Law enforcement challenges report on sting operation that killed Federal Way teen

King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight’s findings rattle Sheriff’s Office, police union.

The chain of incidents that led to King County Sheriff’s Office detectives shooting and killing Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens on Jan. 27, 2017, started two days before.

On Jan. 25, 2017, Moises Radcliffe, the son of a Seattle police officer, was run down by a person trying to break into his car.

Radcliffe confronted the suspect, who jumped into another SUV and drove toward him. Radcliffe had a gun and fired at the car-prowler before he was struck and killed. Deputies and detectives from KCSO responded to the event, including one detective who was involved in the Dunlap-Gittens shooting two days later.

According to a King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) report released Feb. 11, deputies hatched an undercover sting to detain one of Dunlap-Gittens’ friends in conjunction with the homicide investigation. Deputies posed as an underage female wanting to buy alcohol.

It was later found that the original suspect, identified by the Seattle Times as then 16-year-old Dajohntae Richard, wasn’t involved in the homicide, nor was he involved in the other forgery and possession of stolen goods charges that detectives had suspected.

The report states there was never a written plan on how the operation would happen, and that supervisors never approved the sting. Additionally, dispatch and other deputies in the area were not alerted to what was happening.

Five detectives packed into an unmarked van to meet Richard and Dunlap-Gittens on Jan. 27, 2017. They drove to a location in Des Moines where they would meet the pair.

Richard and Dunlap-Gittens approached the van with bottles of alcohol. As they did, three detectives in the back opened the doors and saw the pair had guns. Richard and Dunlap-Gittens turned to run. Richard escaped to a nearby apartment where he was later found and arrested.

Dunlap-Gittens was shot four times, including a fatal shot to the back of the head.

Deputies said in their statements that Dunlap-Gittens had looked back as he was running, and they thought he might turn and shoot at them. Several of the shots that deputies had fired ended up hitting a nearby apartment building, nearly hitting someone inside. Internal reviews by the Sheriff’s Office said the shooting was justified.

This string of events, and questions about them, were included in a report on the killing of Dunlap-Gittens by the OLEO. The report has prompted a challenge from the police union and the King County Sheriff’s Office.

The report was prepared by the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) and OIR Group. It details a sting operation set up by deputies in 2017 that resulted in the killing of Dunlap-Gittens, a 17-year-old black teen from Federal Way. The report further recommends more than 30 changes to the Sheriff’s Office procedures — ranging from how operations are planned and approved to the review process.

The report was presented to the county’s Law and Justice Committee on Feb. 11. Its release was challenged by Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht and the King County Police Officers Guild. The guild filed a grievance against OLEO, alleging that releasing the report was an overstep of its authority. Johanknecht issued a statement in which she said that due to a lawsuit against the department over the killing, she could not comment.

Recommendations ignored

When deadly force is used, it prompts an internal investigation within the Sheriff’s Office. In this case, the Administrative Review Team examined the case and made several recommendations on how to improve procedures and reviews of officer-involved shootings and undercover operations.

The OLEO report said these were not implemented by the Use of Force Review Board.

“In essence, while a unit of KCSO was given leave to identify and advance ideas for improvement, those reforms were allowed to die on the vine,” the report states.

The OLEO report made more than 30 recommendations for the Sheriff’s Office. It recommended that KCSO interview personnel involved in shootings before the end of that shift, instead of letting them submit written reports days or weeks later, as was the case in the Dunlap-Gittens shooting. The report further said there should be a written operations plan and risk assessment approved before undercover operations.

Other recommendations included looking into whether deadly force should be used when an armed subject is running away, and stating that speculation that a person escaping might hurt innocent third parties isn’t grounds to kill a suspect. The report also said that Dunlap-Gittens looking over his shoulder seemed to be more in line with looking at deputies, instead of trying to attack them. The full report is available here.

Officer’s union responds

Ahead of the Feb. 11 presentation to the county’s Law and Justice Committee, the King County Police Officers Guild sent a letter to the council seeking to prevent its release. The guild has been in contract negotiations with the county since 2016, and claims that under the previous agreement, OLEO does not have authority to release reports.

The guild also claimed the report is not a systemic review — contrary to what OLEO states — and is instead an examination of a single case. Systemic reviews look at policies and procedures in the system and suggest recommendations.

Because an outside organization helped prepare the report, the guild is arguing that OIR Group should not have been provided the information to help develop it. A representative of the guild had not returned a request for comment at the time of publication.

“The guild believes this non-systemic review of an individual case is not only a violation of the status quo of our expired agreement, it would also violate the terms of our tentative agreement on the successor contract,” the grievance states.

Deborah Jacobs, OLEO’s director, said her office’s 2017 charter allows OLEO to issue systemic reviews. The 2017 charter, which is available online, states that her office can develop these review reports.

The charter and subsequent authorities granted to OLEO were approved by voters in the county, and later adopted by the county council in 2017. But several of the provisions are being negotiated as part of the deputies’ labor contracts.

At the Law and Justice Committee meeting, Jacobs argued that the report was a systemic review because it’s looking at underlying supervision, training and tactics that led to the shooting. There were no investigatory steps to take, she said, and the report was generated by reviewing the Sheriff’s Office’s own files.

Since there are only a handful of fatal shootings by the Sheriff’s Office every year, Jacobs argued it’s a common approach for law enforcement oversight agencies to examine a single shooting for systemic failures.

In a written statement, Sheriff Johanknecht said she was out of town for the Feb. 11 meeting. She also said that because her department is being sued over the shooting, what she could say would be restrained. Further, she said she understood the importance of oversight, but said it should be “collaborative, rather than adversarial.”

“It is not appropriate for the KCSO to try its case before the council, or in the press, and we respectfully decline to engage in that kind of discussion,” her statement reads.

County action

At the Law and Justice meeting, Councilmember Dave Upthegrove said he was aware there was pressure from law enforcement to not hold the meeting. However, he said it was important to proceed.

“We need to be having public discussions very openly,” he said.

Additionally, he said the reforms outlined in the report shouldn’t wait until lawsuits were settled to be addressed.

Several people spoke at the meeting, including the parents of Dunlap-Gittens.

“Three years ago today, I buried my son. He would be 20 years old today,” Alexis Dunlap said. “I wonder what he would have studied in school, I wonder at times what kind of car he would drive. I miss him. I think about him often. I try hard to get through all of this… but I definitely want to see some changes. I definitely want to hear some answers.”

Councilmember Rod Dembowski said the report is an expression of the power that voters wanted OLEO to have. If a contract with the guild is presented that doesn’t grant the office full investigative authority, Dembowski said he hopes the council will reject it.

Because the county sheriff is elected, Dembowski said the council cannot mandate what the position does. He suggested the county could move to a system where the sheriff is appointed. This would allow the council to exercise direct authority of the King County Sheriff’s Office.

Recently-elected councilmember and chairman of the Law and Justice Committee Girmay Zahilay said the committee would similarly not wait for civil litigation to end to take action.

“When we talk about systems and reforms, it can sound like cold lifeless conversations, but we have to keep in mind that it’s people that we’re talking about, it’s love,” Zahilay said. “It’s the love of a parent. So when we’re talking about systemic reforms, we are cherishing the most precious gift of life, and that is what we’re trying to advance here.”