An independent review of a 2017 fatal shooting by King County sheriff’s deputies of a 17-year-old in Des Moines raised questions about the thoroughness of the internal investigation that exonerated the deputies and concluded the sheriff has let possible reforms raised by the shooting “die on the vine.”
The 41-page report, which is sharply critical of policies and tactical decisions leading up to the Jan. 27, 2017, shooting death of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, was commissioned by the civilian-run Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) and presented to the King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday morning. The sheriff’s office opposed its release and the King County Police Officers Guild, the union representing deputies and sergeants, has filed a grievance against OLEO, according to Deborah Jacobs, the office’s civilian director.
Committee members heard more than 90 minutes of emotional and sometimes outraged testimony at Tuesday’s meeting, including presentations by the family members of five people killed in recent police shootings, all Black: Dunlap-Gittens, Leonard Thomas, Andre Taylor, Givovann Joseph-McDade and Charleena Lyles. All said the Jan. 27, 2017, shooting death of Dunlap-Gittens, during a misguided and unauthorized sting operation in Des Moines, was the most egregious of all. The council members were obviously moved, some to tears: Committee Chairman Girmay Zahilay choked up as he related that Mi’Chance’s father, Frank Gittens, had been one of his basketball coaches. Mi’Chance, he said, was a “good boy.”
Frank Gittens wiped away tears as Zahilay promised that the committee would “fight for changes” called for in the report, despite a three-year delay and a pending multimillion-dollar civil-rights lawsuit filed by Dunlap-Gittens’ family. “Justice cannot wait,” he said.
Dunlap-Gittens, a high school senior, was killed as he tried to flee from three plainclothes detectives who sprang from the back of a van. Dunlap-Gittens and his 16-year-old friend, DaJohntae Richard, had been deceived into believing the van contained a teenage prostitute and her pimp who wanted to buy several bottles of illicit alcohol Richard had been trying to sell on social media. Dunlap-Gittens, Richard later testified, had agreed to help him carry the bottles.
The van actually contained an arrest team that mistakenly believed Richard had been involved in a hit-and-run two days earlier that had claimed the life of 22-year-old Moises Radcliffe, a police officer’s son.
Both boys had guns — Richard later said they were worried about being ripped off — and the detectives later said Dunlap-Gittens reached for his weapon and they had to defend themselves. Tests later showed Dunlap-Gittens’ gun had not been fired. He was shot five times, with four of the bullets striking him in the back as he ran up a driveway toward his apartment. One of the bullets hit him in the back of the head. He died later that day.
Neither teen, it turned out, had anything to do with the homicide the detectives were investigating.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t think of him, what he’d be doing,” said a tearful Gittens, Mi’Chance’s father.
An internal investigation conducted over the next year cleared the officers of wrongdoing. However, an Administrative Review Team (ART) report was sharply critical of the tactics, and made 20 recommendations to address issues ranging from ensuring deputies are adequately identified as law enforcement to making sure training records are up to date. It suggested sweeping training and policy changes dealing with undercover operations.
The report released Tuesday, conducted by the Los Angeles-based OIR Group, found that none of those recommendations were implemented. OIR President Michael Gennaco, a former civil-rights lawyer with the Department of Justice who has reviewed more than 600 officer-involved shootings, said no discipline or remedial action was taken against anyone, suggesting acceptance of a poorly planned and executed operation that fell outside department policy and cost a teenager his life.
“In short, the failure to identify any shortcomings communicated an acceptance of future operations being done the same way,” wrote Gennaco, who worked as lead attorney for L.A. County’s Office of Independent Review after leaving DOJ. He concluded an “apparently disapproving” force review board “largely countermanded or ignored” recommendations “worthy of reflection and reform” that had been offered by the ART.
“It is difficult to fathom that not one recommendation put forward by the ART was found to be worthy of implementation by the Review Board,” Gennaco wrote.
Moreover, the report states there is no mechanism within the sheriff’s office to adopt and implement those recommendations, even if it wanted to.
“Unless there is a mechanism for ensuring the helpful suggestions are turned into action items, those ideas are destined to die on the vine,” the report said. “And that is apparently what happened with each and every proposal that was devised by KCSO.”
In a written reply, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht was critical of OLEO and its decision to release the report. She said the pending lawsuit “constrained” her ability to respond, and noted the hearing was scheduled while she was out of town.
The sheriff said she “understands and acknowledges the importance of oversight,” but added that she is “also mindful of the need to proceed with oversight in a way that does not violate the rights of our commissioned personnel” and is not “adversarial.”
Johanknecht attached a copy of a coroner’s jury verdict to her letter that found the deputies were justified in using deadly force during the arrest attempt. However, the jury was prevented from hearing evidence about the mistakes and wrong assumptions that led to the shooting— issues addressed in Gennaco’s report.
The sheriff’s office is scheduled to appear before the council Feb. 25 to discuss new policies on use of force, where some of the recommended reforms will be addressed.
The arrest team involved in the sting was identified in sheriff’s documents as Sgt. Todd Miller, who fired one round; Joe Eshom, who fired three rounds, including the fatal shot to the back of Dunlap-Gittens’ head; and Reed Jones, who fired eight rounds.
Richard pleaded guilty to a gun charge in connection with the incident.
One of the primary failings, according to the new report, was that technicians failed to properly photograph much of the shooting scene. The report questions why nobody was ever questioned or disciplined over the failure to document the evidence.
At least four bullets fired by the deputies struck nearby apartments. One bullet traveled through two walls and landed in a resident’s bathroom. Another neighbor called to report a bullet had torn through her wall and landed within feet of her baby’s crib, according to the report. The report states that deputies who fired were never asked to explain their off-target rounds or whether they should have considered whether the threat posed by their firing into the neighborhood posed a greater threat than Dunlap-Gittens fleeing the scene with a gun.
Likewise, according to the report, the Use of Force Review Board never questioned the deputies about shifting stories regarding the perceived threat that Dunlap-Gittens posed as he ran away.
Among the report’s other findings:
— The arrest team did not prepare a detailed, written plan for the sting, as required by policy. The upshot was that the arrest team was unprepared and did not consider beforehand what it would do if shots were fired.
— The deputies were allowed several days to prepare written statements and were not interviewed until nearly two weeks after the shooting, after consulting with union lawyers. The report recommends an initial statement be taken before the end of the involved deputy’s shift.
— The deputies on the arrest team were in plainclothes and not adequately identified as law-enforcement officers — a concern echoed by the inquest jury.