A Seattle police SWAT officer’s decision to shoot a 24-year-old man in the head while the man held his young daughter last spring in Columbia City was lawful and proper, the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) determined.
Officer Noah Zech, 39, was previously identified as the officer who fatally shot Shaun Fuhr just before 3 p.m. on April 29 in the 4100 block of 37th Avenue South. Zech is not named in OPA’s case summary, which was made public Thursday, but is instead referred to as Named Employee #1 (NE#1) throughout the 17-page report.
Zech was alleged to have failed to use deescalation tactics before using deadly force that may have been contrary to police policy; Zech, who is white, was also alleged to have engaged in biased policing in shooting Fuhr, who was Black.
The OPA did not sustain any of the allegations and determined the officer didn’t have time to safely deescalate the situation; used reasonable force consistent with his SWAT training in responding to hostage rescue scenarios; and acted based on the facts and circumstances he was faced with, not the other man’s race, according to the findings.
Attempts to contact Fuhr’s family members on Thursday afternoon were unsuccessful. The NAACP Seattle King County, which last year issued a news release criticizing the Seattle police officer’s use of deadly force as unnecessary and demanding a thorough investigation, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Brandy Grant, the executive director of the Community Police Commission, said in an emailed statement that the community-based oversight agency expects to review unredacted investigative files related to the case in order to look for areas of systemic improvement.
“We are heartbroken for Shaun Fuhr’s loved ones and our entire community. This is a tragedy on every level. Police responses in Seattle too often result in violence, particularly when it involves people of color,” Grant said in the statement. “We cannot continue to rely on police policy that has repeatedly allowed officers to shoot unarmed people. In no world should it be acceptable to shoot someone when they have their baby in their arms.”
According to OPA’s findings, Seattle police officers were told Fuhr was armed with a handgun and had fired a shot at his girlfriend in a public park — but they had no way of knowing Fuhr had ditched the weapon shortly before he was fatally shot.
Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, said prosecutors have not yet had the independent police investigation into Fuhr’s killing referred to them.
In response to a public-disclosure request, the prosecutors’ office on Thursday released a memo written in May declining to file felony charges against Fuhr because he is deceased. Had he survived, however, prosecutors would have charged him with first-degree assault domestic violence, second-degree assault domestic violence, violation of a domestic-violence no-contact order, and first-degree unlawful possession of a firearm, the memo says, detailing the events that preceded Fuhr’s death. Some but not all of the information in the memo overlaps with information in OPA’s case summary.
According to the decline memo, Fuhr had repeatedly violated a no-contact order protecting his girlfriend after pleading guilty to assaulting her in 2018; he also pleaded guilty to first-degree unlawful possession of a firearm after he was photographed by police handling a shortened, semi-automatic assault weapon in June 2019.
On April 28, 2020, Fuhr’s girlfriend took their 1-year-old daughter to Fuhr’s relatives’ house in Des Moines, the memo says. Fuhr arrived at the house intoxicated and beat the woman, then dragged her and the child into the woman’s car and drove to a Seattle motel, it says.
Fuhr bludgeoned the woman in the rented room with a clothes iron and strangled her into unconsciousness, says the decline memo. The next day, they left the motel in the car and Fuhr, who was still intoxicated, fired a round that narrowly missed the woman’s head.
They stopped at a park, where Fuhr shot a second round at the woman while holding the child, causing a family picnicking in the park to scatter, the memo says. The woman and several bystanders called 911 as Fuhr ran away with his daughter.
According to the memo and OPA report, Fuhr’s cellphone was “pinged” to locate him. Zech and other officers found him about 35 minutes after the initial 911 calls.
At one point, Fuhr was seen jumping over a fence while carrying his daughter like a football, her limbs flopping and her head bouncing as he ran, says the OPA report. He ignored officers’ repeated yells for him to stop, the report says.
The officers ran down a driveway and found Fuhr cornered between the side of a house and a fence, his daughter held at waist-level in the crook of his left arm with his right hand not fully visible, the report says.
The OPA report notes NE#1’s decision to use deadly force has to be reviewed based on what a reasonable officer with the same SWAT training would do and cannot be evaluated using 20/20 hindsight.
Based on interviews with NE#1 and witness officers and a review of the officers’ body-worn camera footage, the OPA report agrees with NE#1’s analysis that the subject — Fuhr — had already engaged in violent conduct by firing a gun in a public park, fled while holding the child in a way that disregarded her safety, was believed to be armed, showed no signs of surrendering and placed the child and officers in imminent danger of serious injury or death.
In his interview, NE#1 said he was confident he could fire without hitting the child. After Fuhr was shot and slumped to the ground, the baby rolled out of his arm and was scooped up by another officer. She was not injured.
“I feel like I was in a position to decide if I could gamble with this baby’s life or not, and I had an opportunity to not gamble with her life and stop the threat to her,” NE#1 was quoted as saying in the report.
Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.