Stonechild Chiefstick was a big man with a kid’s smile and a gift for growing things, his family says. He loved to fish, was proud of his Native American heritage and was a righteous fan of the Seattle Seahawks.
“He’s buried in his Seahawks jersey,” said Trishandra Pickup, Chiefstick’s former partner, longtime friend and mother of three of his six children.
Chiefstick, 39, was shot and killed by a Poulsbo police officer on July 3, 2019, in front of dozens of witnesses at the city’s annual Independence Day fireworks display. On Thursday, two days shy of the second anniversary of the shooting, his family filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit alleging negligence, racist policing and excessive force against the department and officers involved.
According to the lawsuit, partial video and audio of the incident and witness statements, Chiefstick was confronted by three officers and shot by Officer Craig Keller within 12 seconds of the officers’ approach. They were responding to a report that Chiefstick had threatened someone with a screwdriver, according to the lawsuit and witness statements.
Kitsap County Prosecutor Chad Enright declined to file criminal charges in the case, concluding that the officer was justified in his use of deadly force and citing a number of witnesses who said Chiefstick lunged at the officers with the tool. An autopsy showed that Chiefstick was under the influence of alcohol and methamphetamine.
Then-Poulsbo police Chief Dan Schoonmaker told The Kitsap Sun that the decision to use deadly force is one of the most difficult decisions an officer can make, and acknowledged the pain felt by the officers, witnesses and Chiefstick’s family.
“The ramifications of that decision, whether justified, as in this case, or not, are lasting forever,” Schoonmaker said. “It’s still a tough situation and will continue to be a tough situation.”
Poulsbo police Chief Ronald Harding said Thursday that he had not been served with notification of the lawsuit and therefore couldn’t comment on it.
While declining to file criminal charges, Enright acknowledged that the public is rightly skeptical of a process that has his prosecutors reviewing the actions of officers with whom they routinely work. Enright has supported the formation of a separate state agency to investigate police shootings. The Washington Legislature formed that agency this past session in the wake of outrage over the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and sweeping — if flawed — police accountability reforms enacted as a result of the passage of Initiative 940 in this state.
Leslie Cushman, a civil-rights lawyer and the citizen sponsor of I-940 — which passed in 2018 and removed a barrier to charging police officers with murder in Washington — has been working with Chiefstick’s family in hopes of having the newly formed independent agency review his shooting. That won’t be able to happen until 2023, according to the statute.
In addition to changing the state’s previously unattainable standard of proof necessary to charge an officer with homicide, I-940 changed police training requirements to stress de-escalation and revamped how policing shootings are investigated.
The lawsuit, filed by Seattle attorney Gabriel Galanda, alleges that the Poulsbo Police Department has been lax in its de-escalation training and that Keller, in particular, was prone to unnecessary uses of force. The lawsuit says Keller was responsible for 20% of the 20-person department’s reportable uses of force. According to the PPD’s annual report, the department reported 23 incidents of reportable force in 2018, including the Chiefstick shooting.
The lawsuit alleges that Keller did not become a police officer until he was in his 40s, “and was thus inexperienced and undertrained at the time of the relevant events.” News reports say Keller was hired by Poulsbo in 2015.
The department has an “established practice of condoning and encouraging the type of shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality deployed by Keller,” the lawsuit alleges, as well as “a policy, custom and established practice of racial discrimination and/or bias as a result of inadequate training.” The lawsuit alleges this “amplified Keller’s perception of threat when there was none — or at very least, none sufficient to justify the use of deadly force.”
Chiefstick’s death has stoked tensions between police and two local tribes, the Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Kallum, which have condemned the shooting even though Chiefstick was not a member of either tribe. Pickup, his friend and former companion, said Chiefstick descended from the Rocky Boy Chippewa-Cree tribe in Montana and the Cowichan Tribes in British Columbia.
Tribal members and others participated in a march protesting Chiefstick’s death last year and the Suquamish Tribal Council issued a statement condemning the killing after Enright’s decision not to charge.
“That local police were unable to manage an uncomfortable situation involving a person of color without violence has become all too common,” the council said. “We believe that this was a preventable homicide. This father … a valued member of our community, did not have to die.”
The lawsuits names as plaintiffs Alana Chiefstick, Stonechild Chiefstick’s daughter, and three of his minor children, identified only by initials. They are suing the city, Keller, former chief Schoonmaker and Troy Grossman, the department’s former deputy chief.
According to the lawsuit, police and news reports, several officers had approached Chiefstick earlier that evening at the crowded Muriel Iverson Williams Waterfront Park, responding to reports of a belligerent man. The lawsuit said the officers at that point recognized that Chiefstick posed no threat and left. One of the officers reportedly gave him a fist-bump and told him to enjoy the fireworks.
Later, Keller and two other officers responded to a report that Chiefstick had threatened someone with a screwdriver. Keller was wearing a body camera and the video shows him walking up and grabbing Chiefstick’s arm. The man immediately pulls away, and in an ensuing scuffle the camera falls off. A microphone, however, picked up a muffled verbal exchange in which officers give conflicting orders to “back the [expletive] up!”, “Screwdriver!” and “Get on the [expletive] ground!”
One witness reported Chiefstick stumbled and dropped the screwdriver before Keller fired twice, striking Chiefstick in the face and torso. He died handcuffed at the scene, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit says police could have asked Chiefstick to leave the event earlier in the evening if he had been a problem. It also argues that two of the officers had Tasers and could have used them rather than deadly force, but didn’t.
The shooting is also the subject of a podcast by freelance journalist Dominic Campese, who questioned the police narrative of the shooting and the independence of the investigation that cleared the officer.
Campese’s podcast, “The Killing of Stonechild Chiefstick,” notes that investigators reversed the roles of Keller and Chiefstick in the report, referring to the officer as the “victim” in the incident and spending several days looking into Chiefstick’s criminal history.
While Keller told investigators he did not know Chiefstick, the investigation showed that the officer had previously run Chiefstick’s name in the department’s computer.
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