The parents of a Longview man killed by police in 2020 have sued the city, its Police Department and three officers, alleging that they shot him as he fled and that investigators mistook his cellphone for a gun.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, alleges investigators pointed to a surveillance video showing a black object skittering across an alley during a foot chase as proof that 33-year-old Justin Lee Tofte was armed and threatening officers when he was killed nearly two years ago.
The lawsuit names Tofte’s parents, Brian Tofte and Cynthia Alderette, as plaintiffs.
A Lower Columbia Major Crimes Team investigation concluded Tofte picked up a gun that fell from his pocket during the chase, prompting one of the officers, Detective Jordan Sanders, to shoot him.
The lawsuit disputes that version of events, alleging that Tofte dropped a cellphone, not a gun, and that he posed no immediate threat to officers.
One of the family’s attorneys, Ryan Dreveskracht, said Thursday that Tofte was carrying a gun found on his person after he collapsed following a blocks-long foot chase — but didn’t pull the weapon on police.
“At no point during the video footage, nor according to witness accounts, did Justin threaten to harm or kill any officers or civilians,” the lawsuit says. “At no point … other than the involved officer’s account — did Justin reach for a firearm.”
The Oct. 2, 2020, encounter marked Sanders’ second fatal shooting in a year. According to news accounts, Sanders also fatally shot Christopher Johnson, 51, of Longview after a SWAT team callout in 2019 — a shooting the lawsuit alleges was caused by Sanders’ “reckless and negligent” behavior when he left the safety of an armored vehicle to confront the armed, suicidal man.
Longview police Capt. Branden McNew said the department has found both shootings to be justified.
During the chase, Sanders used his Taser on Tofte once and then fired three rounds from his service weapon, including a bullet that struck Tofte under his right arm, nicking a major vein and causing massive bleeding.
The lawsuit alleges Sanders and another detective, Matt Hartley, had a Department of Corrections warrant for Tofte’s arrest when they spotted him walking toward a store from a parked car. Both officers were armed and wearing marked tactical vests when they confronted Tofte, who spoke to them for about 30 seconds and then bolted, with both detectives giving chase.
The lawsuit claims Sanders fired his Taser at Tofte, who tumbled to the ground but was able to get back up and continue running. Sanders then allegedly opened fire with his handgun, shooting Tofte as he attempted to flee, according to the lawsuit, which claims Tofte managed to run two more blocks before he collapsed.
Sanders said he thought the black object that slid from Tofte’s pants was a gun and that his life was in danger.
Surveillance video from a nearby business does not capture the shooting itself, but does show Tofte running, falling when he was hit by the Taser, then regaining his footing and continuing to flee.
The lawsuit contains frames from the video, one of which shows a woman ducking and fleeing inside a garage. Tofte’s lawyers argue her actions are a reaction to gunfire at a point earlier in the chase than officers reported pulling the trigger, Dreveskracht said.
The task force investigation did not find fault with the officers’ actions. Dreveskracht said the Cowlitz County prosecuting attorney is still reviewing the case.
The Longview Police Department didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
The lawsuit claims Longview police “has a policy, custom and established practice of condoning and encouraging the ‘shoot-first-ask-questions-later’ approach demonstrated by Sanders and his fellow LPD officers in the Tofte and Johnson incidents.”
The lawsuit alleges negligence, assault and battery, excessive force and deprivation of familial relationship, as well as constitutional claims.