A report that bears further reflection
Note: We at the Mad River Union were dismayed to read the findings of the National Police Foundation report on the Arcata Police Department’s response to the April 15, 2017 slaying of Humboldt State student David Josiah Lawson.
The initial dismay stemmed from revelations that despite continued assurances from the City of Arcata over the past few years that it was doing everything possible to bring Lawson’s killer to justice, that simply wasn’t the case – as acknowledged in the report by Arcata’s former police chief.
Also surprising is the public’s reaction: seeming disinterest in both their police department’s lapse, and the fact that a killer remains on the loose in the community, knowing that they got away with it. Isn’t that rather concerning?
The report raises issues that might benefit from frank discussion, and provokes a number of questions. Apart from that, it provides an unprecedented window into city government structure and operations.
While the 66-page report is available at cityofarcata.org, we believe it bears print publication so that readers who wish to may assimilate its findings in manageable chunks.
Over the weeks to come, the Union intends to publish the entire National Police Foundation report, leaving out only those parts inapplicable to serialized publication such as the report’s page index. Any deletions wll be marked with [brackets].
We urge everyone to read and ponder this report, and civilly share your perspectives – with each other, your elected leaders and if you desire, your newspapers. – Ed.
Independent Review of the Police Response to the Homicide of David Josiah Lawson
National Police Foundation Assessment Team
Walter Tibbet and Vaughan Edwards February 2020
The National Police Foundation (NPF), based in the Washington, DC area is the oldest nationally known, independent, non-profit, non-partisan, and non-membership driven organization, dedicated to advancing policing through innovation and science. One of the ways to accomplish this goal is by examining sentinel events around the country. The goal of this analysis is to examine this incident and offer recommendations for improved protocols, and the identification of new tactics and ideas which can help prepare law enforcement in their efforts to provide the most professional service possible for our communities.
The National Police Foundation (NPF) assessment team acknowledges the leadership of the City of Arcata and the Arcata Police Department (APD) for requesting, and engaging in, this analysis in an effort to identify opportunities to improve the APD’s capacity to serve their community, and in the process, to provide clarity—based on research—on the response to this incident.
We also appreciate the assistance of first responders from the APD, Arcata Fire District, Humboldt State University Police Department, and dispatchers from the APD, California Highway Patrol, and Arcata Fire District for their professionalism and commitment to continual improvement of the public safety profession.
Finally, the NPF acknowledges the impact that the homicide of Josiah Lawson has had on his family; friends; and, Humboldt State University students, faculty, and staff. We appreciate the support and access Josiah Lawson’s family, the City of Arcata, and others provided to our team as we worked to review this case and develop recommendations for advancing the response and investigation of similar incidents in the future.
Located on the California coast, about 300 miles from San Francisco or Sacramento, the City of Arcata is a rural community of approximately 18,000 residents and home to Humboldt State University (HSU). On April 15, 2017, in the early morning hours at an off-campus house party that had begun the night before, HSU student David “Josiah” Lawson was stabbed during a physical altercation. He was given first aid by friends and by first responders who began to arrive three minutes after the first 9-1-1 call was received. Josiah did not survive his extensive wounds and was later pronounced dead at Mad River Community Hospital. Arcata Police Department (APD) officers arrested a suspect at the scene and the Humboldt County District Attorney’s (HCDA) Office filed homicide charges against him within several days.
On May 5, 2017, at the conclusion of the preliminary hearing held on the charges, Judge Reinholtsen of the Superior Court of Humboldt County ruled there was insufficient evidence presented by the prosecution to support the homicide charges. The suspect was released from custody.
(Superior Court of California County of Humboldt. Honorable Dale A. Reinholsten, Judge. Preliminary Hearing Transcript 4, 938.)
Following the preliminary hearing, the APD continued their investigation. Almost two years later, on February 28, 2019, a criminal grand jury was convened to hear evidence in the case. On March 13, 2019, the HCDA Office announced that after hearing the evidence, the grand jury declined to issue any indictments in the case. As it stands now, the case has been turned back over to APD for further investigation and current APD Chief Brian Ahearn has renewed investigative efforts.
In 2018, the City of Arcata retained the services of the National Police Foundation (NPF) to analyze the APD’s response to the incident and homicide of Josiah Lawson on April 15, 2017, and the subsequent investigation. The NPF assessment team began gathering and reviewing information beginning in July 2018. The purpose of this NPF after-action review is to critically, objectively, and thoroughly examine the response to, and initial investigation of, the homicide of Josiah Lawson. This review provides an overview of the incident response and subsequent investigation immediately following the incident, as well as lessons learned for improving future incident response and investigations.
During this review, the NPF assessment team found that APD officers responded quickly and professionally to a highly chaotic scene—an event that would have been challenging for any agency of any size and sophistication. APD first responders focused their attention on providing lifesaving measures at the highly-charged scene.
However, 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 nature of the incident and the limited APD resources available illustrated the need for a comprehensive, regional, multi-agency response protocol to be in place to ensure the tools and skills necessary to handle a major incident were available to responders. However, such a plan was not in place, leaving the department ill-equipped to handle the scene and investigation on its own.
The keys to success in response to this challenge lies in broad organizational leadership, planning, supervision, and training. Every community expects their police department to have a level of proficiency that provides for their safety through preparedness, training, and resource management.
Enhanced planning for rarely occurring but significantly traumatic incidents involving multiple victims and witnesses has to be part of every department’s operational plan, regardless of their size.
A coordinated response coupled with a regionally coordinated chain of command would have greatly increased the probability of a more successful outcome of the investigation.
The reasons for this, as explained in the report, began with issues that face many small law enforcement organizations across the nation, including lack of resources to fully staff and train a police force to effectively respond to and investigate major crimes.
Major themes of the report include:
• APD first responders to the homicide scene demonstrated professionalism in providing lifesaving efforts while attempting to de-escalate a challenging and chaotic situation.
• The APD’s planning and preparation of supervisory and specialized personnel was insufficient to respond to, and investigate, an incident of this magnitude. Key APD personnel were not provided sufficient training and access to equipment to thoroughly and effectively manage the crime scene and investigation.
• Appropriate organizational leadership, and supervision and coordination between agencies —crucial for the efficient allocation of resources during investigations and to ensure thorough case management and quality assurance throughout the case review process — were not provided in this case.
• While the APD does focus resources on relationship-building with the community, more can be done. Relationship-building efforts and communication between the police and all segments of the community are the foundation of trust and valuable to counter misinformation and gather accurate information prior to and following a critical incident.
This analysis of the response and investigation around the April 15, 2017 homicide of Josiah Lawson is intended to provide objective feedback to the APD and the City of Arcata — not in judgement, but in careful study. The investigation of this complicated case is ongoing and has been over the last two years. This review, including the resulting report and lessons learned, is not intended to influence the outcome of any criminal or civil litigation, but to provide a learning opportunity for the APD and the City of Arcata.
End of first installment.