The city’s internal police watchdog has cleared two Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers of wrongdoing after they shot and killed Ryan Matthew Smith inside a Queen Anne apartment last year. The 31-year-old man was standing the doorway of an apartment he shared with his girlfriend, drunk nearly to the point of being unconscious, when the two cops fired ten shots from the hallway.
Rose Johnson, Smith’s mother, said the city’s exoneration of the two officers was “morally outrageous.”
“There is body cam [footage] showing two erratic police officers trying to kick down a door and getting themselves all flustered and frustrated and mad,” Johnson said. “They keep trying to make the officers feel that they did nothing wrong when they killed someone.”
Smith, who was Black, was killed by officers Chris Myers and Ryan Beecroft on May 13 of last year during a domestic violence call. The officers found Smith standing with a knife in his hand after they broke down the apartment’s door. They did not attempt to use any less-lethal methods to subdue him. Both officers are back to work, according to SPD.
Johnson filed a complaint with SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), accusing the officers of racially-motivated policing and improper use of deadly force. OPA, which is considered an independent administrative unit within SPD, found that the use of force was “lawful and proper” and that the allegations of biased policing were “unfounded,” according to a report released by the OPA last week.
Johnson said SPD’s vindication of the two officers could lead to more police-caused violence.
“My son Ryan is gone and he’s never going to come back so I’m just looking at the bigger picture and I think they are sending a bad message to these police officers that they are untouchable and they can just treat any call however they want and kill someone,” Johnson said.
Myers, one of the two officers, has a pattern of deadly interactions with people in Seattle. Myers fired his gun during a deadly 2017 police shooting in downtown 2017, and during a deadly shooting on Queen Anne in 2014. Myers also shot a man in 2010 but that man did not die.
Myers was the first person to open fire in the Smith shooting, according to statements given by Beecroft in the SPD’s Force Investigation Team (FIT) report, obtained by The Stranger through a records request. Myers fired eight shots at Smith while Beecroft fired only two, according to the OPA and FIT report.
The OPA found that the officers had no choice but to open fire on Smith, claiming that any attempts to deescalate the situation or use less lethal force, like a Taser, could have "placed the officers and [Smith's girlfriend] at significant risk of harm and would have compromised legitimate law enforcement priorities.”
The OPA’s exoneration of the officers—who shot and killed Smith within six seconds of breaking down his door—appears to be based heavily on the fact that the two officers said they thought Smith's girlfriend was in mortal danger when they arrived. Myers told the OPA that he was worried Smith's girlfriend was "bleeding out" when they responded to the call.
There appear to be significant discrepancies between what Smith’s girlfriend told 911 and what the officers believed. For example, there was no reason to believe the girlfriend was bleeding at all.
The girlfriend told 911, according to a recording of the call released by SPD, that she was not seriously injured, that she had barricaded herself in the bathroom, and that Smith was not actively trying to force himself into the bathroom.
Somehow the responding officers believed a very different set of facts, according to both the OPA and FIT report. The officers believed that Smith was actively forcing his way into the bathroom and that the girlfriend needed immediate medical attention.
Neither the OPA report nor the FIT report examine how the details from the 911 call were significantly altered during the process of relaying the information to the cops.
Johnson said she has been unable to find an attorney willing to take the case and said the police accountability system in Washington is inadequate.
“They are a boy’s club and they are going to cover for each other. It doesn’t matter how many things you point out to them, it doesn’t matter,” Johnson said.
“Clearly there’s other states that are trying to hold police officers accountable for fatally shooting people, so why is Washington different?”
"He needs help”
Smith’s girlfriend sensed something was wrong as soon as she heard the cops at her apartment door. She began yelling, from inside the bathroom, that she didn’t want Smith to be killed, according to audio captured on the 911 call.
“Fuck. Oh my God. No. Please don’t shoot! No,” the woman yelled in the moments before her boyfriend was killed by Myers and Beecroft. Her pleas turned into a wailing scream as the cops unloaded ten rounds into the apartment.
Smith immediately collapsed to the ground after the shooting. Myers and Beecroft kept their guns raised while a third officer ran into the bathroom and retrieved the girlfriend, according to the FIT report.
When that third officer opened the bathroom door, he found a woman who was visibly disturbed but also had essentially no injuries. There was only a faint scratch across her chest after the ordeal, according to the FIT report.
That is a far cry from what the responding officers said they thought they would find. Myers told investigators that he believed the girlfriend would die if she didn’t get immediate medical attention.
“So, there was that exigency of, if she’s bleeding out, we have no idea how long she has and if she is we need to get medical attention to her right away. This guy is standing between us and her,” Myers told SPD investigators, according to the FIT report.
Myers told investigators that, while responding to this incident, another domestic violence incident was on his mind—an incident in Northgate where a woman called 911 saying someone was threatening to kill her. When the SPD cops arrived, she had already been killed. SPD cops fatally shot the suspect in that incident, just like Myers did in Smith's case.
But that statement from Myers almost makes it sound like Smith's death was preordained the moment the cops took the call and responded.
How the cops got such a distorted view of the situation in the girlfriend's apartment would theoretically be a fundamental question for investigators. If the cops knew the woman was basically uninjured and hiding safely in the bathroom, they could have spent more time deescalating the situation. But, by thinking that she could be dead within minutes, their calculus changed drastically.
Both the OPA and the FIT report provided documentation for the discrepancies between the 911 call and what officers believed, but neither report spent any time trying to understand the fatal miscommunication.
Ambiguous questions during the 911 call and poor communication between the 911 operator and the police dispatcher may have caused the confusion.
In the call, the operator strangely used duplicated and negative questions to ask the girlfriend if she was injured. This leaves her response somewhat open to interpretation.
Here’s what she said in the 911 call:
Operator: You’re not injured in any way, is that correct?
Girlfriend: No, he tackled me.
Operator: Okay, so you don’t need any medics, is that correct?
Girlfriend: No. He needs help.
Depending on how you read her responses to the operator’s questioning, she is either injured and needs a medic (she says "no" when asked if it is "correct" that she is "not injured"), or she is saying she is uninjured and doesn’t need a medic by saying "no" as a conversational way of agreeing that she's "not injured."
Either way, the 911 operator does not spend any more time trying to understand her medical status, according to the audio released by SPD. The 77-page FIT report never attempts to analyze her responses, while the 13-page OPA report describes the call as this: "The victim said that the Subject 'tackled' her when she tried to call the police earlier. She stated that she was not injured aside from the tackle."
Both reports do, however, mention the fact that the girlfriend used the words “there’s blood everywhere,” but the situation was further confused after the location of that alleged blood changed.
The girlfriend said on the 911 call that Smith had told her, while she was barricaded in the bathroom, that there was blood everywhere outside of the bathroom.
“He’s saying that there’s blood everywhere and that I can’t come out there because I fucked up,” the girlfriend said, according to the 911 call.
This information changed when it was conveyed to the responding cops. The dispatcher told the officers that there was “blood everywhere, inside the bathroom,” according to the OPA report.
So the cops believed they had a woman sitting in a pool of blood, when in fact they had no such thing. This discrepancy, just like the discrepancy with the injury, was never noted nor explored by either the OPA or the FIT report. The OPA report even quotes both the 911 call and dispatcher call, including the clear variation in the description, without apparently noticing the inconsistency.
Here's how the OPA describes the 911 call (emphasis added):
"[Smith's girlfriend] indicated that [Smith] was not trying to force his way into the bathroom at that time and that she was holding the door closed as it did not have a lock... [Smith's girlfriend] updated [the 911 operator] that [Smith] told her that there was “blood everywhere” outside of the bathroom and he said that she could not come out of the bathroom because she “fucked up.”
And here's how, on the same page, the OPA describes the information being relayed through police dispatch to the responding officers:
Dispatch noted that [Smith] was threatening to kill himself and the victim with a knife. Dispatch provided a description of [Smith] and the knife, as well as [Smith's] name, and informed officers that [Smith's girlfriend] said that there was “blood everywhere, inside the bathroom.” Dispatch lastly updated the officers that [Smith's girlfriend] had locked herself in the bathroom and that [Smith] was “scratching at the bathroom door” and was “still inside the apartment.”
This appears to be a flagrant discrepancy—clear as day, within the OPA's own report—but when I characterized it as a flagrant discrepancy (that the OPA seems not even to have noticed) to the director of the OPA, Andrew Myerberg, he would not acknowledge the discrepancy.
"I don’t agree with the conclusion that you reach... or your characterization of OPA’s evaluation of the evidence," Myerberg said. "Ultimately, my role is to evaluate these cases and make the most informed judgment that I can based on the totality of the circumstances. Reasonable people can disagree on those findings and I think this is a good thing for the system."
Another discrepancy: The OPA report says that, according to the call, Smith was not actively trying to break into the bathroom. But then ten pages the report says Smith was trying to break into the bathroom.
The OPA report summarizes the 911 call by saying that: “The victim indicated that [Smith] was not trying to force his way into the bathroom at that time and that she was holding the door closed as it did not have a lock.” But then later the OPA report defends the officers actions by saying: “The officers were also aware that [the girlfriend] had barricaded herself in the bathroom and [Smith] was trying to gain entry, as well as that there was potentially blood everywhere.”
Johnson, the dead man's mother, said it’s the cop’s responsibility to be able to take confusing 911 calls and still resolve situations safely.
“People say horribly ridiculous things on 911 calls—it’s still their job to go and assess and do what they are trained to do without having to kill somebody,” Johnson said.
“A Blank Expression”
Officer Beecroft said he was “terrified” by what he saw when he kicked down the apartment door that night. The old apartment door was stubborn and it took Beecroft nearly ten strikes before the center panel finally broke through and he could see into the apartment.
“[Beecroft] stated that he saw [Smith] standing motionless behind the door and that this surprised him… and that the Subject was staring at the officers with a blank expression,” says the OPA report. This is what "terrified" Beecroft.
Smith was holding a knife in his hand, according to body cam footage, and did not follow the officers' commands to drop the knife, instead slowly taking a step forward, toward the door. The officers moved slightly down the hall as one officer shined a flashlight on Smith’s face. Smith appeared to raise his hands, and then a rash of gunfire broke out and his 31-year-old body crumpled to the floor.
Both officers told investigators that they felt Smith’s refusal to follow commands posed a threat to their safety. Beecroft said he felt that he was “in imminent danger of being killed or seriously wounded,” according to the OPA report.
But there was a reasonable reason for Smith’s compliance: the 140-pound man was very drunk.
Smith was intoxicated with a blood alcohol level of 0.36, according to an autopsy obtained by The Stranger. That is eight times the legal limit to drive and enough alcohol to make a person experience "loss of consciousness" and be on the "brink of coma," according to Stanford University.
The fact that Smith’s actions, and inability to follow directions, could have been caused by alcohol does not affect the officers’ culpability, according to the OPA.
“The toxicology report later performed on the Subject showed that he had an extremely high blood alcohol content at the time he was shot,” the OPA report reads. “While this could explain why the Subject was non-responsive and... blankly stared at the officers, they did not and could not have known this at the time.”
It also doesn’t matter that Smith was armed with a knife instead of a gun, according to OPA. “Had he been allowed to further approach the officers,” the OPA report reads, “he could have catastrophically harmed them with the knife.”
The OPA doesn’t fault the officers for failing to try any less-lethal options. Myers told the OPA that he had initially reached for his Taser but then decided to use his gun. Myers said the mere thought of using his Taser "as an option," combined with taking a step back into the hallway, "constituted de-escalation.” The OPA largely agreed:
Indeed, further de-escalation at those times could have placed the officers and the victim at significant risk of harm and would have compromised legitimate law enforcement priorities. In addition, based on OPA’s review of the totality of the record, the evidence does not support a finding that the officers’ actions or tactics increased the need to use force.
The one witness to the event disagreed. Smith's girlfriend told the cops, moments after the shooting, according to the FIT report, that she didn't see why police needed to kill her boyfriend:
"I don't even want to be around you guys. You just killed my boyfriend because he was just, had a knife and that was it. You don't need to kill him. You didn't need to kill him."