A Kelso patrolman shot and killed a man who attacked a clerk, a customer and the officer himself with what appears to have been a large piece of wood Wednesday morning at the Flying K mini-mart in West Kelso, according to authorities.
The officer involved, identified as 22-year veteran patrolman John Johnston, suffered a head injury and was treated briefly Wednesday at St. John Medical Center, according to Kelso Police Chief Andrew Hamilton.
An eyewitness at the store, who asked to remain anonymous, called Officer Johnston “a hero” for protecting store employees and customers. And a local African-American activist said she supports the police officer because she doesn’t believe race played a role in the incident.
Johnston, in accordance with standard procedure, was placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation of the shooting. He will be referred to a doctor for a knee injury suffered in the altercation, Hamilton said.
The assailant, a 27-year-old black male, was pronounced dead at the scene. The man was a transient and had been contacted by law enforcement a few times recently, including Tuesday night, according to Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson.
Police are investigating reports that the assailant is an Eastern Washington man originally from Sudan, but they haven’t reached his family. For that reason, The Daily News is withholding his identity.
Details emerged later Wednesday that clarified some earlier reports.
According to Nelson, a clerk in the Flying K, located at First Avenue and West Main Street near the foot of the Allen Street Bridge, called police at 8 a.m. to report that a shoplifter had just left the store and was walking toward the Red Leaf cafe.
At about 8:10 a.m., officer Johnston was interviewing store workers when the man returned with what police first described as a walking stick but later was described as a piece of wood such as a 2-by-4. Wielding it like a club, Nelson said, the man started hitting the clerk, a customer and officer Johnston. Johnston was struck in the head, Nelson said.
At that point, the officer pulled out his gun and shot the man at about 8:15 a.m., according to Nelson. He did not say how many shots Johnston fired.
An autopsy tentatively is scheduled for Friday, according to the Cowlitz County Coroner’s Office.
Asked at a midafternoon press conference if Johnston had escalated the situation, Nelson said the officer had been trained to react in such a situation and had appeared to act “appropriately” given that he had been clubbed.
“I don’t know what all he was equipped with at the time, but if somebody’s being beat on the head with a pole, it’s time to respond appropriately to that,” Nelson said at the news conference.
The incident occurred at a time of heightened national concern about police shootings of young black men, some of which critics contend have been unjustified and rooted in racial profiling.
Cynthia Washington-Mattson, an African-American activist in the community, said she does not believe that racism played a role in the incident and denounced anyone who may protest against police in Kelso.
“They’re not going to look at it calmly. A hothead will come up and try to do things, they’re going to try to stir things up. ... This community will not tolerate it,” Washington-Mattson said. “We will not stand for it. We will stand together and we will fight it.”
Washington-Mattson said her grandmother — Longview’s pioneering civil rights leader Victoria Freeman — would support a peaceful march.
She said the public should stand together as a community to say all lives matter including “our men in blue.” She said officers are in a lose-lose situation when they are placed in harm’s way.
“Young African-Americans need to stop and think,” Washington-Mattson said. “My heart just goes out to our officers, it really does. I hurt for them because they’re damned if they do, they’re damned if they don’t.”
The Black Lives Matter group in Vancouver did not offer any immediate comment on the shooting.
Sheriff Nelson said he doesn’t think the incident will cause violent protests.
“I’m not really worried about it. I think if people want to come and express their thoughts and their feelings about things that have gone on here, they can do that,” he said at the press conference.
The customer and clerk were taken to the hospital in addition to the officer. Earlier reports identified both as female clerks. Their names were not available, though the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office said they were released from the hospital by Wednesday afternoon.
Sheriff Nelson said police are getting a search warrant to obtain store surveillance video.
Calls to the store’s owner were not immediately returned.
Longview police and the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office will investigate the shooting. The Washington State Patrol is assisting in the investigation. It is standard practice for other agencies to investigate officer-involved shootings.
“Young African-Americans need to stop and think. My heart just goes out to our officers, it really does. I hurt for them because they’re damned if they do, they’re damned if they don’t.” Cynthia Washington-Mattson, Granddaughter of Longview
pioneer Victoria Freeman