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Son being shot leads mother to work for police accountability

Debbie Novak's life changed the day police shot her son.


By Catherine Ferguson SNJM

Some people have a day in their lives that changes everything—their view of life and what is important, their understanding of their life's work and their daily activities.

For Debbie Novak, a part-time real estate broker, wife and mother of four and a grandmother of 10, who lives near Nine Mile Falls, that day was Jan. 7, 2019, when her unarmed 35-year-old son, David, was shot by a police officer.

To this day, hanging from the second story of her home is a banner saying, "Justice for David."

The story of that night is similar to the stories of others who have been shot and killed because of police action. It occurred in a poor neighborhood. There was also alcohol involved. There was the suspected presence of a gun.

It was about 10:30 p.m. David and a neighbor he didn't know well were drinking and had an argument. David got a baseball bat and was hitting his beat-up truck making loud noises that some reports claimed sounded like gunshots. The neighbor called the police and said David had a gun.

Several officers responded to what they mistakenly thought was "an active shooter" call. At a press conference later, the county prosecutor said the first officer heard what sounded to him like the blast of a loud shotgun.

When the officer arrived, he said he heard what sounded like three gunshots. Debbie said these sounds did not show up on his body cam footage, and neighbors interviewed later said they did not hear gunshots other than the officer's shot.

He told David to drop the gun. David dropped the bat and turned to go into his house. From 78 feet away, after being there less than eight seconds in the dark, the officer shot him in the back. David fell through the front door of his house and died.

In the investigation weeks later, the police said they thought there might be hostages or more people in the house.

What changed that day for Debbie was the loss of her son, and, perhaps as important as time went on, she had a growing sense that God was calling her to make a difference saving lives of others by researching how such tragedies happen, then working to make a change in police procedures and policies.

"I don't know how someone without faith and something to fall back on can face something like this. My family and my church have been so supportive. I feel God has put me here to do this work. The Bible quote 'I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith' inspires me." Debbie said.

At first, she felt anger and frustration trying to find out what actually happened.

In August, seven months later, the county prosecutor held a press conference to deliver his findings and announce that the officer would not be charged with any crime. The prosecutor did not notify her family of the press conference. Devastated, the Novak family filed a civil lawsuit, which eventually was settled for $4 million.

At a press conference announcing the lawsuit, Debbie said, "The Spokane Investigative Regional Response Team had not released its findings to the family, nor had the prosecutor returned our phone calls, despite requests to be informed of findings prior to his press conference. One of the most difficult things was the lack of transparency of the Spokane Police Department. We couldn't see the complete records, the body cam pictures or even the names of the other officers present."

Through efforts since then, Debbie has hoped to see more changes in statewide policies to reduce police violence and increase police accountability.

Recently, however, she was appalled to read the report from the "Mapping Police Violence" Official Police Violence Database with data from 2013 to 2024. It ranks the Spokane Police Department as number 2 out of the 100 largest cities in the U.S. for average police killings.

This report indicates that the average number of police killings per million in those years was 10.0 in Spokane. Seattle, the only other Washington city listed, had an average rate of 3.9.

Although David was white, the database indicates that in Washington State, Native Americans and Blacks are each four times more likely to be killed by police than are whites.

Working through the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability (WCPA) for several years, Debbie has advocated for statewide policies to reduce police violence and increase police accountability.

The coalition, formed in June 2020, grew out of advocacy for Initiative 940, approved in November 2018. It changed laws related to police behavior. It changed the standard for justifiable use of force, put training standards for de-escalation into state law, required first aid to be rendered at the scene, required that criminal investigations of police use of force be separate from the involved agency, and mandated that implementing these policies include the impacted community.

The coalition provides Debbie with a place to work with other advocates and with families of others killed by police to make changes needed to save the lives of people at risk of police violence.

Her research into changes in policies related to policing follows the work of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.

"Two of the main issues in police accountability are training for de-escalation and leadership," she explained. "There is no single training class on de-escalation. There are classes on different aspects of de-escalation, like crisis intervention and shoot-don't shoot situations but no class brings all the elements together."

Debbie believes that, if the officer involved had been better trained in de-escalation, her son would not have been shot and killed in the few seconds after the officer arrived.

"If police would use tools they have on hand, which taxpayer money has purchased—tasers, rubber bullets and pepper spray—lives would be saved," she said.

Debbie highlighted some legislation she believes helps decrease police violence in Washington, legislation the WCPA promoted.

In 2021, Senate Bill 5051 added more civilians to the Criminal Justice Training Commission and gave them more oversight for use-of-force incidents.

In 2021, House Bill 1054 limited police to engaging in a high-speed pursuit only if there is "probable cause" to arrest a person in a vehicle for committing a specific violent crime such as murder, kidnapping, drive-by shooting or rape.

"This restriction helped decrease death and injury caused by chases," Debbie said. "In 2023, this law was weakened to allow chases if there was 'reasonable suspicion.'"

In 2024, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law a bill prohibiting hog-tying, a practice that can cause death by suffocation.

Debbie pointed out that for the third year in a row the legislature failed to pass legislation to establish an independent prosecutor at the state level when police violence occurs.

Now, when a death follows a confrontation with a police officer, it prompts an investigation by the county prosecuting attorney and that prosecutor determines if charges are warranted.

"There is a conflict of interest," Debbie said. "The local prosecutor usually works closely with and has a relationship with police officers. We want an independent state prosecutor."

A state prosecutor would share authority with county prosecuting attorneys to charge police officers with misuse of deadly force. If both offices seek jurisdiction in a case, the bill calls for instructing the courts to determine "whose prosecution will best promote the interests of justice."

"We will bring this bill back next year. It failed by only three votes in 2024," she said.

Meanwhile, Debbie and other advocates for police accountability continue to raise consciousness in the local community.

They are holding a march from noon to 1:30 p.m., Friday, June 7, at the Spokane County Courthouse to call for police accountability.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June 2024