News

Outstanding: A Report Expected to Shed Light on David Josiah Lawson's Killing Remains MIA

by

comment

In the aftermath of the April 15, 2017 stabbing death of David Josiah Lawson, as criticism swirled about the city of Arcata's emergency and police responses and protests mounted, officials pledged the incident would be reviewed by an outside organization. Nearly two and a half years later, the city has yet to see the $30,000 review it commissioned from the National Police Foundation, leaving the community still searching for answers.

Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn told the Journal he received an update from the foundation a few weeks ago informing him that the nonprofit is still "formatting" the review. He said the organization gave no estimate as to when it will be released to the city.

Lawson, a 19-year-old sophomore at Humboldt State University, was fatally stabbed in the early morning hours after multiple fights broke out at an off-campus party. A suspect, then 23-year-old Kyle Zoellner, of McKinleyville, was arrested at the scene and charged with Lawson's murder but a Humboldt County Superior Court judge dismissed the case a few weeks later, citing insufficient evidence to hold him to stand trial. Almost two years later, a criminal grand jury convened to review evidence against Zoellner in March declined to indict anyone in Lawson's murder, putting the case back in APD's hands for further investigation.

Charmaine Lawson, meanwhile, is still struggling to find answers as to what went wrong the night her son died and doesn't understand why the NPF report hasn't been released.

"I'm expecting the report to hold APD liable," she told the Journal. "A lot of things went wrong that night."

Charmaine Lawson has alleged in a lawsuit pending against the city that police officers arriving on scene didn't immediately render first aid to her son, that defibrillators at the scene didn't work and that officers failed to detain witnesses who may have had information about the killing.

"Someone has to be held accountable, not just (Josiah's) killer but also APD," she said.

The city — in public statements and the sworn testimony of responding officers — has repeatedly said that officers did immediately attempt life-saving efforts and did the best they could to control a chaotic scene that morning.

The Journal compiled a timeline ("What Now?," May 4, 2017) through dozens of interviews with partygoers, friends of Lawson and Zoellner, first responders and neighbors of the home where Lawson was stabbed. It detailed the emergency response that morning, including the first police, fire and medical personnel on scene. According to reports, officers encountered more than 100 partygoers outside the home on Spear Avenue, with people leaving the scene amid screaming and yelling. From all accounts, the scene was chaotic and some have been sharply critical of the emergency response, from APD's attempts to control the crowd as Lawson lay bleeding out and EMT's treatment of Lawson to officers' ability to control and process the crime scene.

What happened in the pre-dawn hours of April 15, 2017, became the city's most controversial emergency response. Many in the community have continued to demand answers at vigils, protests and city council meetings. In the immediate aftermath of Lawson's death, the city pledged to bring in a third party to review exactly what happened.

Last September, almost a year and a half after Lawson's death, the city of Arcata said it had hired the National Police Foundation (NPF) in a $30,000 contract to investigate and review the city's response. In a Sept. 10 memo to then-Mayor Sofia Pereira and the Arcata City Council, Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer stated the nonprofit will "review the police department's response to make recommendations for improving major criminal events, including response to, and investigation of, catastrophic, multiple-victim and/or multiple-witness incidents in the future. ... I would anticipate a report to you by the end of the year." At a March 20 city council meeting, members of the public asked about the NPF report, which was expected to be released in December of 2018.

"Six months ago, we were told that an organization called Police Foundation had been retained to look into how the Arcata Police Department dealt with this homicide in April of 2017. I've heard nothing since," Richard Kossow said at the meeting. "It seems to me that it's time that we start to get some kind of understanding of what that investigation has shown or some acknowledgment from you that the investigation has gone on."

Diemer then addressed the crowd of speakers and community members, saying the organization was done with its investigation and was writing up a report, which she said was scheduled to be released by the end of May or early June. Almost five months after that meeting, the report hasn't yet arrived, according to Diemer and Ahearn, and it's not entirely clear why.

Charmaine Lawson has been waiting for the report since last December, when a couple of NPF investigators flew to Riverside County to interview her about her interactions with city and county officials. Charmaine Lawson said that when she asked the investigators how long it would take for the report to be released, they told her two to three months, which would have been by March of this year.

According to the foundation's website, it works with police agencies to not only improve their responses and preparations to major incidents but to also thoroughly review "practices, protocols and systems surrounding law enforcement/public safety and the community." NPF offers agencies what are known as "critical incident" or "after action" reviews — NPF Director of Strategic Studies Frank Straub said the terms are interchangeable — that essentially serve as incident autopsies, telling officials what happened, what went wrong and what could be improved in the future.

The foundation has conducted after action reviews of high-profile criminal cases like the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting and the December 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack.

Straub said NPF begins its reviews by investigating incidents from the very beginning, consulting with their clients to determine the scope of their business. Investigators start "pre-incident," which for police agencies means looking at "pertinent policies, procedures and, sometimes, the agency's history," he said.

They then look at the incident itself, reviewing all materials available, including dispatch and radio calls, traffic and body cameras and surveillance videos, which then leads to investigators interviewing witnesses, survivors and victims about the incident and their recovery, Straub said.

Next, investigators review the aftermath and examine what procedural events took place, if any, and determine the "best practices and lessons learned" moving forward. Finally, they review the report with their clients to figure out the base model — a written report or multimedia presentation. Report formats depend on the budget of the review, Straub said.

The vast majority of NPF investigators are retired law enforcement officers and, if cases require it, they bring in subject matter specialists, like mental health experts and psychologists. Critical incident reviews for small agencies like APD typically take six to nine months but cases that have yet to be prosecuted — like Lawson's — can take longer.

"The smaller the event, the faster [the reviews] are done," Straub said. "If the agency is still in the prosecution stage of their investigation, it might slow down."

In an interview with the Journal in March, Diemer said two investigators came to Arcata to begin their review in mid-2018. The investigators were given full access to case materials and spent a week learning everything about the Lawson case, she said, adding that they interviewed police and city officials over the span of more than a month. Diemer stated in the Sept. 10, 2018 memo, that the investigators had already finished their in-town review of case materials and interviews.

NPF declined to discuss any details of its investigation in Arcata when asked by the Journal and has not responded to subsequent questions about why the report remains outstanding.

Straub said NPF's reports are commonly made public but noted that "whoever contracts the report owns it," adding that the NPF often advises agencies to make them public, especially in the age of Freedom of Information Act requests. In open cases like Lawson's, NPF typically works with prosecutors to look for language or confidential information that might endanger the prosecution prior to publicly releasing a report. But whether a case has been fully prosecuted only impacts when — or to what extent — a report is made public, not when it is provided to the contracting agency.

Straub said NPF works under the premise that its reports will become public.

"We believe every report contributes to a body of knowledge," he said. "We try to work in a way to allow information to go out to the community but, at the same time, not jeopardize the investigation."

Diemer has repeatedly insisted that the city will do its best to make the report public.

"We will make the report public as soon as we hit a point where it's safe and doesn't corrupt the investigation," she said, adding that if the report includes information that could harm the investigation, the city could hold the report or redact portions of it until Lawson's case is fully prosecuted. "Those are all possibilities. We won't know until we see the report."

Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or iridian@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.

Add a comment