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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

The family of an Indigenous man killed by a police officer in Poulsbo, Washington, near the Suquamish Reservation is suing the city in federal court.

The civil rights lawsuit, filed by the children and estate of Stonechild Chiefstick, Cowichan/Cree, says police used unnecessary force and failed to de-escalate the encounter after receiving reports he was having a mental health or substance abuse episode during a city celebration on July 3, 2019.

“The last two years have been difficult,” daughter Alana Chiefstick said at a press conference Thursday on the Suquamish Reservation. “My dad missed my graduation, he missed my prom, he’s not going to see any of the others graduate. It’s difficult to know that we’re still fighting for justice — for my dad, for our people, and for everyone who has been affected by police brutality.”

The suit seeks damages from the City of Poulsbo; Officer Craig Keller, who fired the fatal shots but was cleared by investigators; then-Police Chief Dan Schoonmaker, who is now the city’s parks and recreation director; and then-Deputy Police Chief Troy Grossman, who is no longer listed on the department’s roster. 

Stonechild Chiefstick, 39, Cowichan/Cree, was fatally shot by a police officer on July 3, 2019, in a crowded waterfront park in Poulsbo, Washington, west of Seattle. Chiefstick's family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit over his death in July 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Chiefstick family)

Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman joined Alana Chiefstick at the press conference July 1 at the Suquamish Tribe’s House of Awakened Culture.

“We’re here to keep working toward trying to find some justice, and maybe some reconciliation,”  Forsman said. "This has been a long two years for the family and also for the Suquamish tribal government and people. We’ve been through a lot of review and reconciliation and discussions and thoughts about what this tragic event means in a political, spiritual and cultural way. There’s a lot of trauma around this.”

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Also joining Alana Chiefstick at the press conference were her mother, Trishandra Pickup, Suquamish; family attorney Gabe Galanda, Concow Maidu; Leslie Cushman, of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability; and other family members and supporters.

Galanda called on state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to investigate Chiefstick’s death. The prosecuting attorney ruled the shooting was justified, based on an investigation conducted by neighboring jurisdictions.

“Officer Craig Keller responded to a situation that did not require brute or deadly force and that is the force he used,” Galanda said. He said Keller “acted erratically” in firing “multiple shots into a crowd of local community members” gathered in the park for the July 3 celebration.

“There’s no reason the facts of what happened on July 3, 2019, can’t be exposed to the world — not just to tell these children what happened to their father, but to allow us as a society to prevent the next fatality,” he said. “How will we ever learn how to prevent the police from taking human life unless we know exactly what happened the last time?”

Chiefstick, 39, was a father of six.

Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson told Indian Country Today she could not comment about ongoing litigation. Schoonmaker could not be reached for comment. 

What happened that night

Body camera footage obtained by Indian Country Today shows officers talking to Chiefstick — at times sharing fist-bumps with him — in response to reports he was “tweaking really badly,” “trying to start a confrontation” and “looking through people’s stuff.”

In earlier interviews with Indian Country Today, then-police chief Schoonmaker said officers didn’t remove Chiefstick from the park at that time because they “didn’t believe he had committed any crime.”

Schoonmaker said public intoxication is not a crime in Washington. “Unless a crime has been committed, we’re not going to forcibly remove someone from a park,” Schoonmaker said.

State law, however, authorizes police to take someone who is publicly intoxicated into protective custody, with or without their consent.

About 9:20 p.m. that night, Keller — accompanied by two other officers — attempted to arrest Chiefstick in the park on suspicion of assault but Chiefstick broke away. Keller's body cam fell to the ground during the scuffle, but audio captured officers yelling for Chiefstick to "back the [expletive] up," "screwdriver" and "get on the [expletive] ground." 

Keller fired two shots, hitting Chiefstick once in the torso and once in the head. He died in an ambulance.

An autopsy found Chiefstick had 0.20 mg/L of methamphetamine in his system and a blood alcohol content of 0.068, which is below the 0.08 level to be considered legally intoxicated in Washington. 

Stonechild Chiefstick, 39, Cowichan/Cree, was fatally shot by a police officer on July 3, 2019, in a crowded waterfront park in Poulsbo, Washington, west of Seattle. Chiefstick's family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit over his death in July 2021. (Photo pulled from police body cam footage)

According to Dominic Campese, an Emmy award-winning editor who produced a series of podcasts about the shooting, officers knew Chiefstick had a screwdriver but did not discuss a plan of action, never identified themselves as police, never gave clear commands, and did not give Chiefstick time to comply.

According to the police body cam video, Chiefstick was shot within 10 seconds of officers confronting him and within two seconds of being ordered to drop the screwdriver. 

The lawsuit says Chiefstick’s death could have been prevented, and was the result of unnecessary and excessive force, negligence and breach of duty.

“Amongst the responding officers there was no plan, tactic, strategy, or communication on how to approach the man,” the lawsuit states. “Despite no indication that Stonechild posed an imminent risk of harm to anyone, and without issuing a clear command, Defendant Keller attempted to grab Stonechild from behind. Stonechild attempted to de-escalate the situation, telling officers to ‘chill out.’ He freed himself from Defendant Keller’s grasp and, according to witnesses, ‘started walking away’ and ‘lumbering over the people’ at the festival ‘trying to quickly get away from the officer.’”

According to the lawsuit, a witness reported seeing the screwdriver “go flying” from Chiefstick’s hand when he tripped and fell onto a concrete path.

“In other words, Stonechild was completely unarmed at this point,” the lawsuit states.

In the ensuing investigation that cleared Keller, the officer said Chiefstick took an aggressive stance and brandished the screwdriver at him.

Systemic racism

Keller, who is not Native, formerly worked for the nearby Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe Police Department. He had served with Poulsbo police for five years before the shooting and, according to his record, was current on his state-required training, including anti-bias and de-escalation.

The use-of-force review panel made several recommendations to the Poulsbo Police Department, among them: consider deploying non-law enforcement resources during special events; provide crisis intervention training to department employees; provide additional training in “transition from lethal force to non/less lethal force;” and establish better communications with neighboring tribal communities.

But many Indigenous people say the shooting was the fruit of racism that has long existed here: the U.S. government’s burning of Chief Seattle’s home on the Suquamish Reservation in 1870; the desecration of his grave in 2001; racial profiling, slurs and racist graffiti in town; the destruction by arson of a totem pole carved by Native students at the local high school; a school board member refusing to sign an education agreement with the Suquamish Tribe because he didn’t believe in tribal sovereignty; a Superior Court judge making a jurisdiction decision regarding Indian land that was in contradiction of the U.S. Code.

Even as Chiefstick's life ebbed away in an ambulance, organizers of the July 3 celebration decided the music and fireworks show would continue. A memorial established later at the shooting site was vandalized three times, the last by an intoxicated Port of Poulsbo commissioner who later resigned and was allowed by the court to enter a felony diversion program.

The City Council and Port Commission condemned the vandalism, and the City Council proposed incorporating the Suquamish’s historical name for the community — tcu tcu lats, meaning “place of the maples” — into local signage. In addition, the City Council recognized on its website that incidents have occurred “which have resulted in communities of color feeling uncomfortable and unsafe at times.”

The statement added, “The City denounces all acts of racism and discrimination and is committed to continuing its outreach to all members of our community to ensure all individuals who live, work, and visit the City of Poulsbo are treated with dignity and respect.”

But to some, those words fail to address the systemic issues that exist.

“Indigenous people across the world have been murdered for hundreds of years,” Pickup said at the press conference. “We suffered generational trauma, we suffered trauma from our great-great-grandparents not knowing how to love one another and be parents because they were taken away to boarding schools. We’re mourning the deaths of our children. We’re still finding their graves. Things haven’t changed too much.”

Noting that her sister died in police custody, Pickup added, "Kitsap County needs to be accountable for their negligence," she said. "Craig Keller needs to take accountability for what he did to our friend, our father, our son, our brother, our nephew. Stoney was an uncle — he was every kid’s uncle.”

Some laws and policies are in place or proposed regarding police use of force and de-escalation training.

In 2018, state voters approved Initiative 940, which created a good-faith test to determine when the use of deadly force by police is justifiable, require police to receive de-escalation and mental health training, and require law enforcement officers to provide first aid.

Chad Enright, the Kitsap County prosecutor who declined to prosecute Keller, asked state lawmakers last year to establish a unit in the state Attorney General’s Office to review police-involved shootings.

“Local prosecutors are being asked to review the work of local law enforcement,” Enright told the Kitsap Sun. “And, understandably, people don’t have faith in that system, so we should be doing something better.”

Pickup, Chiefstick’s ex, is working with Deescalate Washington for a law requiring that police-involved shootings be reviewed by agencies from other counties to ensure investigations are truly outside investigations.

And in his response to recommendations by the use-of-force panel, then-Police Chief Schoonmaker wrote that his department would provide crisis intervention training to all employees and provide additional training in the use of non- and less-lethal force.

Poulsbo City Councilman Ed Stern, the council’s longest-serving member and the city’s liaison to the Suquamish Tribe, told Indian Country Today in an earlier interview, however, that the levels are still "unacceptable."

“There’s only one officer with 40 hours of accredited deescalation intervention training on the 19-member force," Stern said. "We need to do better. We need to recommit and double-down on [use of] behavioral navigators.”

Behavioral navigators help law enforcement officers connect individuals who have behavioral health issues with treatment and other resources. There are three navigators in the Poulsbo Police Department.

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