Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The long-awaited report by the National Police Foundation (NPF) titled, Independent Review of the Police Response to the Homicide of David Josiah Lawson was released last week.
The 66-page document deconstructs and analyzes in fine detail the Arcata Police Department’s initial response to the April 15, 2017 stabbing of Humboldt State student David Josiah Lawson, as well as the aftermath and overall circumstances under which APD operated.
Lawson died at Mad River Community Hospital and the homicide remains unsolved, though the investigation continues. The independent, non-profit, Washington, D.C.-basedNPF tapped by the city in 2018 to analyze APD’s handling of the homicide.
The NPF report finds that APD officers “responded quickly and professionally to a highly chaotic scene,” but were ill-prepared and overwhelmed for what followed.
States the executive summary, “Arcata had not provided the appropriate level of organizational leadership, planning, and training to respond to, and investigate, this type of a complicated and chaotic homicide scene. Many of the basic tenets of crime scene security and management were not followed in this case.”
The report finds a lack of APD preparedness for a major incident, with insufficient training, equipment, leadership, supervision and coordination with other agencies.
The report tracks in unsparing detail the incident’s evolution, starting with the chaotic and highly charged crime scene. L¡awson had been stabbed multiple times ™following an argument over a cell phone. Responding officers attempted lifesaving efforts at a “highly chaotic and emotionally charged scene.”
Arriving firefighters had to overcome interference by agitated partygoers in providing medical aid and transport to the hospital, where Lawson passed away.
From the start, though, the crime scene was poorly managed, with potential evidence destroyed and possible witnesses not interviewed. States the report, “... the supervision, crime scene management and processing, reporting and follow-up investigations, and oversight were all severely lacking...”
“No concerted effort appeared to be made to utilize experienced personnel to conduct organized, controlled, and thorough interviews,” the report states. An interview with suspect Kyle Zoellner was described as cursory, “curt” and a missed opportunity.
Root causes of the APD letdown are described as lack of training, leadership, organizational preparation, with officers inexperienced in homicide investigations left to handle the case.
Former APD Chief Tom Chapman, who later resigned, is described as inadequately involved in the investigation, by his own admission. “I should have been more in the weeds,” Chapman is quoted as saying.
The report makes numerous wide-ranging recommendations for improving APD’s ability to respond to major incidents and to address community concern about inadequate response due to racial bias.
“The NPF review and analysis took a considerable amount of time, and the recommendations contained in the report will draw new attention to this unresolved case and assist the Police Department with implementing changes that will continue to serve our community well into the future,” said Mayor Michael Winkler.