is an imminent threat of injury; they can use deadly force only to protect against an imminent threat of serious injury or death.
The higher standard is designed to keep police from using force against the wrong person or using it unnecessarily. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office has suggested that the deputy declined to use the dog because the deputy did not have probable cause to arrest or use force against a specific person.
Sgt. Darren Moss Jr., a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, declined Tuesday to respond to the activists’ comments.
Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said in a written statement that the implementation of the use-of-force law should have been delayed until the attorney general writes model policies on the topic — something that isn’t due to happen until next July.
As the activists’ news conference was wrapping up, deputies were arresting the 16-year-old suspect at his home without incident, after what the sheriff’s office described as two weeks of hard investigative work.
Leslie Cushman, the director of the Coalition for Police Accountability, said that was a good outcome: Investigators solved the crime without risking having a police dog potentially bite the wrong person.
“We think it’s unreasonable to blame the law for their earlier decision to not use the dog in their search that day,” Cushman said. “If they thought they couldn’t track safely, that was their decision.”