Audit: Errors in 2 deadly force investigations

Two new state audits show some mistakes were made in the investigation of the use of deadly force in the Sean Howell and David J. Pruitte cases by the Kitsap Critical Incident Response Team.

The incident regarding Howell occurred May 9, 2020, in the Kitsap County Jail. Howell died May 15. Howell was in jail after being arrested for first-degree murder of his girlfriend, Sabrina A. Olson-Smith, 23, of Port Orchard.

Pruitte was shot and killed after confronting deputy Andrew Hren Aug. 4, 2020 on an overpass in Port Orchard.

No charges were brought by the prosecutor in either case.

The audit regarding Howell says KCIRT complied with most requirements. However, (1) it did not always notify Howell’s family before sending press releases to the media. The incident commander said the family said it did not want to be notified unless there was new information. (2) All press releases contained Howell’s arrest offense information. (3) It did not have documentation showing that supervisors removed the involved officers from the scene, separated them or directed them not to speak to each other about the case.

The audit recommends KCIRT (1) notifies family before sending out press releases or have documentation that the family doesn’t want it. (2) Ensure press releases do not have criminal background information. (3) Prohibit officers from talking until they provide statements to the independent investigation team. (4) Establish policies that ensure such incidents in correctional facilities are treated like other deadly force incidents. It also recommends it update its best practices each year for homicide investigations; provide clear guidance on what constitutes criminal background information; and make sure investigators’ backgrounds are free of misconduct that could jeopardize their objectivity.

An audit into the death of Pruitte says many of the same things. It says officers spoke to each other on the phone the day after the incident, but also that KCIRT did not adequately secure case files as a county drug court employee saw them. And its recommendations also are similar.

Investigation files show Howell tried to tamper with a shower head in his cell. Corrections officers struggled for five minutes with the combative Howell. They used tasers, pepper spray and cuffed his hands behind his back face-down on the floor. He was placed in a restraint chair for nearly three minutes and bent over at the waist when an officer noticed Howell was not breathing. He was taken out of the chair, and nurses started CPR. He died days later after being taken off life support in a hospital. His death was ruled homicide by restraint asphyxiation.

It completed its investigation Nov. 5 that year, and the prosecutor decided not to file charges in June of 2021.

In the case of Pruitt, on Aug. 4, 2020 bystanders called 911 saying a man was on a ledge at an overpass in Port Orchard. When officers arrived, Pruitte confronted them. Hren shot Pruitte, who died later that night at a hospital, documents say. Wren and the other officer administered first aid. KCIRT completed its investigation Nov. 2 that year, and on Nov. 9, 2021 the prosecutor decided not to file charges against Hren.

KCIRT investigates use of deadly force by officers in Kitsap and Jefferson counties. Included are members of the State Patrol and the police departments in Port Orchard, Poulsbo, Bremerton and Shelton.

In both cases, KCIRT’s response was exactly the same. “KCIRT learned we were largely successful in adhering to the law while being shown areas of improvement. We have already updated our protocols in order to ensure compliance in those few areas the audit team identified needing (improvement).”