Officer who shot Native man in crowded park returns to work
Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today
The Suquamish Tribal Council is reexamining its government-to-government and cultural relationship with the nearby city of Poulsbo, west of Seattle, after a police officer there was cleared to return to work one year after he shot and killed a Cowichan/Cree man in a crowded waterfront park.
A use-of-force review panel reported last week that Officer Craig Keller followed department policies and procedures and would not be disciplined for killing Stonechild Chiefstick during a July 3, 2019, community fireworks show.
Chiefstick’s family and supporters maintain the shooting was unjustified, and Emmy award-winning editor Dom Campese has produced a seven-episode podcast about the fatal shooting. Among his conclusions: A law enforcement team failed to perform an adequate investigation, and “what we have now in terms of police training and accountability are wholly inadequate.”
Based on a separate investigation by a regional law enforcement investigative team, Kitsap County Prosecuting Attorney Chad Enright earlier determined Keller would not be charged.
The Suquamish Tribal Council previously said police had opportunities to remove Chiefstick from the park before the situation escalated, noting officers had already questioned him twice that day in response to reports he was “tweaking really badly,” “trying to start a confrontation” and “looking through people’s stuff,” and he had brandished a screwdriver.
An autopsy found Chiefstick’s blood alcohol content to be 0.068; he also had 0.20 mg/L of methamphetamine in his system. His girlfriend told investigators she and Chiefstick were waiting for space to become available for them in substance abuse treatment.
In the final confrontation, Keller shot Chiefstick while attempting to arrest him on suspicion of assault. Chiefstick resisted arrest and allegedly threatened Keller with the screwdriver. Two other officers, each armed with a Taser, were present with Keller; the panel determined Chiefstick’s proximity to Keller and other event-goers, as well as the speed at which the circumstances unfolded, did not make use of a Taser an option.
Keller, who is non-Native, formerly worked for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal Police Department. (Use-of-force review panel members included Sam White, Lower Elwha Klallam, who was chief of police at Port Gamble shortly before Keller worked there. White is now chief of the Lower Elwha Klallam Police Department.)
Keller has served with the Poulsbo Police Department for five years and, according to his record, is current on his state-required training, including anti-bias and de-escalation.
The panel found no evidence racism played a part in the shooting. But the shooting further fractured relations between the community and Native Americans here.
“The decision to retain Officer Craig Keller on the Poulsbo Police Force is the latest in a series of moves that have shaken the confidence of the Suquamish Tribal community in the Poulsbo police force and the City of Poulsbo,” the Suquamish Tribal Council posted on its Facebook page.
“Since the July 3, 2019, shooting, we have looked for signs that Poulsbo city and law enforcement leaders are taking responsibility for the tragic death, expressing any sympathy for the family, or working to transform a culture that tolerates systemic racism. We have not seen signs of progress on any of these counts," the council wrote.
It went on to say it has enjoyed successful collaborations with Poulsbo leadership in the past and regrets the latest setback.
"However, as a result of the events of the past year, the Suquamish Tribal Council is re-examining our government-to-government and cultural relationship with the City of Poulsbo,” the council said.
The use-of-force review panel did make 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.
Still unanswered, however, in the decisions by the use-of-force review panel and the prosecuting attorney: why officers didn’t remove Chiefstick from the park when they questioned him earlier that day. “We didn’t believe he had committed any crime,” Poulsbo Police Chief Dan Schoonmaker told Indian Country Today in a previous interview, adding 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,” he said.
However, state law authorizes police to take an individual who is publicly intoxicated into protective custody, with or without the individual’s consent.
Chiefstick, a 39-year-old father of seven who worked odd jobs, was shot an hour after officers questioned him a second time. He died in an ambulance while awaiting airlift to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Trishandra Pickup, Chiefstick's ex, said she wasn’t surprised by the use-of-force panel’s decision. “Why would any Native American have faith in the U.S. governmental system?” she said Saturday. “What would be our reason? Where would we have learned that this was a just system?”
Her view is shaped by history both long and recent.
Si’ahl, the mid-1800s leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish for whom the city of Seattle is named, was touted by Whites as a friend even as that fledgling city’s elected leaders banned Native Americans from living within the city limits and settlers began burning down Duwamish longhouses. Si’ahl’s home on the Suquamish Reservation – the largest winter longhouse in the Salish Sea – was burned down in 1870 by the U.S. government; the land was taken for a military fortification that was never built and then sold to a private developer. The great leader’s gravesite on the Suquamish Reservation would be desecrated in 2001.
Scandinavian immigrants flooded into Suquamish’s historical territory beginning in the 1880s – attracted by land, resources and a climate similar to that in their native countries – and supplanted the Indigenous presence with their own. Suquamish people had lived here for thousands of years. But in an extensive history book published in time for Poulsbo’s centennial, the Indigenous history of this place received one page.
Suquamish leaders and others tell of experiencing racial profiling and slurs and encountering racist graffiti in Poulsbo. Pickup recalled being suspended from high school when she “tried to punch a guy” who had called her a sq--w. The student who issued the insult was not disciplined, she said. A totem pole carved and installed by her school’s Native American Club was destroyed by arson.
In 2012, a local school board member made anti-Suquamish remarks, saying he didn’t believe in the tribe’s sovereignty. In 2016, a Superior Court judge made a jurisdiction decision regarding Indian land that was in clear contradiction of the U.S. Code.
In 2019, Chiefstick’s fatal shooting occurred in Poulsbo’s waterfront park as people gathered for an annual fireworks show; as his life ebbed away in an ambulance, event organizers decided the fireworks would proceed.
A memorial was established at the shooting site; two weeks later, objects from it were found in trash bins and were retrieved and replaced by police officers. One year later, the memorial would be vandalized again.
City Council condemns acts of hatred
City Council members attended an observance on the one-year anniversary of Chiefstick’s death.
Then, eight days later, the community was stunned by the news that an elected official – Port Commissioner Mark DeSalvo – was arrested for allegedly vandalizing the memorial, including breaking glass prayer candles. DeSalvo later resigned his position at the Poulsbo Port District, which is an entity separate from the city.
He is scheduled to go on trial Oct. 16 on a felony charge of second-degree malicious mischief.
The Port Commission condemned DeSalvo’s behavior, as did members of the City Council.
“The actions of this individual, Port Commissioner Mark DeSalvo, are absolutely reprehensible, and his behavior is inexcusable, and the fact that he is an elected official makes that all the more so,” City Council member Britt Livdahl said July 15.
“I want to make it abundantly clear that Mr. DeSalvo’s desecration of Stonechild Chiefstick’s memorial in no way reflects the sentiments of myself or this governing body or our city administration,” he said. “I am relieved to see that he resigned his position, but I do note that it was not accompanied with an apology, which is disappointing.”
City Council member Connie Lord also condemned DeSalvo’s actions and all acts of hatred, adding, “I hope and pray that the Suquamish Tribe knows that we are more than ever committed to healing our relationship with all peoples, and in particular the tribe, promoting justice for all and improving our friendship with all our citizens and trying our best to get mutual respect restored.”
In a separate action related to expansion of a park at an estuary that was once the center of a Suquamish village, the City Council proposed installing signage there and elsewhere with the city’s historic Suquamish name, tcu tcu lats, which means “Place of the maples.”
In addition, the City Council included this message in a news release on the city website when the use-of-force panel issued its report:
“The City of Poulsbo recognizes there have been other incidents in the City that have occurred which have resulted in communities of color feeling uncomfortable and unsafe at times. 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.”
Chiefstick case could spur changes
A significant change could be coming in how police-involved shootings are investigated in Washington state.
Enright, the Kitsap County prosecutor, has asked state lawmakers to establish a unit in the Attorney General’s Office to review them, the Kitsap Sun reported June 16.
“Local prosecutors are being asked to review the work of local law enforcement,” Enright told the Sun. “And, understandably, people don’t have faith in that system, so we should be doing something better.”
Pickup, Chiefstick's ex, is seeking a similar change. In an earlier interview with Indian Country Today, she said she planned to work with the organization Deescalate Washington for a law requiring police-involved shootings be reviewed by agencies from other counties to ensure investigations are truly outside investigations.
And Police Chief Schoonmaker wrote in his response to recommendations by the use-of-force panel that his department “will strongly consider” having a police navigator and designated crisis responders present at special events. He also said the agency will provide crisis intervention training to all employees and provide additional training in the use of non- and less-lethal force.
City Councilman Ed Stern, the council’s longest-serving member and the city’s liaison to the Suquamish Tribe, told Indian Country Today this week: “There’s only one officer with 40 hours of accredited de-escalation intervention training on the 19-member force. That’s unacceptable. … We need to do better. We need to recommit and double-down on [use of] behavioral navigators.”
Regarding a recommendation to establish better communications with the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish tribes, Schoonmaker wrote, “Since this incident, it has been evident communication between the Poulsbo Police Department and the Tribal communities that neighbor the City of Poulsbo needs to improve. As the Chief of Police, I hold myself accountable for not establishing better communications prior to this event. To accomplish this, we must establish and commit to a system of open and effective communications between our local Tribal governments and the police department, be open to honest and critical feedback, and continue to provide appropriate training to our employees.”
Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican Yaqui, is a correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington.
This story has been updated to correct Trishandra Pickup's last name and attribution regarding potential substance abuse treatment for Chiefstick, and to add details on the autopsy report and a podcast about the fatal shooting.
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