POULSBO, Wash. - The children of a Native American man killed by police in Washington state two years ago are suing, saying his death was unnecessary.
Stonechild Chiefstick, a member of Montana’s Chippewa Cree tribe who had close ties to the Suquamish Tribe in Washington, was shot and killed while attending an early Independence Day celebration in the city of Poulsbo on July 3, 2019.
He had reportedly been menacing people with a screwdriver at the crowded event. When officers moved in to arrest him, a scuffle ensued. Chiefstick scrambled away, and the lead officer, Craig Keller, shot and killed him from about 9 feet away. The encounter lasted about 13 seconds and occurred among people who had laid out blankets to watch a fireworks display.
Kitsap County Prosecutor Chad Enright declined to charge Keller, finding the shooting justified and citing witnesses who said Chiefstick lunged toward the officer with the screwdriver in his hand. Chiefstick, 39, had methamphetamine and alcohol in his system when he died, according to the medical examiner.
But according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on Thursday, at least two other witnesses said Chiefstick had tripped and fallen on a concrete path, dropping the tool, as he retreated from Keller, and thus he was unarmed when Keller shot him. Keller’s body camera fell to the ground several seconds before the shooting; it captured audio but not video of what happened.
The lawsuit alleges excessive force and inadequate training, the Kitsap Sun reported. City risk manager Alexis Foster declined to comment.
"(Keller) and the Poulsbo police have escaped accountability completely for what transpired that night," Seattle attorney Gabriel Galanda, who represents the family, said Thursday. "I am hesitant to use the word justice because that is not something I can provide this family in a court of law. Justice would be bringing their father home, and I can’t give them that."
Keller has said Chiefstick tried to stab him and that he fired "in defense of my life and the lives of citizens around me."
According to the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Chiefstick’s daughter Alana Chiefstick and three minor children, Keller was involved in 20% of the uses of force in the 20-member Poulsbo Police Department, and he failed to make any effort to de-escalate his encounter with Chiefstick, whom other officers had already spoken with earlier in the day.
The department has "a policy, custom, and established practice of condoning and encouraging the type of shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality deployed by Keller," the lawsuit said.
Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman had requested that Gov. Jay Inslee direct Attorney General Bob Ferguson to review the case for criminal charges, following the Kitsap County prosecutor’s decision not to file any.
Stay connected with Q13 News on all platforms: