Former Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman at a 2017 press conference at HSU, with Josiah Lawson’s mother Charmaine being embraced by cousin Keesha Weaver in the background. | File photo by Andrew Goff.


In its final report of the year, issued earlier today, the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury found evidence of “failures, ineptitudes, and poorly executed police work” from the Arcata Police Department during its investigation into the 2017 homicide of HSU student David Josiah Lawson.

And while the Grand Jury found a “widespread belief” that both Lawson’s killing and the subsequent law enforcement investigation were impacted by systemic racism, it did not find direct evidence of racial bias in the police response.

Of course, the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. The report notes that this charge of racial bias was “[t]he most difficult question the Civil Grand Jury had to evaluate.” Its recommendations include a call for both the City of Arcata and the APD to continue pursuing cultural and bias education while further engaging with the community and diversifying its staff.

And among its findings, the report notes, “Any determination that the David Josiah Lawson homicide was not a hate crime is premature.”

The Civil Grand Jury is an independent public watchdog organization comprised of 19 volunteer members who operate under the jurisdiction of the Humboldt County Superior Court. In this case, the group sought to address public complaints about possible bias, corruption, and violations of policy and procedure by the APD and the City of Arcata during the Lawson investigation.

The Grand Jury’s review was already underway when, in February, the City of Arcata released the “long-awaited” report from the National Police Foundation, which identified many critical missteps in the early days of the APD’s investigation. Many of the departments deficiencies are now being addressed, the Grand Jury found, “while others still require attention.”

In the broader community, meanwhile, the Civil Grand Jury found through a series of interviews that local minority populations, including folks who are Black, Native American and Latinx, felt disenfranchised and discriminated against, even before Lawson’s homicide.

Black residents “feel that their concerns are not given equal weight by the entire law enforcement apparatus, from individual police departments to the District Attorney’s office and the courts,” the report notes. “Some parents [of HSU students] questioned whether their children would be safe, not only on campus, but [also] in the city of Arcata at large.”

The report also says that the Latinx community is afraid of speaking to law enforcement, according to “a well-respected leader” in that community.

“Members of the First Nations community mentioned feeling marginalized, and that their concerns are not listened to,” the report says.

As for the “failures, ineptitudes and poorly handled police work,” the Civil Grand Jury noted mishandling of evidence, including a weapon, and ineffectual leadership at the “chaotic” crime scene.

“The Civil Grand Jury found that an APD officer was promoted to detective on the night of the homicide investigation, and was expected to take the lead,” the report says, suggesting that this officer was unprepared for the situation. 

One officer who was interviewed told the Civil Grand Jury, “[W]e had institutional failures due to lack of leadership throughout the organization. No one was in charge in the David Josiah Lawson case.”

The crime scene was left unsecured and relevant witnesses were allowed to leave with suspect Kyle Zoellner’s vehicle, according to the report.

A good deal of the blame in the report is placed at the feet of former APD Chief Tom Chapman. His reluctance “to either solicit or accept all offers of investigative help from other agencies” is identified as “a major impediment in the investigation.”

The report concludes with a list of 15 findings and eight recommendations. Among the findings:

  • “The Arcata Police Department was not prepared to manage and investigate a large, violent crime scene of the magnitude of the David Josiah Lawson homicide.”
  • “In the initial minutes of the incident, officers at the scene focused on life-saving procedures at the expense of crime scene management.”
  • There was a “failed chain of custody” at the crime scene. Potential witnesses were not detained and interviewed and physical evidence wasn’t properly preserved.
  • Current APD Chief Brian Ahearn “is focusing on strengthening community relationships, substantially increasing training, and diversifying the pool of officers and staff” while participating in the nationwide effort to reform policing.

And among its recommendations:

  • The City of Arcata should make sure sufficient funds are available for APD to continue training and to maintain critical staff, such as evidence technicians.
  • The City and APD should create brief online biographies of police officers as part of community outreach.
  • The county and local cities should establish a centralized dispatch communications center to shorten response times.
  • APD should “utilize minority interns” via HSU.
  • “[T]he final determination of hate crime designation should be withheld until a perpetrator is charged, and the intent and motivation for David Josiah Lawson’s homicide is fully explored.

You can read the full report at the link below.


DOCUMENT: “A Community Divided: The Ripples of a Homicide in Arcata, CA”


PREVIOUSLY in 2019-2020 Civil Grand Jury reports: