Mishandling Justice

A report by independent group on the killing of Stacy Kenny says Springfield police, investigators made big errors

Photo courtesy of the Kenny Family

On the second anniversary of the killing of Stacy Kenny by Springfield Police Department (SPD) officer, Kenny’s family released an independent review of police protocols. The report by the California-based OIR Group calls for systemic change in SPD’s policies, as well as 33 reform recommendations. 

The report comes during a chaotic period for SPD. 

Last week, the city released an independent review of SPD’s response to the July 29 Thurston protest, which found that the police department made errors in handling the event. Days ago, SPD Chief Rick Lewis was placed on administrative leave, but the city did not specify why. And weeks ago a civil rights lawsuit was filed in federal court by the Civil Liberties Defense Center. 

In addition to paying the family $4.55 million for the wrongful death of Kenny, the largest cash settlement in Oregon history, the city of Springfield agreed to allow an independent review of SPD’s use of force accountability process. 

The report was written by OIR’s founder Michael Gennaco, who was the chief attorney of the Office of Independent Review for Los Angeles County. Gennaco writes that the report has two themes: The first is that SPD fumbled when it came to accountability with Kenny’s case and the second is a systemic problem within the police department. 

The Springfield City Council will hear from Gennaco at a future public meeting, and the city has said SPD is taking steps to address uses of force. 

The night SPD killed Kenny

Several months before Kenny was killed by SPD officers, her parents visited with police officers to inform them that Kenny was diagnosed with schizophrenia and wasn’t taking her medication. The officer Kenny’s parents spoke with placed an alert in the police database for any officer who came into contact with her, according to the report. 

On March 31, 2019, Kenny was driving through Springfield when Officer Kraig Akins began to follow her without emergency lights, the report says. The report doesn’t explain why the officer started following her. Kenny responded by pulling over, which Akins did, too, and then turned on his overhead lights and exited his car. 

Akins saw Kenny throw a small sound-making device toward him; the report doesn’t specify what the device was. Akins called for backup and yelled at Kenny to put her hands out of the car’s window and turn the car off. Kenny then sounded an air horn and drove off, according to the report. 

Responding to the backup call, Sergeant Richard “R.A.” Lewis (unrelated to the police chief) stopped his patrol car in front of Kenny’s as she began to drive off. He then exited his car and pulled his firearm. Akins directed Lewis to begin breaking the driver-side windows of Kenny’s car. 

According to the report, Akins said he then attempted to pull Kenny from her vehicle by her hair and, after being unable to do so, punched her seven to 13 times in the face. While Akins was punching Kenny, a third officer, Robert Rosales, showed up to the scene and grabbed Kenny by the hair to pull her from the vehicle. A fourth officer, Robert Conrad, grabbed Kenny’s arms to pull her out. Giving up, he used his Taser several times on Kenny. 

Lewis then broke the back window of Kenny’s car, unlocked the car doors and tried to turn off the car. As Lewis looked for the keys, the report said that the car moved forward and struck his patrol car. He said he punched Kenny two more times in the face and struck Kenny with the butt end of a knife. He said he pleaded for Kenny to stop the car because she was going to kill them both, so he fired three rounds at the side of Kenny’s torso, according to the report. Then he shot her in the head. 


Accountability errors in analyzing SPD’s use of force 

SPD’s use of force on Kenny was reviewed by Lane County’s Interagency Deadly Force Investigation Team (IDFIT), which is made up of law enforcement officers throughout the county. According to the report, IDFIT had significant gaps in its investigation. 

This isn’t the first investigation by IDFIT that has raised questions by experts. In 2015, Eugene police auditor Mark Gissner expressed concerns with IDFIT’s report on the Eugene Police Department shooting of Brian Babb. 

IDIFT’s investigation focused mostly on the use of force by Lewis, the report says, ignoring the three other officers involved who also physically attacked Kenny. 

IDFIT interviews only focused on officers’ narration and didn’t critically delve into the officers’ decision-making and tactics used. “As a result, the investigation does not provide the facts necessary to better understand the origins of the incident and allow full evaluation of Sergeant Lewis’ decision to use deadly force,” the report says. 

After Kenny was killed, the report says that Lewis and Akins were transported to the hospital for treatment of their injuries and Rosales rode with Lewis to keep him company. When the IDFIT team arrived at the hospital to interview witnesses and get a statement from Lewis, the team didn’t isolate the officers, the report says, although basic investigative practices require separating police officers so the interview isn’t “contaminated by exposure” by other officers. 

IDFIT protocols state an interview with involved officers must wait 48 hours, the report says, but IDFIT didn’t formally interview Lewis until five days had passed. A five-day gap prevented the IDFIT team from obtaining a “pure and contemporaneous statement,” the report says. However, the 48-hour rule invites this sort of behavior, the report adds. 

When IDFIT interviewed the SPD officers, there was also inconsistency in recording methods. IDFIT used a recorder and the interview was transcribed with Akins. However, Rosales’ interview wasn’t recorded and only a summary was prepared and Conrad was provided a summary of his interview with which he was able to add to his interview days after. The report says officer-involved investigations must be consistent and statements should be obtained in an interview room at a law enforcement agency with a video camera. 

Lewis’ interview also wasn’t recorded despite his role in the investigation. “This technique is inconsistent with best investigative practices; virtually all law enforcement investigative interviews are tape-recorded,” the report says. 

IDFIT also didn’t allow Akins a follow-up interview when he realized he forgot some moments from the incident. Akins contacted the SPD member of IDIFT to say he had forgotten key moments of the event, specifically that Kenny had struck him as he tried to pull her from the car. But no follow-up interview happened, violating standard investigative practices, according to the report. 

SPD didn’t secure a crime scene after Kenny was killed. Without a blocked-off area, there are no precise records on who was at the initial crime scene, what individuals subsequently entered the scene, and when individuals departed from the scene, the report says. The lack of such records affected IDFIT’s investigation because no one knew who all of the involved or witness officers were. 

The report says when Lane County District Attorney Patty Perlow held a press conference that she found no wrong with Lewis’ use of force, SPD’s Chief Lewis was at her side. Rick Lewis’ presence at the conference undercuts the public’s belief that the investigation and review was independent, the report says. SPD should refrain from sitting at the table of any press event that announces the results of a DA review of its use of force, the report adds. 

Where SPD went wrong

From a failure to conduct an internal investigation to night-of decision making by SPD’s de-escalation training coordinator, the police department made several mistakes, the report says. 

The report says progressive police agencies recognize that there is a place for administrative investigations to address accountability matters. However, SPD has shown that it’s not one of those agencies because it never conducted an administrative investigation of an incident that warranted one. 

“The failure of SPD to conduct any administrative interviews of its personnel resulted in a serious deficiency of facts with which to evaluate the performance of each of its involved officers and improve the agency’s response to future events,” the report says. 

SPD did pursue a review of whether Lewis’ use of force was appropriate through the Use of Force Review Board. The board unanimously found Lewis used force within policy, but the memo reporting the decision was only one and a half pages long, according to the report. The memo’s conclusion isn’t supported by facts or analysis and doesn’t address questions requested by the chief, the report says. 

According to the report, Akins didn’t do his due diligence during his initial interactions with Kenny. Akins said he thought Kenny’s initial actions were “weird,” but he never requested access to prior SPD contact history regarding her — such as her parents’ meeting with an SPD officer months before the night of her death. 

The SPD Use of Force Review Board didn’t analyze Sgt. Lewis’ decision making, the report says, such as Lewis’ response to following orders from Akins, though Lewis has a superior rank,  the report says. 

“It is unusual and curious that a supervisor would defer to the tactics set out by a subordinate officer rather than assume a command presence regarding the best way to respond to the situation,” the report says.
“Moreover, a supervisor would be expected to want to learn more about the situation before rushing to perform a task dictated by his subordinate officer that would certainly escalate the encounter.”

What’s worse, the report adds, is that Lewis at the time was responsible for SPD’s crisis intervention training and the crisis intervention team coordinator. “Yet at no time in the incident did Sergeant Lewis deploy any de-escalation techniques until the very end of the situation when he said he pleaded with Kenny to stop the car,” the report says. 

The report adds that Lewis applied an “upside-down” approach to use of force by attempting de-escalation after punching Kenny in the face several times. This only made the situation worse because after killing Kenny, the car went out of control, resulting in a car crash that broke Lewis’ arm. 

SPD’s Use of Force Review Board also ignored officers’ use of force against Kenny when they punched her in the face. Although some police officers have used these attacks in the past as “distraction,” according to the report, that wasn’t the intent by the four officers on the scene — one officer even indicated that the punches to the head were to knock Kenny unconscious. 

And SPD’s review board didn’t analyze police officers’ tactics of entering Kenny’s car while she was in the driver’s seat. Doing so creates a dangerous scenario if the driver decides to drive forward, putting the un-seat belted officer in peril — which happened to Lewis after shooting her. 

The future of the report

The Springfield City Manager Nancy Newton issued a statement to Eugene Weekly, saying losing a loved one is one of the more anguishing feelings someone can experience. 

“I want to acknowledge the Kenny family’s loss and I want to acknowledge their pain,” she said in a statement. “We are reviewing the analysis and are doing so with the constructive, forward-looking spirit in which the report has been developed and provided. We are committed to reflecting on this further and examining how we can continue to improve SPD protocols. We will also evaluate these recommendations with our regional partners.” 

City spokesperson Amber Fossen says SPD continues to take actionable steps to improve transparency related to uses of force and has updated its policies. 

However, the attorney, David Park, who represents the Kenny family, says in a press release that the report shows a “toxic warrior culture” in SPD. 

“The findings in the OIR report offer a complete vindication of what we were fighting for all along in Stacy’s case,” Park said in a press release, “If this marks the beginning of a movement away from the toxic warrior culture within the Springfield Police Department from the top down, Stacy’s life and tragic death will have a real, lasting, and positive impact on the community.”

Gennaco will present his findings to the Springfield City Council at the Monday, April 19, meeting. 

“My hope is for an accountable police department with a culture that truly values and strives for de-escalation over brute force; for continuous improvement over stagnation and cronyism,” Stacy Kenny’smother Barbara Kenny says in a press release. “We have offered the city a path forward through the policy changes required by our settlement and through the independent review and recommendations provided by the OIR Report. I call on our city and police department to use these requirements and recommendations to make the systemic changes necessary so that no other family will feel our lifelong loss.”

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