A 43-year-old Vancouver, Washington, man reportedly said he was “scared to death” just moments before he was killed by police and corrections officers during a 2019 traffic stop, according to a lawsuit filed by his family Friday.
Carlos Hunter was killed during a planned traffic stop a mile from his home after officers claimed he was reaching for a gun, according to police and news reports. The lawsuit alleges officers repeatedly stunned him with a Taser and then shot him 16 times while he sat in his vehicle.
The lawsuit alleges the officers told dispatch that the scene was under control and then 70 seconds later, reported shots fired. It claims Hunter was wearing a seat belt when he was shot and that officers pulled him out, handcuffed him and offered no aid as he lay mortally wounded on the pavement.
“This lawsuit is not part of an anti-police officer movement,” wrote Seattle attorney Craig Sims, who is representing the family along with another attorney, John Bender. “We have filed this lawsuit on behalf of the Hunter family because we believe the named officers crossed a clear line and should be held accountable.”
The lawsuit names as defendants Vancouver Police Department officers Dennis Devlin, Colton Price and Branden Schoolcraft, and Department of Corrections Officer Rees Campbell, along with their respective agencies. Messages left for the departments seeking comment were not immediately returned Friday.
In an email Friday morning to The Columbian, Assistant City Attorney Dan Lloyd said the city had not yet been provided a copy of the lawsuit.
He said the then-chief deputy prosecutor found the Vancouver officers’ actions “were in response to a fear of deadly assault.”
“The investigation revealed that the officer-involved shooting occurred when Mr. Hunter resisted and reached for a handgun in his pocket instead of cooperating with the officers who were attempting to serve a search warrant authorized by a judge,” Lloyd said. “While the loss of any life is tragic, the city agrees with the conclusion of the prosecuting attorney and intends to defend its officers in this litigation accordingly.”
According to the pleadings, officers obtained a search warrant for Hunter, who was suspected of selling Ecstasy, and set up a planned traffic stop. It claims they were unprepared, acted unprofessionally and escalated the situation both before and after Hunter’s vehicle was stopped.
“The officers’ statements that were recorded reflect a lack of professionalism, bad faith and animus toward Mr. Carlos Hunter,” the lawsuit states. Their actions at the scene, it claims, “fell far short of basic de-escalation tactics and police standards.”
Moreover, it claims their statements after the shooting “were replete with inconsistencies and contradictions. They paint a picture of reckless provocation by the officers escalating to chaos during the decisive moments leading to Mr. Carlos Hunter’s death.”
Those actions included contradictory commands and breaking the passenger window of Hunter’s vehicle to intimidate him. They allegedly told him to unbuckle his seat belt — the release being located on the right side of the driver’s seat — then shot him for allegedly reaching for a gun that was seen in his right pants pocket, the lawsuit states.
The Clark County Prosecuting Attorneys Office found the shooting was legal.
Hunter, who was Black, was the father of six children ranging in age from 2 to 12. He reportedly said he was “scared to death” of the officers just before the shots were fired, according to the lawsuit.
Evidence also showed the officers shocked him with a Taser twice in a span of 20 seconds, which the lawsuit says likely contributed to his movements in the car. These actions, the lawsuit says, “demonstrate the officers’ total failure to control the scene — or their own actions and emotions — during the final 70 seconds leading to Mr. Carlos Hunter’s death.”
Hunter’s shooting death was one of several that led Vancouver police the following year to contract with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to conduct a study of the department’s use-of-force policies. That study concluded the city’s policies were confusing and lacked definition.
His death was also cited in a letter addressed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division seeking a DOJ “pattern and practices” investigation into allegations of biased policing and the use of deadly force by both Vancouver police and the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. The ACLU noted that the Vancouver Police Department reported nine police shootings between 2017 and 2019, including four in a four-week period that included Hunter’s death.
The PERF report noted that during that period, the use-of-force reported by Vancouver officers increased 65% and that, on average, about 12% of the victims were Black, while just 3% of the city’s population is Black.