Spokane County Prosecutor clears officer in fatal shooting; family to file lawsuit
Aug. 21, 2019 Updated Wed., Aug. 21, 2019 at 10:51 p.m.
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell on Wednesday cleared a Spokane police officer who shot and killed a man during a call in January.
Haskell’s decision came after the conclusion of a police investigation that found David Novak, 35, held a baseball bat and slammed it on his car, making sounds that police thought were gunshots, before Officer Brandon Rankin shot him.
Haskell announced his decision at a news conference attended by about 20 of Novak’s family and friends who emotionally voiced their concerns with Haskell’s decision and his failure to inform the family of the decision to clear Rankin.
“The lack of communication and lack of transparency by the Spokane Prosecutor’s Office and the Spokane Police Department is disturbing,” according to a statement released by the family Wednesday.
Haskell and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl both apologized to the family for not doing enough to alert the family before the news conference. The Novak family said it plans to file a lawsuit with regard to the shooting and investigation, which they said is filled with holes and shortcomings, according to a statement they released Wednesday.
“Your stories are so far off, we’ll see you in court. That’s all I have to say,” said Crystal Novak, David Novak’s sister, to Haskell during the conference.
Haskell said Wednesday that Rankin was one of several officers who raced to a priority “active shooter” call on Jan. 7 at 623 W. Montgomery Ave. after someone called to report being shot at.
When the first officer arrived, he reported to dispatch that he heard a loud bang that he perceived to be the blast of a shotgun.
It was about 10:30 p.m. and night out when Rankin arrived moments later and told investigators that he heard three bangs that he believed to have come from a semi-automatic pistol. When officers got in position to see Novak, they gave him orders to get on the ground and he did not comply, Haskell said.
“I find that Spokane police Officer Brandon Rankin was justified in his use of deadly force in this incident,” Haskell said. “Officer Rankin had a reasonable belief based on information known at the time that Mr. Novak was a threat to officers” and the public.
Spokane police Officer Trevor Walker, who had already arrived on scene, announced to others that Novak had “fired a shot, for sure. I saw smoke by the house,” according to the investigation documents.
A witness stated that police told Novak to drop the weapon, and Novak dropped the baseball bat and then walked toward his house.
But none of the officers who were at the scene told investigators that Novak had dropped anything, according to the documents.
According to the investigation, which Haskell relied upon, Rankin said he saw Novak approach the house but had no idea whether Novak lived there, or if it was an occupied home that could present an opportunity to take hostages.
Rankin also noted that Novak was approaching a porch that would have provided him cover if he chose to shoot at officers.
As Novak approached his house, Rankin saw Novak attempt to reach for his waistband, Haskell said. Rankin fired once with a .223-caliber rifle, striking Novak in the side.
Novak made it into the home, where he was found in the prone position. Responders eventually tried to provide aid, but Novak was declared dead at the scene, Haskell said.
Haskell offered an apology to the Novak family for their loss but said the responding officers had a reasonable belief that they were entering a shooting situation where they or members of the public could face serious bodily injury or death.
“The Legislature and the U.S. Supreme Court give leeway for officers to make mistakes of fact if they are reasonable,” Haskell said. “As far as criminal liability goes, I find that Officer Rankin met the statutory requirements and I won’t be filing charges against him.”
Haskell said Wednesday that Rankin’s body camera was activated, but footage is not available until a public records request is filed and processed. One or two officers had not activated their body cameras, Haskell said.
Members of the Novak family said they are left with questions about the shooting after claiming to see some of the body camera footage.
Crystal Novak said Rankin was the last officer to arrive on scene and that, 11 seconds later, he fired the single shot at Novak. She also said some officers were yelling at Novak to “Drop the bat!” before Rankin arrived.
Michael J. Novak, David Novak’s father, said he could not understand how an officer would not be able to see that Novak was holding a bat, considering Novak’s driveway was lit by some lights.
“If they can see his gray sweater on, they should be able to see his bat,” he said.
David Novak’s mother, Debbie Novak, who had picketed outside Spokane County Courthouse multiple times after Novak’s death to demand justice, said officers need more training.
“You need to reel your officers in,” she said to Meidl. “We expect them to be professionals. We expect them to be trained.”
Attorney Rondi Thorp will represent the family in its lawsuit.
Jolyn Maze, the man who called police to report a shooting, told The Spokesman-Review in January that he and Novak were in a racially charged argument before police arrived on Jan. 7. Maze and another witness said Novak was drunk and attempted to assault them and that he also shouted racial slurs at them.
Maze said he heard gunshots and retreated into his house, where he heard pings on the window that sounded like birdshot from a shotgun.
The Spokane Police Department will hold an internal investigation following Haskell’s decision, and it could take several months to determine any policy violations, Meidl said.
Rankin is back on active duty, he said.
Staff writers Thomas Clouse and Jared Brown contributed to this report.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.