Review Board: 2009 Officer-Involved Shooting Justified

Review Board: 2009 Officer-Involved Shooting Justified
KENNEWICK, Wash. -- One year after a Kennewick officer shot and killed a man, the case is now closed. An FBI investigation, and now a local review board found a Kennewick cop had every right to shoot and kill a Richland man last fall. The man's family still insists the police were out of line.

Because of this ruling, Kennewick police officer Lee Cooper is now back to active duty, a little more than a year after he fired 9 rounds into a black Lexus, killing the driver.

KPD Chief Ken Hohenberg announced the shooting was justified. "Officer Cooper had no other options. He dealt with an immediate threat."

Just a couple weeks ago, the FBI also decided Officer Cooper violated no rights when he killed Christopher Villarreal, 39, of Richland. A review board made up entirely of Kennewick employees dug into those events last September. It also ruled Officer Cooper was within his right to shoot the man.

Chief Hohenberg explained, "I am relieved. But Cooper acted within his duties as an officer. Reviewing the history of Christopher Villarreal, his reckless actions, disregard for community safety, and the information known to officer Cooper at the time of the situation, the board concluded that officer Cooper's actions were lawful and proper," Hohenberg quoted from the board's ruling.

The Chief points to a timeline which reports Villarreal was erratic and posing a high risk to the officer. The established timeline details the first call to 911 came in a little after 1pm, reporting a suspected drunk driver in Richland. After that, a flurry of calls to dispatchers, reporting erratic behavior on George Washington Way, Highway 240 and then Kennewick Avenue.

Then at 1:30pm, Officer Cooper radioed, (Villarreal's) "vehicle swerved and tried to hit me." A second later, he pulls into the KID parking lot. Then, Cooper opens fire. That same second, dispatch receives a call from another detective, saying Officer Cooper's bike had been rammed.

Chief Hohenberg saw it as an "immediate threat,", but the attorney representing the family of Christopher Villarreal tells a much different story.

Speaking to Villarreal's state of mind, attorney Dennis Hanson says, "He was definitely not drunk." He points to medical issues possibly playing a role, and denies the officer's motorcycle was hit.

Hanson said there was, "absolutely no damage on that motorcycle." He also showed KEPR a picture of the bike. On the front fender, there was seemingly no damage. The attorney says the family takes issue with several of the review board's findings.

Hanson alleges, "You have these officers out here who have not been trained properly and trigger-happy and do whatever is necessary to escalate the situation."

The family filed a $15 million civil suit against the city of Kennewick and Kennewick Police. The results of this investigation will no doubt be used to defend that suit.

To make sure we got all sides of the story, KEPR reached out to Officer Cooper as well, but he is not making any public statements.

The Villarreal family provided this written statement via their attorneys:

"The family is very disappointed in the City’s decision to allow Officer Cooper to return to his patrol duties. He made a grave error that has cost a man his life and a whole family a lifetime of grieving. It is bewildering that an Officer is not subject to being fired after making the worse possible error.

The U.S. Attorney’s decision not to file civil rights charges against Officer Cooper does not in any way relieve the City of Kennewick (and Officer Cooper) from liability for the death of Christopher Villarreal. Nor does it mean that the shooting of Mr. Villarreal was justified. It is tragic that this officer will go back out on patrol in the community."