Footage of officer-involved shooting won't be released until investigation is complete
The Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers' formal request for video footage from officers who fatally shot a Hmong American man last month in the Mt. Shasta Vista subdivision will be delayed until an investigation is complete.
Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue responded to the July 16 California Public Records Act request last Monday, citing an exemption in the California Penal Code that allows agencies to delay the disclosure of records while they determine whether the use of force violated a law or agency policy.
The delay is limited to 180 days after the shooting or 30 days after the close of any investigation related to the use of force, whichever is later.
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The newspaper has requested footage from body-worn or dashboard cameras during the course of interaction with 35-year-old Soobleej Kaub Hawj of Kansas City, Kansas, who died in the June 28 confrontation. LaRue said Hawj waved a gun at officers and "possibly fired shots" at them while trying to re-enter the Mt. Shasta Vista subdivision, which was under a mandatory evacuation order as the Lava Fire raged north, spurred by hot, high winds.
Siskiyou County Sheriff's deputies, an Etna Police Department officer and an officer with California Department of Fish and Wildlife were all involved in the shooting. They've all been placed on paid administrative leave until the investigation is complete, LaRue said.
In a statement released online, Etna Police Department said it does not have a body-worn camera system "as it is not financially feasible at this time."
"Obtaining such a system is a goal and priority of the Etna Police Department once funding can be secured," according to the statement, which added that the EPD is conducting its own internal affairs investigation, separate from the criminal investigation, which is headed by the Siskiyou County District Attorney Kirk Andrus's office.
Andrus said there is no typical timeframe for these kinds of investigations, which can take anywhere from weeks to more than a year.
Andrus said he won't release video footage until the investigation is complete and he reviews all of the evidence to decide whether or not the officers violated a criminal law. He then makes his findings public by giving a detailed report of what happened and why he decided as he did.
"I do this in each officer-involved shooting. There is no rule saying that I must issue such a report but that is my practice because the public, the decedent’s loved ones, and the officers involved are entitled to complete transparency as to the findings of the investigation," he said.
One of the reasons he doesn't release video before the investigation is complete, Andrus elaborated, is an ethical guideline that prohibits prosecutors from releasing information to the public that is likely to impact a potential juror in a case.
"For example to cause them to form an opinion on guilt based upon evidence they see outside of a courtroom. There is not much that is going to do that with greater effect than watching video of a shooting incident," he said. "Jurors would then come to court with an already-formed opinion."
"In my view ... it is unethical for me to release such video until I know that there will be no jury trial either because it is concluded or because I have decided not to file charges in a case," Andrus added. "It is premature to make such a decision until the investigation is complete."
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Demand for a federal investigation
The shooting prompted Hmong American activists to demand a federal investigation into Hawj's death, although Andrus said his office wouldn't request assistance from the California Department of Justice or the Federal Bureau of Investigation "as long as we have the investigative capability and capacity to conduct the investigation."
"And we do," he said. "For people to suggest that there is corruption or a cover-up is to make a misinformed and radically dishonest statement to further an agenda."
But activists have said they don't trust Siskiyou County law enforcement. After a three-week hunger strike staged on the steps of the county courthouse in Yreka, activist Zurg Xiong was able to speak with Michael Redding, a representative from the California Attorney General's office and Catherina Nou, the director of the newly formed Office of Community Awareness, Response and Engagement, which is an office within the state's DOJ.
In an email, Xiong’s attorney, Nancy Ly, said the state Attorney General’s office did not make any promises to investigate the event, but only relayed that they were aware of the situation.
Lauren Horwood, public information officer for the California DOJ, said she can neither confirm nor deny whether the office is investigating Hawj's death. Generally, she said, state and local agencies complete their own officer-involved shooting investigations and the DOJ examines the results.
"The federal authorities could always come in and investigate, as they have concurrent jurisdiction," Andrus said. "However, I can’t image why they would. We certainly are not going to ask them to do so. There is literally no reason for such an action. There is no federal nexus or exclusively federal crime involved here."
Other regional agencies involved
The DA's office is being assisted by the Mount Shasta Police Department and the Redding area High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas task force, known as HIDTA.
HIDTA is made up of officers from local agencies in Siskiyou and Shasta counties.
"They help with lots of things and one of their investigators (who used to work for the Siskiyou County Sheriff long ago) is helping," Andrus said.
The Weed and Yreka police departments may also play a role as the investigation moves forward, Andrus said, adding that "a great deal of progress" has been made in this particular case.
"Numerous witnesses, but not all of them, have been interviewed and a great deal of evidence collected," Andrus said.
Andrus said his investigators were called quickly to the scene at the time of the shooting and he has overseen the entire investigation.
"It has been conducted with diligence, integrity and energy and will result in the truth being manifestly revealed," he said. "Our investigators are people of integrity, determination and skill who look to uncover the truth regardless of where the evidence leads them. ... Every Siskiyou County citizen may justifiably trust that our investigations are thorough and our decisions are fair, without regard to any factors related to the decedent other than the facts directly surrounding the incident."
Skye Kinkade is the editor of the Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers and the Siskiyou Daily News. She is a fourth generation, lifelong Siskiyou County resident.