Attorney for victim's family in fatal Spokane Police shooting slams department after release of body camera footage

click to enlarge Attorney for victim's family in fatal Spokane Police shooting slams department after release of body camera footage
Courtesy of Spokane Police Department
A screen grab from Spokane Police Officer Brandon Rankin's body camera footage depicting the fatal shooting of David M. Novak.
The Spokane Police Department released excerpts of body camera footage from the fatal police shooting of an unarmed 35-year-old man, David M. Novak, earlier this year, on Friday. But an attorney for Novak’s family, who plan to sue the Spokane Police Department over the shooting, characterized some of the footage as "disturbing."

"There's a lot of stuff that they're not telling you guys," Debbie Novak, David's mother, told reporters after the press conference. "We're obviously going to court."

On Jan. 7, Spokane Police officers responded to calls of a white male firing a gun at neighbors on West Montgomery Avenue near North Wall Street. Shortly after arriving on scene, one of the responding officers, Brandon Rankin, fatally shot the man, Novak, allegedly thinking that he was reaching for a semi-automatic pistol that he had previously fired or was grabbing a shotgun, according to a statement he provided to investigators.

However, no firearms were recovered from the scene, only a baseball bat, and it was later determined that the "shots" that neighbors and officers reported were the sounds of Novak striking the side of his own truck in his driveway with a baseball bat.

Last month, Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell declined to file criminal charges against Rankin, arguing that state law allows officers to make "reasonable" mistakes, and that, under the information that Rankin had at the time, Novak created an "immediate and lethal threat to officers and, potentially, to others."

At the Sept. 27 press conference, senior Spokane Police Department officials played portions of the body camera footage from several of the officers who responded to the incident — including Rankin — as well as two 911 calls from the incident. They also discussed the evidence they presented, stressing that an Internal Affairs investigation into whether any department policies were violated during the incident is ongoing.

"We are still in the midst of the internal investigation," Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl told reporters. "There will be additional body camera footage."

He added that the department will spend "weeks and months analyzing" the incident and related evidence.

Novak, who was drunk, allegedly approached a group of black males standing outside a house at 620 W. Montgomery Ave. — the home is across the street from Novak's — and used racial slurs, before heading back towards his home and threatened to kill the neighbors, according to Joyln Maze, a witness and resident at the house. Novak came outside with an object that Maze thought was a gun and gunshots reportedly rang out, prompting Maze to reenter his home and crouch down in his kitchen with his personal rifle.

The first 911 call came in at 10:24 pm.

"He's, like, down the street, he's shooting, you can hear the gunshots, he's shooting at us right now," one of the callers from 620 Montgomery Ave., Kawanda Johnson, told a 911 dispatcher, per a recording played for reporters at the press conference. "He came up, started talking to us, called us n——-s."

The first officer who responded, Trevor Walker, arrived on scene at 10:27 pm and reported a gunshot that sounded like a shotgun, relaying the information to the other responding officers by radio, according to statements given to investigators. In the footage from Rankin's body camera (embedded below) a dispatcher can be heard saying over the radio that Walker "just heard a gunshot."

In the footage from Rankin's body camera, he is shown approaching Novak's home along North Wall Street behind Walker while holding rifles. Walker activates a light mounted on his rifle, and the officers begin shouting statements like "Spokane Police," "get down on the ground" and "drop the gun."

Rankin himself yells "get on the ground" twice before firing once, prompting the officers to retreat to cover. Rankin can be heard identifying the shot as his: "That was me! That was me!"

He fires roughly 10 seconds after officers first started yelling commands at Novak.

In a statement provided to investigators, Rankin said that he had heard several gunshots that sounded more like a "semi-automatic pistol" when he arrived on scene, and feared for the safety of himself, his fellow officers and potential residents inside Novak's home. Novak was also allegedly walking back onto his front porch and ignoring officers' commands.

"I was unable to give a verbal warning of the potential use of force due to the pace at which the suspect acted," Rankin wrote. "At this moment, I made the decision to shoot the suspect, who I felt was threat upon my life, Ofc. Walker's life, the other officers' lives, and the lives of any occupants of 623 West Montgomery Avenue."

"It was determined, as part of of the investigation, that what Mr. Novak was doing was striking the side of his own vehicle with the bat in the driveway and in the dark," Brad Arleth, captain of investigations with the Spokane Police Department, said at the press conference. "The officers could see that in his hands and, I think based on the information that came in off the original 911 call, they believed that it was a gun."

"They understood those impacts on that truck to be gunshots," he added.

Troy Teigen, a lieutenant with the Spokane Police Department, admitted at the Friday press conference that no sounds resembling gunshots can be heard on Rankin's body camera footage before he shot Novak: "You can't actually hear the sound," he said. But Teigen added that other video from the incident features the noises.

After Rankin shot Novak,  Walker said into his radio that Novak "fired a shot for sure" and that he "saw smoke over by the house," according to the excerpt from his body camera that was previewed for reporters. Walker's footage is featured below:

The responding officers waited for back-up — including a SWAT team armored car — and surrounded the house, eventually reporting that they pulled Novak out of the house 18 minutes later. Despite emergency medical procedures, Novak was pronounced dead at the scene.

"How can the Spokane Police Department tell the community this is reasonable?" Rondi Thorp, an attorney for the Novak family, writes in a statement that was released Thursday night. "David Novak was in his own yard, he was unarmed. They never gave him a chance to comply."

Meidl noted at the press conference that it is important to consider conditions that the officers were operating in when evaluating the incident: "The officers that are responding are listening to what the complainants are saying is going on," he said, going on to cite environmental "obstructions" at the scene and the fact that it was dark at the time. (The yard of the house adjacent to Novak's home separated him from the officers.) "He has seconds to try and determine what is going on."

In a letter to Chief Meidl and Spokane City Attorney Mike Ormsby that was released after the press conference, Thorp accused the department of "selectively releasing 911 calls" to reporters by allegedly withholding a call that came in five minutes before David was shot reporting a man "pounding on David's car making a loud banging noise."

Responding to Thorp's claim, Meidl writes in a text message: "I don't see them stating that if it doesn't exist, but I have yet to hear it."

"I am confident that will be included in the material internal affairs gathers," he adds.

Several of Novak's family members — including his mother, Debbie Novak, and his sister, Crystal Jenkins — tried to gain access to the press conference, berating Spokane Police Department spokesman Sgt. Terry Preuninger in front of reporters. They claimed that they weren't notified of the event, and have generally been kept out of the loop by the Police Department and other officials, relying on the media for updates.

click to enlarge Attorney for victim's family in fatal Spokane Police shooting slams department after release of body camera footage
Josh Kelety photo
Novak family members Debbie Novak (second from the right) and Crystal Jenkins (second from the left) speak with SPD Sgt. Terry Preuninger prior to the Sept. 27 press conference.

"It's so devaluing to David and to us," Novak said. "You make us feel like we have no value."

"Do they always treat families like this?" she added. "This is a respect thing."

Thorp slammed the department in her letter to Meidl and Ormsby for failing to respond to public records requests for evidence — including body camera footage — and for not notifying the family about the media press conference.

"Today, they were literally locked out of the meeting you held with the press," Thorp writes. "You could schedule meetings with us prior to releasing this information to the public or at the very least allow the family to be present. The way you are handling this matter is cruel and not transparent."

The Novak family was provided a 58-second excerpt of footage from Rankin's body camera prior to the press conference on Thursday, which was distributed to the press in conjunction with the statement. Thorp wrote that the clip is "disturbing," and claimed that the video showed an officer yelling "drop the bat."

When asked about how they received the body camera footage clip after the Sept. 27 press conference Jenkins, Novak's sister, said: "We can't tell you who we got that from."

In an email to the Inlander, Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell writes that his office allowed Rankin, Walker, and two other responding officers to "review" their own footage and "each other’s videos prior to making statements" that informed their investigation.

Thorp criticized this fact in her letter: "During the entire body cam video of Officer Rankin arriving on scene and getting out of his vehicle, no loud sound that sounds like a gunshot can be heard," she writes. "The body cam video Officer Rankin was wearing casts serious doubts on the veracity of Officer Rankin’s story and highlights why officers should not be permitted to speak with other officers and review video footage before giving statements in such a serious case."

"We look forward to placing each of these officers on the stand to testify about what really happened that night," Thorp wrote in her previous statement. "Spokane citizens should not be killed by Spokane Police on their own land,  when they are doing nothing to deserve being shot and killed."

This post has been updated to correct assertions regarding claims filed by the Novak family.

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About The Author

Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.