Two first-of-their-kind state audits regarding investigations into law enforcement's use of force by the Kitsap Critical Incident Response Team showed shortcomings in being in compliance with newly established state rules regarding such inquiries.
The Washington State Auditor's Office on Wednesday released its findings in two cases investigated by KCIRT: the shooting of a 36-year-old Kitsap County man on the Bethel-Burley Road SE overpass over Highway 16 in August 2020 and the death of a Kitsap County Jail inmate in a restraint chair in May 2020.
In the case of David Pruitte, 36, an unarmed man who was shot and killed by a Kitsap County sheriff's deputy after a confrontation in the middle of the road, the State Auditor's Office found "instances when KCIRT and officers involved in the incident did not follow state rules," according to the audit's executive summary. Similar findings were noted in the investigation into the death of Sean Howell, who died in the custody of the Kitsap County Jail after he was placed into a restraint chair. A later investigation found that jail officers were not properly trained to use the restraint chair.
The audits came as part of a package of legislation passed by the Legislature in 2021 to improve police accountability. The State Auditor's Office is now tasked with auditing every investigation into officers' use of deadly force that resulted in death or bodily harm in the state since Jan. 6, 2020, according to Michael Huynh, program manager for the use of deadly force investigation audits for the state auditor.
KCIRT is one of several independent investigation teams, or IITs, across the state and volunteered to be the first to be audited, Huynh noted. The Pruitte and Howell cases were the only deadly force investigations that met the timeframe.
The shortcomings noted in the audits were in rules established in Washington Administrative Code as policies and "best practices" investigating agencies must follow to be in line with state law. Those policies were put into place in September 2020, after the investigations in the Pruitte and Howell cases had taken place. But Huynh said the office, under the 2021 legislation, is required to audit investigations undertaken before the policies were adopted.
In the Pruitte case, the auditor's office said that KCIRT did not have documentation showing that supervisors removed the involved officers from the scene, separated them, or directed them not to speak with each other about the case.
That same criticism came from Kitsap County Prosecutor Chad Enright in his review of the case and his November 2021 decision not to file charges against Kitsap County sheriff's Deputy Andrew Hren in the shooting of Pruitte. Hren and fellow Deputy Joshua Puckett, who also responded to the incident, had talked to one another shortly after the shooting and both hired the same Bellevue-based attorney to represent them.
Kitsap County Sheriff John Gese said in November 2021 that following the incident, his agency moved to restrict such conversations moving forward.
Other findings by the State Auditor's Office found that KCIRT did not "adequately secure its case files," noting that a county court employee who was not part of the investigation viewed the files during the investigation.
Finally, the auditor's office found that KCIRT did not always notify Pruitte's family before sending press releases to the media.
Enright also declined to file charges against corrections officers involved in the death of Howell, who was killed when the officers attempted to restrain him and used a restraint chair that had been linked to inmate deaths across the country.
The auditor's office issued the same finding regarding Howell's death: that KCIRT did not have documentation showing that supervisors removed the involved officers from the scene, separated them, or directed them not to speak with each other about the case.
The auditor's office also said that KCIRT did not always notify Howell's family before sending press releases to the media, though, it noted that the incident commander for the team said that Howell's family indicated it did not want to be notified unless KCIRT had new information.
In the case of Howell, the auditor's office said that all press releases from KCIRT about the incident contained Howell's arrest offense information. New rules regarding use of force investigations say that neither organizations like KCIRT nor the involved police agency will "provide the media with criminal background information of the person against whom deadly force has been used, unless it is specifically requested, and release of the information is required by the Public Records Act or other applicable laws," according to the audit.
There are no specific repercussions for findings or deficiencies noted in the audits, Huynh said.
"We're just a reporting agency," he said. "It's up to people who have the power to make changes if they wish."
Members of KCIRT come from the following law enforcement agencies: Bremerton police, Washington State Patrol, the Port Orchard police, Bainbridge Island police, Poulsbo police, the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office, Shelton police, Port Angeles police, Sequim police and the Clallam County Sheriff's Office.
The lead on the Pruitte investigation was identified as Bremerton Police Capt. Mike Davis. The lead on the Howell investigation was identified as Washington State Patrol Detective Sgt. Mark Wilson.
Responding to Kitsap Sun questions about the findings in each investigation following the release of the audits on Wednesday, Bremerton police Lt. Aaron Elton wrote in an email that KCIRT has "already implemented new practices and protocols based on the report recommendations."
Since the mandate went into effect requiring the audits of the deadly force investigations, the Legislature approved funding to help add resources to the State Auditor's Office, said Adam Wilson, an office spokesman.
Huynh said the office contracted with a private firm that has experience with auditing and reviewing law enforcement use of force incidents.
"We think these audits open up a new level of transparency to investigations that haven't been seen before in the country," Huynh said. "(We're) just happy to be part of it."
Kitsap Sun archives were used for this report.
Kimberly Rubenstein is the local news editor of the Kitsap Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com or 360-792-5263. Support coverage of local news by signing up today for a digital subscription.
This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Washington State audits of police killings target recent Kitsap cases