Judges: Lakewood search of police murder records insufficient

The state Court of Appeals ruled last month that the city of Lakewood failed to conduct a proper search of police records related to the high-profile murder of a self-proclaimed anti-fascist near Olympia and could not rectify the error by providing documents to a local public records activist once he had already filed a complaint.

Therefore, Lakewood City Council voted Monday to offer the plaintiff in the lawsuit, Arthur West, $25,000 for the city’s violation of the state public records law. West told the News Tribune on Wednesday that he plans to accept the settlement.

The underlying incident involved the 2020 police killing of Michael Forest Reinoehl, a Portland activist who was suspected of fatally shooting far-right Patriot Prayer supporter Aaron “Jay” Danielson during a clash between protesters in Oregon. Reinoehl claimed in an interview with Vice that he was protecting a friend from being stabbed.

A Lakewood police officer, two Pierce County sheriff’s deputies and a state Department of Corrections officer working as part of a U.S. Marshals task force killed Reinoehl in a 37-bullet hail that damaged surrounding homes in Tanglewilde. A Thurston County Sheriff’s Department investigation determined that Reinoehl shot first, but his handgun was in his pocket when he died, and detectives found no video of the shooting.

When West asked Lakewood for tapes of the incident, he misspelled Reinoehl’s name in the body of his request. West spelled the name correctly in the subject line, and the city had received requests for similar documents.

Lakewood told West he had no records to give him as the case remained an active investigation in Thurston County and a search for city emails and text messages for the misspelled version of the name. from Reinoehl did not yield any results.

West filed a lawsuit in December 2020 alleging the city violated the state public records law. He also sued Thurston County and the state Department of Corrections for improperly withholding records of the incident.

He told the News Tribune he feared the investigation might be improper because only the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department provided documents as part of its initial request.

Lakewood opened a new records request for West after a city official learned of the lawsuit, but before the complaint was served on the city.

The city found more than 7,700 pages of recordings and 11 text messages after using the correct spelling of Reinoehl and adding the locations of the incident to the search terms. West received the last of the records in February 2021.

The discovery of the documents confirmed to West that Lakewood had indeed violated public records law, he said.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Karena Kirkendoll ruled in favor of Lakewood, but the state Court of Appeals reversed its decision last month.

“Given the correct spelling of Reinoehl’s name at the top of West’s request, the results of White’s Internet search on the subject, Lt. Lawler’s knowledge of the event, and the city’s responses to related claims, there were several obvious leads the city did not pursue,” a panel of judges ruled in a slippery notice.

The decision later continued, “Allowing a government agency to oppose the disclosure of documents until an action is brought, and then voluntarily disclosing them to remedy any errors” defeats the purpose “of the PRA.”

West said his Thurston County lawsuit is being reviewed by the state Court of Appeals and he expects closing arguments this fall.

“I’m surprised the trial court didn’t understand that originally,” West said of the Lakewood ruling. “But that’s how the system works, and the Court of Appeal” ruled correctly.

Jared Brown covers Pierce County courts and law enforcement with an accountability lens. He joined The News Tribune in 2022 and was previously a summer intern in 2017. He also covered police and breaking news for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Jared has a master’s degree from the University of Washington and a journalism degree from Gonzaga University.

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