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Family of suicidal man shot and killed by Spokane police in 2019 sues city

Oct. 11, 2022 Updated Wed., Oct. 12, 2022 at 11:49 a.m.

Officers investigate the scene of a shooting at the 3400 block of East Garnet Avenue on Wednesday, October 23, 2019, in Spokane, Wash. Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)
Officers investigate the scene of a shooting at the 3400 block of East Garnet Avenue on Wednesday, October 23, 2019, in Spokane, Wash. Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

The family of an armed suicidal man who was shot and killed by police in 2019 filed a lawsuit against the city of Spokane in federal court last week alleging negligence and discrimination.

David Shafer, 61, called friends while drunk and experiencing a mental health crisis on Oct. 23, 2019. Those friends called police, who arrived and shot Shafer after he pointed a gun at them, according to a review of the shooting by prosecutors. The gun was later determined to be unloaded.

Shafer’s wife, Colleen Shafer, filed the federal lawsuit last week alleging the city and police department discriminated against Shafer because he was disabled, and that they were negligent and did not use crisis intervention methods.

The Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office called the shooting a justified use of lethal force in January 2020. The Spokane Police Department then released body camera footage of the incident in April of that year.

The city said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation, when asked about the lawsuit by The Spokesman-Review.

Shafer had a traumatic childhood where he was both physically and sexually abused, according to the lawsuit. As an adult, he struggled with depression and substance abuse.

He met Colleen in 1994 and the couple married two years later. They had five children together, who Shafer supported by working as a welder. Later, he injured his back while at work, resulting in several surgeries and him being declared physically disabled, according to the suit.

In October 2019, Shafer had a relapse and began drinking again, according to the lawsuit. He was scheduled to begin inpatient treatment at the end of the month. Two days before his appointment, Shafer had a mental health crisis, the lawsuit says.

He was home alone and began drinking that morning, according to the suit. By midday he was “despondent,” the lawsuit says. He called an elder in his church, David Palmer, for help, telling him he was drunk, depressed and wanted to shoot himself.

This was not the first time Shafer had been suicidal during a mental health crisis, according to the suit.

Palmer decided to go to Shafer’s home along with another church elder, William Putman. On the way to the Shafer home near Esmerelda Golf Course, Putman called 911 and reported Shafer was drunk, suicidal and armed. The Spokane Police Department released a portion of the 911 call audio in 2020.

Putman and Palmer arrived in the neighborhood and spotted Shafer a few blocks from his house as he was walking to buy more beer at a nearby grocery store, according to the suit. Shafer handed over his pistol to his friends before returning home.

Putman told the 911 operator there were more firearms at Shafer’s house and described him as very intoxicated.

Spokane Police Officer Caleb Martin was dispatched to the scene. He arrived and retrieved an AR-15 rifle from his police car. Palmer and Putman approached Martin and gave him the gun they had already taken from Shafer.

Martin then walked up toward Shafer’s home, where he saw Shafer sitting on the front porch, the suit alleges. At this time, Shafer didn’t know police where on scene, the suit says.

The officer then came back to Palmer’s truck, where the two men were talking on the phone with Shafer. Martin could hear both sides of the conversation with the phone on speaker.

That’s when Martin heard Shafer say he was sitting on the front porch waiting for police officers with a .22 pistol. This exchange is captured on Martin’s body camera.

The suit alleges Martin “unreasonably abandoned the open line of communication” and did not attempt to de-escalate the situation, instead moving toward the Shafer home.

Martin didn’t hear Shafter ask Putman and Palmer where they had gone or share that he felt abandoned by his friends, the suit says. The two men told Shafer they were parked at the end of the block, so Shafer got off the porch and started to walk down his driveway, according to the suit.

Martin, who hadn’t heard that portion of the conversation, yelled commands from his position down the street for Shafer to drop the gun, and then shot Shafter twice when he raised the gun rather than dropping it, according to a review of the shooting by the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office.

Martin did not identify himself as a police officer. The lawsuit alleges he also didn’t engage in any de-escalation tactics, and instead escalated the situation quickly without waiting for backup.

The suit points out Martin shot and killed one other person in what was then his three years as a Spokane police officer. Martin was one of five officers who shot and killed Daniel Craven on Spokane’s South Hill in 2018. Prosecutors found no fault with police actions in that case.

Based on the information given to dispatchers that Shafer was suicidal and depressed, Martin should have known Shafer was considered disabled and offered him a “reasonable accommodation for his mental disabilities” by using “standard crisis intervention techniques,” the suit says.

“Although Martin was called to provide positive assistance to a person in crisis, he caused the situation to rapidly deteriorate, and within minutes killed the person he was supposed to help,” the suit reads.

The family asked for money to compensate them for lost wages and other damages, along with attorney fees.

The Shafer family is represented by Braden Pence, a Seattle attorney who also represented the family of Ethan Murray in a lawsuit against Spokane County earlier this year. Murray was shot and killed by a Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy in 2019. The county settled the lawsuit for $1 million.

The city recently settled another police shooting lawsuit with the family of David Novak for more than $4 million. Novak was killed by police in 2019.

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