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News >  Crime/Public Safety

‘I want my son back’: Loved ones of people killed by officers gather at Riverfront Park to demand change

UPDATED: Sat., April 24, 2021

JD Leighty, right, leads a Mass Action Against Police Brutality event as Anwar Peace and Debbie Novak listen on Saturday at Riverfront Park in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
JD Leighty, right, leads a Mass Action Against Police Brutality event as Anwar Peace and Debbie Novak listen on Saturday at Riverfront Park in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

A small group formed a crescent around JD Leighty, a close friend of a man killed by Bonner County deputies, as rain fell in Riverfront Park Saturday.

Leighty told the story of his friend Craig Johnson’s final hours Sept. 27, 2017. Johnson had been Leighty’s best man at his wedding and an uncle to Leighty’s children, Leighty said into the mic, partially shielded from rain by an evergreen beside the Numerica Skate Ribbon at Riverfront.

Johnson had been in an argument with his wife and decided to go alone to his cabin. When friends didn’t hear from him for many hours, they called authorities for a welfare check.

Leighty said deputies arrived around midnight without flashing lights at his friend’s secluded cabin. Not knowing who they were, Johnson came outside with a gun and told them to get off his property.

According to a lawsuit filed by Johnson’s wife against Bonner County in 2019, deputies tried to get a warrant to arrest Johnson as a felon in possession of a firearm, but when they learned he was not a felon, they sought a warrant to arrest him for assault of an officer. In the meantime, Johnson had called his wife and the sheriff’s office. His wife believed the problem was “resolving.”

Snipers arrived at the cabin and, when Johnson exited, allegedly with a pistol, they shot him in the back and abdomen, according to the suit.

Leighty, having told the story, said problems of police brutality are not centered on one law enforcement agency. He gave names of people killed by Spokane police, Spokane County sheriff’s deputies, Bonner County deputies and a Spokane Detention Services officer, telling accounts of each person’s last moments before being killed by law enforcement.

The protest followed a Minnesota jury’s verdict that former officer Derek Chauvin committed murder in killing George Floyd in May . Spokane community leaders pointed out that, while it was a momentous day for human rights, local killings by police are still frequent and often don’t lead to charges.

Debbie Novak, whose son David Novak was killed by Spokane police in January 2019, stood beneath an umbrella and spoke to the group.

“I want my son back. My daughter wants her brother back. My mother wants her grandson back,” Novak said. “What do we think can happen? What do we really want? We want change. We want police officers to be accountable.”

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell cleared the officer who shot Novak in August 2019.

Leighty called Haskell an enabler of police brutality, as the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office has cleared all law enforcement involved in shootings for the past several years.

“People say, ‘Debbie, you can’t say what you’re saying because you haven’t walked in these police officers’ shoes,’ ” Novak said.

But Novak said she worked for Spokane police in 1990 as a dispatcher.

Novak asked the crowd to write to lawmakers and keep showing up for families like hers.

“I’ve ran up and down those alleys in the middle of the night, I’ve searched for bombs,” she said. “The police have too much power, and they’re not being held accountable.”

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