Five months after Clark County police killed him, the family of Kevin Peterson Jr. announced Thursday they plan to sue.
Peterson died during an attempted drug sting on Oct. 29. A regional drug task force attempted to bust him for selling about 50 Xanax pills. He fled on foot as officers closed in, but two detectives and a deputy confronted him in a nearby bank parking lot. They fired a total of 34 bullets.
Key details about the case have been contentious. Peterson was armed, carrying a .40 caliber handgun, but it’s unclear if he ever aimed at law enforcement. And Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins initially reported to media that Peterson had fired the gun — but no evidence ever proved that to be true.
Tacoma-based attorney Mark Lindquist, who represents Peterson’s family, said Thursday they plan to file a tort claim — a precursor to a lawsuit. He spoke to the media during a press conference at an office building less than a mile away from the scene of Peterson’s death.
Lindquist did not say who would be named in the lawsuit or how much the family would seek in damages.
“Everybody who knew Kevin loved Kevin. Kevin, he got a friend every where he went,” Peterson’s mother, Tammi Bell, said Thursday. “We’re still looking at the door wondering when he’s coming through. We’re sad.”
Peterson’s shooting by police came near the end of a summer simmering over racial injustices, including the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis. Ben Crump, who represented Floyd’s family, also represents Peterson’s.
On March 12, the city of Minneapolis agreed to pay $27 million to Floyd’s family.
Peterson’s death spurred protests almost immediately. A portrait of him smiling hit social media within hours, leading dozens to protest outside the scene just north of Vancouver, in the unincorporated community of Hazel Dell.
He was the fourth person of color shot by police in Clark County since 2019. Four months after his death, a Clark County Sheriff’s deputy shot another Black man, Jenoah Donald, during a traffic stop. Donald, 30, died after a week on life support.
In a statement Thursday, Atkins called Peterson’s death a tragedy. He stated that the investigation into Peterson’s death was handled by an outside agency and the shooting is under review by elected prosecutors in Pierce County, Washington.
“We are waiting a decision from the Pierce County prosecutors and await the receipt of the tort claim to evaluate it in more detail,” Atkins said.
‘We just want justice’
Peterson’s parents, Kevin Peterson Sr. and Tammi Bell, and his girlfriend Olivia Selto attended Thursday’s press conference, flanked by family and friends. The family has mostly been silent since the shooting. They fielded questions for about 15 minutes, often saying they intend the lawsuit to bring justice.
“You shot a man in the back while he was running away,” the elder Peterson said of the incident. “They weren’t in immediate danger.”
In the early evening of Oct. 29, the regional drug task force arranged the sting to occur at a Quality Inn in Hazel Dell. They used Snapchat to communicate with the 21-year-old and did not know his name — only his Snapchat handle “$pla$h” — when they told him to meet to sell them the pills.
Investigative records show the officers worried about captions Peterson wrote on his Snapchat messages saying “Crackers catch me n act then ima feed the law,” with emojis of a police officer, a bang and a water pistol. The captions are lyrics to a rap song.
“Sergeant pointed out that the emojis were an officer, um, a fire and a pistol. So it looked like the gun was pointed towards the officer in the emoji,” Clark County Det. Rodrigo Osario told investigators. “We didn’t see it but it was just a warning to say ‘Hey, this is what he’s posting so, you know, be careful.’”
The encounter lasted about four-and-a-half minutes, according to investigative records and dispatch audio.
Peterson, driving a Mercedez-Benz, pulled into the lot around 5:51 p.m. Two detectives soon pulled in around his car and parked at the rear and the hood of his car. Peterson then fled on foot, running around the perimeter of the hotel. He carried a handgun and also began sending messages on his phone. He eventually ran to a shuttered bank to the south.
There, he encountered detectives Robert Anderson and Jeremy Brown. A third man, Deputy Jon Feller, had also arrived as back up. Peterson had called Selto on FaceTime. Brown later told investigators it appeared Peterson was “livestreaming” the encounter.
Peterson walked south to the end of the parking lot, video footage shows, while the three deputies can be seen arrayed around him. Peterson eventually turned and ran back toward the north. Footage then shows him falling down.
Anderson later told investigators he fired because he felt Peterson had opportunities to surrender or drop the gun. He said when Peterson fled north that he “drew the line in the sand,” and worried Peterson would fire at other deputies or detectives on their way to the encounter.
“I said, ‘I’ve given suspect enough commands. If he takes another step, I’m gonna shoot him,’” Anderson told investigators. Witnesses reported hearing a volley of shots. Security footage shows Peterson running away and then falling.
Footage shows Peterson sitting up from the ground after the first volley of shots and extending an arm. Officers say he aimed a gun. His family and attorney say the object could be a cellphone. According to investigators, the three deputies fired a combined 34 shots, striking him four times.
Less than 24 hours later, Atkins, the sheriff, held a press conference saying Peterson appeared to have fired two rounds. Investigators found no evidence. Peterson Sr. called the sheriff’s statements “irritating.”
“For him to come out and say ... that my son fired two rounds, me and my wife initially said ‘Prove it,’” Peterson Sr. said. “You have to show us some shell casings, show us some gunpowder on his hand -- give us some type of evidence before you put out this false narrative saying that our son shot at law enforcement.”
‘Darvin Zimmerman doesn’t know me’
Peterson’s death has remained a prominent controversy in the region. His family said his death has left a constant void in their daily lives.
Peterson Sr. said he and his son bought a high chair for Peterson Jr.’s infant daughter together shortly before his death. Selto, the mother to Peterson’s daughter, said a favorite activity for the two was to share a seafood boil.
“We’re used to Kev walking through the door with his daughter, bring her over to come visit, putting her in my arms, just hanging out with us,” he said. “It’s real hard because when you’re used to something for 21 years and now he’s gone -- it’s tough. But it’s just a day-to-day process.”
Besides a potential lawsuit, Peterson’s death has spurred a larger reckoning for police in the region. On Monday, Vancouver’s top staff outlined plans for body-cameras to be deployed by spring 2022.
His death has also shone a light on racism in the courts. On March 9, Clark County District Court Judge Darvin Zimmerman said on a hot microphone that Peterson was a “Black guy they were trying to make an angel out of.” The judge said Peterson Sr. “woke up with dollar signs in his eyes.” The comments drew wide rebuke and Zimmerman has taken an indefinite leave.
“Darvin Zimmerman doesn’t know me,” Peterson Sr. said. He declined to say if he wanted to see Zimmerman retire or resign. “The comments he made about me and my son doesn’t reflect who we are as men. Kevin is an outstanding young man, well-loved by his family members and friends, those who knew him. I’ll leave it at that.”
Both Selto and Peterson Sr. expressed frustration with the investigations, saying they often felt out-of-the-loop. They said the initial sting and confusion over rap lyrics showed detectives “didn’t do their research.”
“Kevin did not have a criminal record. He doesn’t have any record of fighting with police, shooting at the police, none of that,” Peterson Sr. said. “If they had done their research they wouldn’t have approached the situation like they did.”
When asked about what he thinks about most often regarding the shooting, Peterson Sr. said he wishes his son had given himself up. He said he wishes police had used Tasers.
“It would have been a different outcome,” he said. “Who knows?”