Residents of a city next to the Suquamish Reservation west of Seattle are demanding transparency in the investigation of the fatal police shooting of a Native American man July 3 in a crowded waterfront park.
Four police officers confronted Stonechild “Stoney” Chiefstick, Chippewa Creek, in response to reports he had a screwdriver and was acting in a threatening manner. “A struggle ensued,” a report issued by the police department stated. “During the struggle one officer fired his handgun, striking the subject.” Chiefstick, 39, died at the scene.
The shooting occurred in the city of Poulsbo’s Muriel Iverson Williams Waterfront Park as crowds gathered for the annual pre-Independence Day fireworks show. The crowd included families and children; a resident found a shell casing from the officer’s gun on the blanket on which she was sitting in the park, investigators reported. Chiefstick died from bullet wounds to his head and torso, the Kitsap County Coroner reported.
The investigation is being conducted by the multi-agency Kitsap County Incident Response Team. Poulsbo Police Department is not involved, but is co-operating, in the investigation, said Poulsbo Police Chief Dan Schoonmaker.
Lt. Kevin Crane, assistant commander of the incident response team, said a final investigation report will be completed when toxicology results from the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory are received. That could take two months but a preliminary investigation report could be released by the end of July.
The officer who fired the shots has not been identified, but has been referred to as male in statements issued by the Poulsbo Police Department. The officer is on paid administrative leave pending the results of the investigation, Schoonmaker said.
The officer has been with Poulsbo Police for five years and had not before been involved in a shooting, Schoonmaker said. Crane said the officer was wearing a body camera, but that “something happened during the struggle” and it was disabled. The officer had also been issued a Taser, Schoonmaker said. “All of our officers are issued Tasers.”
Residents -- Native and non-Native -- crowded the Poulsbo City Council meeting July 10 to call for transparency and accountability in the investigation. Many of them said they believe the situation could have been de-escalated and that lethal force was not warranted.
Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson, who is not Native American but grew up near the Muckleshoot Reservation southeast of Seattle, tried to set the tone for the evening. She held up a Coast Salish-style bear sculpted by her artist mother and talked about the cultural art exchanges between the city and the Suquamish Tribe -- including a hand-carved paddle from the tribe. displayed on the wall of the city council chambers -- that tell of the relationship between the two communities.
“It’s been a tragic week,” Erickson said. “It’s tragic for everyone -- for a family that has lost a loved one, for a city that is grieving because it feels like it’s been a little crushed, for a community that has expectations for a quality of life and things like this just don’t happen here. We’re all grieving.”
One resident called for more investment in teaching de-escalation techniques and the use of non-lethal force. Speaking to the chief of police, he said, “I’m a father, I’m a homeowner, I’m also a gun owner. And chief, I have to believe there was a better solution that to fire a gun in the middle of a crowd. That’s what worries me tonight.”
Cassandra George, Suquamish, addressed the council in the Suquamish language, and then translated: “You’re talking about your paddle, you’re talking about that bear. Well, there’s my family. There’s the daughter, my student, who’s crying for her father. That is more relevant to me than that bear and that paddle.”
George said she hoped the police department was acting in “good faith” to implement de-escalation training as required by a new state law.
“That life was gone like that over a screwdriver,” she said. “I’d like to think that there was something better that could have been done … I’m not saying that there were not things that complicated this, but I am saying that he was murdered.”
Erin Self grew up in Poulsbo, moved to Texas and after being exposed to racism there moved back, she said.
“I didn’t think anything like this would ever happen here, and then it happens,” she said. “I understand there are details of the situation we don’t know. We still don’t know the name of the officer, we still don’t know anything but a screwdriver. [If] I walk around with a screwdriver, I’m not afraid for my life, but this man needed to be.”
Self said her mother and a co-worker knew Chiefstick and his family and “they say he never would have hurt anyone. He may have been troubled, he may have had issues, but there was no reason he should have been shot to death the way he was in front of the community.”
“I lost a lot that night,” Self said. “We all lost a lot that night.”
Brenda Calderon was one of several residents who called for police accountability, de-escalation training and anti-bias training.
“It’s very important for us to look at these things openly, setting our egos aside and looking at it in the light of people who are unfortunately targeted through bias,” she said.
Maria Rosario Navarro Crisantos, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen, said the shooting on July 3 is a continuation of a history “that white America does not want to face or be accountable to and discuss or teach in our schools,” such as the removal of Native Americans and Indigenous Mexicans from their lands, and the U.S. deportation of 1.8 million people of Mexican ancestry – many of them U.S. citizens – during the Great Depression. “And now a wall is being built to continue separating families that were separated back then,” she said.
She remembered visiting Mexico as a child and witnessing injustice there and thinking, “That would never happen in my America. I am safe in America.” But that belief was shattered in 2007 in California, she said, when she was handled roughly by officers when she had a medical emergency; and again with the killing of Chiefstick.
Pam Keeley, a registered nurse, said the conclusion may have been different if residents had known how to de-escalate the situation.
“If we are all connected,” she said, “why didn’t someone reach out to Stonechild before even calling the police: ‘How are you?’ ‘Can I help you with something?’ I think de-escalation needs to apply to everybody, including the police.”
Addressing Chief Schoonmaker, Keeley said, “I’m a nurse of 47 years. In those decades, we have cared for – every day -- violent patients that come into the emergency room, that are on our wards, who are behaviorally compromised, and we have never killed one.”
Schoonmaker later said that all of his officers are required to participate in anti-bias training and de-escalation training and that they have done so in his less than three years as police chief.
Madalyn Squires, a Bremerton resident, supported calls for community oversight to ensure transparency during the investigation, and said the Suquamish Tribe should be represented.
“I didn’t know Stonechild Chiefstick and I don’t know his family, but I remember how this part of the process can feel,” she said. She talked about the 2010 police shooting of well-known First Nations carver John T. Williams in Seattle.
Williams “had a short carving knife in his hand,” Squires said. “He was 25 feet away, he did not pose a threat to anyone’s safety. He could behave erratically, I had seen him behave erratically over the years, but he was also a community leader. He was a fine man.”
The officer who killed Williams resigned despite the shooting being ruled “unjustified” by a Seattle Police review board, Squires said.
“I know how it feels to have the process fail, for justice not to be delivered,” Squires said. “I hope that doesn’t end up feeling that way this time.”
Father of seven
Chiefstick was described as a “wonderful son, brother, father, uncle, nephew and friend who touched the lives of those around him” in an obituary posted online by his family.
He is survived by his mom, Diane; siblings, Laverna, Chris, Celina, Vincea; and his children and stepchildren, Kierra, Ohitika, Stoney Jr., Alana, Kane, Silas, and Lily.
Chiefstick had ties to the Suquamish Tribe and he and his children were involved in the community there. His family hails from the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana. His first name, Stonechild, is the English translation of Ahsiniiwin, the name of the Chippewa leader who lobbied the U.S. government in 1916 to create the Rocky Boy Reservation.
Here’s what’s known so far about the shooting, according to police:
Just after 9 p.m. July 3, Poulsbo police officers responded to the city’s waterfront park on Liberty Bay “for a report of a subject threatening people.” At the time, people were gathering for the annual 3rd of July fireworks celebration. It was not yet dark. “There was still ambient light out,” Schoonmaker said.
Several people reported that the man, later identified as Chiefstick, was “acting in a strange manner, which alarmed the people around him,” police reported. Chiefstick was “armed with a screwdriver.”
Crane, of the regional incident response team, said four officers confronted Chiefstick -- the officer whose gun fired the fatal shots, a second officer, a reserve officer and a community service officer.
“Shortly thereafter, a struggle ensued,” the incident response team later reported. Crane could not say how much time elapsed between the time officers contacted Chiefstick and when the struggle began. He also couldn’t comment yet on how the struggle started.
“During the struggle one officer fired his handgun, striking the subject,” the regional incident response team later reported. “The subject was handcuffed and officers on scene rendered aid while they were waiting for paramedics to arrive. Officers provided first aid to the subject and called for paramedics to respond. The subject later died from his injuries.”
A flat-headed screwdriver was later recovered from the scene.
Crane said 25 officers are investigating the shooting and interviewed “well over a hundred” people as of July 12.
The incident response team established a hotline for people to call if they took photographs or video before, during or after the shooting, or if they have other information or evidence. The hotline number is 360-473-5155.
Crane said when the investigation report is completed, it will be submitted to the county prosecuting attorney who will decide the next course of action.
The fatal police shooting of Chiefstick has raised questions among some community members about how well the Native and non-Native communities know each other, and how that influences how one responds to the other.
Poulsbo was historically tcu-tcu-lats, one of several Suquamish villages along the shores of the Kitsap Peninsula west of Seattle. Suquamish leaders signed the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855, making land available for newcomers, and most Suquamish people relocated to the nearby Port Madison Reservation, also known as the Suquamish Reservation.
Scandinavians began settling in Poulsbo in the 1880s from Europe and the U.S. Midwest, attracted by available land, fishing, logging and a climate similar to their natal lands. Poulsbo was incorporated in 1907, named for a city in Norway, and Norwegian was the dominant culture until World War II, when the war effort brought in a flood of new workers that diversified the population.
The local Indigenous history was drowned out by the newcomers. Downtown buildings have Norwegian architectural elements, as do the library and post office. Local parks and public buildings feature Norwegian-themed sculptures and murals. Streets and parks bear Scandinavian names. Until the 1980s, all but three mayors were of Norwegian birth. The town retained such a strong hold on the founders’ Norwegian heritage that two Norwegian kings and one queen have visited here.
After Chief Seattle’s gravesite in Suquamish Memorial Cemetery on the Suquamish Reservation was vandalized in 2001, a multicultural organization of residents formed to build bridges between the Native and non-Native communities and to work together for positive change. An early accomplishment: the state’s return of title to an ancestral winter village site to the Suquamish Tribe.
The City of Poulsbo reached out to the Suquamish Tribe in 2005 to establish a formal relationship and open lines of regular communication.
“Poulsbo’s been here since the mid-1880s. The Suquamish Tribe has been here, as [Suquamish Chairman Leonard] Forsman talks about, since for at least 15,000 years,” said Poulsbo City Councilman Ed Stern, the city’s liaison to the Suquamish Tribe. “There never was a formal relationship until 2005, [when] we came together to recognize each other, council to council. And I remember Donna Jean Bruce, who was our mayor, saying, ‘This is a red-letter day, but I’m also ashamed it’s taken over a hundred years to recognize [our] neighbors in a formal and respectful way.’ ”
Today, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans and African Americans combined make up 17.2 percent of the local population. But they are underrepresented in local government.
One African American has served on the Poulsbo City Council. Only one Native American has been elected to the school board, even though children from the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and Suquamish Tribe attend local schools.
Robert Purser, a citizen of the Suquamish Tribe who works at the Suquamish Museum, said the relationship between Poulsbo and the Suquamish Tribe is superficial.
“There’s an ignorance about our culture and our people,” he said. “We’ve been next door to you since before you were even a town. In fact, this was our village and you know literally nothing about us.” And in local schools, which he attended, “You don’t teach much about us either,” he said. (In 2012, school board member Scott Henden said he couldn’t sign a memorandum of agreement with the Suquamish Tribe because the document referred to Suquamish as a sovereign nation. “I don’t see them as a sovereign nation,” he said. “Norway is a sovereign nation.”)
Purser and others said they were shocked to read racist comments on social media after Chiefstick’s death.
“For you to hear an Indian got shot down at the waterfront, it’s upsetting,” Purser told the city council. ”For us, it’s a sting that is a little familiar … And then, all the racist comments.”
The City of Poulsbo is planning a community discussion and will make grief counseling available to residents, according to the mayor.
The police chief asked residents to be patient.
“We are fully cooperating with the investigation,” Chief Schoonmaker said. “I need the same answers that you’re looking for as well. It’s hard for me to sit here in front of this group and tell you to trust that the investigation is being done competently, professionally and thoroughly, that it seeks to find the truth and to provide the truth to everybody … Support each other and be patient. When the truth comes out we will absolutely take the appropriate action.”
Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington.