Josiah Lawson Report: Lack of Training, Crime Scene Management Hindered Investigation

The following article has been republished with the permission of the North Coast Journal.

SoCal Connected episode: "Who Killed Josiah?"

A long-delayed National Police Foundation report released today commended the initial officers’ response to the fatal stabbing of Humboldt State University student David "Josiah" Lawson nearly three years ago but found a systemic failure by the police department’s then leadership to provide adequate training on crime scene management and command skills, which severely hindered the ensuing investigation.

The 65-page review’s executive summary states that the NPF’s assessment team "found that APD officers responded quickly and professionally to a highly chaotic scene — an event that would have been challenging for any agency of any size and sophistication. APD first responders focused their attention on providing lifesaving measures at the highly-charged scene."

But it found the city "had not provided the appropriate level of organizational leadership, planning, and training to respond to, and investigate, this type of a complicated and chaotic homicide scene."

Lawson was a 19-year-old sophomore at Humboldt State University when he was killed. While a suspect, then 23-year-old Kyle Zoellner, of McKinleyville, was arrested at the scene and charged with Lawson's murder, the case was dismissed a few weeks later after a Humboldt County Superior Court judge found insufficient evidence to hold him to stand trial.

"Many of the basic tenets of crime scene security and management were not followed in this case," the summary states. "The nature of the incident and the limited APD resources available illustrated the need for a comprehensive, regional, multi-agency response protocol to be in place to ensure the tools and skills necessary to handle a major incident were available to responders. However, such a plan was not in place, leaving the department ill-equipped to handle the scene and investigation on its own."

Also included in the sometimes scathing assessment were findings that former Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman was not "properly engaged in the supervision of the Lawson homicide" and decisions by APD and city leadership had resulted in "organizational failures, tactical missteps, and investigative and leadership errors, which have damaged the investigation and marred the department's reputation and credibility in many areas of the community."

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The report notes "it is clear to the NPF assessment team … that the chaotic scene did not interfere with lifesaving efforts" by ambulance, police and fire crews, but it acknowledges those perceptions exist.

And that, the report states, "provided fertile ground for false narratives and lack of communication regarding APD’s response to the incident, and created an environment that may have discouraged witnesses and others with factual information from coming forward with information."

"The narrative about the incident has also enlivened the emotions and perspectives of racial bias in the community in a way that continues to challenge healing," the report states.

The Arcata City Council commissioned the $30,000 report in September of 2018 amid an onslaught of criticism and concerns about the handling of the incident, which took place in the early morning hours of April 15, 2017, after a fight broke out at a crowded house party on Spear Avenue.

Charmaine Lawson drawing "Josiah 4 Ever" with a heart in the sand on a beach | Still from "Who Killed Josiah?"
Charmaine Lawson drawing "Josiah 4 Ever" with a heart in the sand on a beach | Still from "Who Killed Josiah?"

In a memo that same month, Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer stated the nonprofit would "review the police department's response to make recommendations for improving major criminal events, including response to, and investigation of, catastrophic, multiple-victim and/or multiple-witness incidents in the future. ... I would anticipate a report to you by the end of the year."

But the report’s release was repeatedly pushed back before being made public today. It was not immediately clear when city officials had their first look at the document, which is dated February 2020.

In the ensuing three years since her son’s killing, Charmaine Lawson — joined by other community members — has continued to call for justice in the case, regularly traveling to Humboldt County from her Southern California home and remaining engaged in community projects.

The report notes that “uncoordinated support services” provided to Charmaine Lawson and her children "further complicated relations with the family.

The National Police Foundation has conducted reviews of several high-profile criminal cases, including the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting and the December 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack.

Major themes of the Lawson report include:

  • APD first responders to the homicide scene demonstrated professionalism in providing lifesaving efforts while attempting to de-escalate a challenging and chaotic situation.
  • The APD’s planning and preparation of supervisory and specialized personnel was insufficient to respond to and investigate an incident of this magnitude. Key APD personnel were not provided sufficient training and access to equipment to thoroughly and effectively manage the crime scene and investigation.
  • Appropriate organizational leadership, and supervision and coordination between agencies — crucial for the efficient allocation of resources during investigations, and to ensure thorough case management and quality assurance throughout the case review process — were not provided in this case.
  • While the APD does focus resources on relationship-building with the community, more can be done. Relationship-building efforts and communication between the police and all segments of the community are the foundation of trust and valuable to counter misinformation and gather accurate information prior to and following a critical incident.

Also included are 36 recommendations for moving forward, with the report stating in the conclusion that the NPF team hopes "that the Arcata community will engage in this process and provide support and a renewed spirit of cooperation to build relationships and to bring this case to justice."

Read the city of Arcata release below:


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