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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Spokane officer faces lawsuit alleging racial bias after fatal shooting while working in Seattle

UPDATED: Tue., March 9, 2021

When Iosia Faletogo was killed by a Seattle police officer Dec. 31, 2018, after fleeing from a traffic stop, protesters took to the streets of downtown Seattle.

The Seattle Times reported demonstrators chanted the 36-year-old Samoan man’s last words, “I’m not reaching,” referencing a nearby handgun. Immediately after that utterance, Officer Jared Keller shot Faletogo in the head, killing him. A September 2019 investigation by the Office of Police Accountability found the shooting was justified.

On Dec. 15, a year and three months after that report’s publication, the Spokane Police Department swore Keller in, to the horror of Boots Faletogo, Iosia Faletogo’s sister-in-law and a longtime Spokane resident who now works on the Coeur d’Alene reservation and lives in Rockford, Washington.

Thursday, Iosia Faletogo’s mother, as the executor of his estate, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Keller, the city of Seattle and another officer involved in the traffic stop, Garret Hay.

According to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Western Washington, officers had no legitimate reason to stop Faletogo when they used force against him, so he was legally entitled to flee or defend himself.

According to the 2019 Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation, Keller stopped Faletogo for a suspected traffic violation. When Faletogo appeared nervous and reached for the gear shifter, officers suspected he might have drugs or a weapon on his person, or a warrant out for his arrest. All three suspicions turned out to be true, according to the report.

Boots Faletogo said her brother-in-law had another reason to be nervous.

“I think as minorities, we’re afraid,” Boots Faletogo said. “It’s a trauma response.”

The lawsuit said it is unclear why officers pulled Iosia Faletogo over, but that racial bias was likely a factor. At some point, an unnamed officer called the car “shady,” the lawsuit said.

“In lieu of any other explanation about why the car looked ‘shady,’ it stands to reason that the officers’ attention was captured – either explicitly or implicitly – by the fact that Iosia was a Pacific Islander man riding in a car with a Black woman in a predominantly white neighborhood in North Seattle,” the lawsuit reads.

Police ran the plate and found the registered owner of the car, an older woman who was related to Iosia Faletogo, had a suspended license. Once officers knew he was not the registered owner, the lawsuit alleges they had no reason to believe he committed any crime, in contradiction to the OPA investigation.

After some discussion of IDs, officers called in backup. Iosia Faletogo started running. At that point, officers had probable cause to arrest him for obstruction of justice, the OPA report said. The lawsuit contends that he had the right to run from an illegal stop.

After a short distance, five officers tackled Iosia Faletogo and Faletogo’s gun fell from his pants, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit argues that, with Keller’s gun at Iosia Faletogo’s temple and officers repeatedly yelling that they would shoot him, he was trying to crawl away in an “instinctive but futile attempt to escape.” The OPA investigation said a reasonable officer would think Iosia Faletogo was reaching for the fallen handgun.

Officers yelled for him to stop reaching. All of the involved officers told OPA investigators they did not hear Iosia Faletogo’s last words, “Nope, not reaching.”

Keller’s gun initially misfired, he told investigators, and then he fired again. Medics declared Iosia Faletogo dead at the scene, according to the investigation.

The lawsuit alleges that Keller and Hay call for backup more and act more aggressively during traffic stops involving people of color.

The lawsuit also alleges that “inexplicably,” Seattle police allowed in-car video and audio footage from moments before the stop to be destroyed, so record of the conversations between the officers is lost.

Boots Faletogo points out that Iosia Faletogo wasn’t the first man Keller shot. A year before Iosia Faletogo’s death, Keller was one of seven officers who fired a weapon at a robbery suspect who died from gunshot wounds.

When she learned Keller had been hired in Spokane, she said she was “absolutely disgusted” and started crying.

“For me, it should be embarrassing to Spokane,” said Curtis Hampton, a member of Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR) and the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council’s racial equity committee.

“Perhaps this is an embarrassment that could’ve been avoided if they had taken time to listen to what our communities are trying to say,” Hampton said.

Spokane police argue Keller made the cut after a “rigorous” hiring process.

Last year, 21 applicants working at other law enforcement agencies applied and the department hired nine, police spokesperson Julie Humphreys said.

She said lateral hires are vetted more than new officers because the department can review internal records of disciplinary actions, awards and community service.

Brian Coddington, spokesperson for Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, also pointed to the hiring process, adding that Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl becomes familiar with each new hire.

“It is tragic anytime there is loss of life, whether civilian or law enforcement,” Meidl said in an emailed statement about Keller Friday.

Meidl said the department hired the Seattle officer because his background review showed he was a “highly motivated officer who cares about the safety of his community,” and that he had been “cleared of any wrongdoing” by the OPA.

To Pui-Yan Lam, a sociology professor at Eastern Washington University and a member of SCAR, the new lawsuit demonstrates how premature it was to consider Keller “cleared.”

“Chief Meidl makes it sound like, ‘This is the end of the story, the investigation is done,’ but that was not really the case,” Lam said. “The family was still finding ways to pursue justice.”

Dan Nolte, communications director for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said his office intends to defend the city. The Seattle Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Iosia Faletogo’s father filed a federal lawsuit against the city and Keller in February 2019 but later withdrew the suit, Nolte said.

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