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A Fresh Look 

The family of a man killed by police makes the first request for an independent review

click to enlarge Justin Cairns in 2010. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Justin Cairns in 2010.

Splintered bullet holes still riddle the front of the Nine Mile Falls house where Lorinda Fernandez's son died last year in a volley of police gunfire. Justin Cairns, a troubled 21-year-old with a love of family and an admitted meth addiction, had fled to the rural home in the early darkness of May 16, 2013, when Spokane Police officers crept up, tactical rifles at the ready.

"He was a very kindhearted kid and always put other people before himself," Fernandez says. "Very involved with outdoor things. He loved to snowboard and tube and motorcycle ride, a very fun person to be around."

Investigators had sought Cairns in connection with a fatal shooting from earlier in the morning, the killing of 33-year-old Cyrus Jones. Witnesses reported seeing Cairns' truck strike Jones and speed away into the night. Officers traced the vehicle registration to a home 14 miles outside the city.

SPD officers first spotted Cairns in the backyard of his grandparents' house on West Charles Road shortly before 2 am. Police reports say he appeared confused and ran around the front of the house, where three officers confronted him with tactical rifles and ordered him to the ground.

Within moments, officers opened fire. Records show at least five .223 rounds struck Cairns while others drilled into the home, shattering glass and perforating bedroom walls. Cairns, unarmed save a cellphone, died at the scene while his younger brother watched from a nearby window.

In the nearly 13 months since the shooting, the Spokane County Prosecutor's Office has cleared officers of criminal wrongdoing, but the family still struggles with painful questions. Fernandez has now taken those concerns to the Office of the Police Ombudsman, filing the first request for an independent investigation under the newly established police oversight authority of Proposition 1.

"Our hopes with this is to get answers of what happened," she says, "and ... to hopefully prevent things like this from happening in the future."

Following the long, contentious effort to implement Prop. 1, the Cairns case will serve as the first test of the new ombudsman investigative process. The family does not seek to impose legal liability or officer discipline, but asks for an independent assessment of the event and any policy recommendations for improving SPD guidelines on the use of deadly force.

"We are especially concerned," the request states, "that yet another unarmed person with mental health/substance abuse issues that was known to the police was shot and killed."

With the help of attorney Breean Beggs, the Cairns family has outlined specific questions for the ombudsman's investigation, asking for "more probable than not" conclusions. They ask for a clarification regarding whether officers had legal authority to enter the property, and if Cairns likely made any threatening gestures toward officers.

Maybe the biggest question, Beggs notes, is whether officers can use deadly force when a suspect appears to be reaching for something, but he or she has not yet displayed any weapon.

"It's important to hear from an independent observer," Beggs says. "What are the policies and procedures that would prevent a death in the future?"

Spokane Police Ombudsman Tim Burns says he agrees the case poses many important questions. He confirms he has accepted the request, and plans to move forward on preliminary legal consultations while he waits for the police department to finalize its administrative review of the incident.

"The requestors will have answers to questions that clearly aren't traditionally addressed by a criminal review or an administrative review," Burns says. "To me, this is a very important component of what the [ombudsman's] office exists for, frankly."

A second request has since been filed by the family of 40-year-old Danny Jones, who was fatally shot by Spokane Police outside the Salvation Army shelter last August. His family's attorney, Mark Harris, explains that the request raises similar questions regarding the proper use of force and also asks for potential policy recommendations.

Burns says he hopes to launch formal investigations by August. Between now and then, he plans to coordinate the staffing and funding necessary to conduct the investigations. He says he expects strong support from city officials, but acknowledges his office will be working through "uncharted territory."

"[But] I don't think we could have had two better requests," Burns notes. "Not only are they fair, but they're reasonable. ... We have an obligation and we will call them the way we see them based on the investigation."

Both Burns and Beggs expressed frustrations with the long process to review high-profile police shootings. More than a year later, families and officers often still face questions and inquiries into what happened. It holds up lives, and for the ombudsman, it holds up how quickly he may launch new independent investigations.

The call for independent police oversight goes back years, more recently rooted in the death of Otto Zehm in 2006. Advocates have fought hard for this new investigative process, and Beggs says he looks forward to seeing the results, even if he does not always agree with the final findings.

"The day [Burns] actually starts the investigation," Beggs says, "that will be a huge milestone — that will be a milestone seven years in the making."

While the family has replaced shattered windows, the bullet holes have lingered as a painful daily reminder. Cairns' mother says the family marked one year since his death with a picnic by his graveside. Fernandez still attends counseling as she tries to cope with her son's absence.

"What I've noticed since he's been gone is he was the glue at a lot of family functions," she says. "He just brought people together." ♦

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