The officer reported that he was being assaulted with a skateboard before the shooting in Olympia that left one man critically injured and another in stable condition, authorities said.
The shooting, which is being investigated by a team of detectives from several agencies, prompted some brief protests.
“We are committed to helping our community work through this difficult circumstance and help us understand this tragic event,” Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts said at news conference.
Officer Ryan Donald was among those who responded around 1 a.m. to a call from a Safeway, Roberts said. Employees said two men tried to steal beer and then threw the alcohol at workers who confronted the pair.
Officers split up to search for the suspects. Donald encountered two men with skateboards who fit witnesses’ descriptions, and moments later, he radioed in that shots had been fired, the police chief said.
In radio calls released by police, Donald calls dispatchers once he spots the men and again to report that he fired shots.
“I believe one of them is hit, both of them are running,” Donald said.
He tells dispatchers that one suspect “assaulted me with his skateboard.”
“I tried to grab his friend,” Donald said. “They’re very aggressive, just so you know.”
He says he has one man, then both, at gunpoint and asks for help.
Seconds later, he shouts, “Shots fired! One down,” and asks for more backup units. He then says the second suspect has been shot.
The police chief said that Donald wasn’t injured but that an officer “has the right to defend himself” if a suspect wields an object that could be used as a deadly weapon.
Donald, 35, who is on administrative leave pending the investigation, has been with the department for just over three years. No residents have filed complaints against him, and he was recently recognized by the agency for being proactive on investigations, Roberts said. He worked previously as an Army police officer, the chief said.
The two men were identified as Andre Thompson, 24, and Bryson Chaplin, 21, both of Olympia.
The men’s mother spoke with KOMO Newsradio on Thursday morning and said police came to her home after the shooting and informed her what had happened.
She said she can’t understand why the officer shot her sons based on a suspicion that they may have been the ones who tried to steal the beer.
“Even if it was them, did they have to open fire and shoot them? I mean, I heard one was shot in the chest. Was that necessary? I don’t think so,” she said.
They are black, and Donald is white, but Roberts said, “There’s no indication to me that race was a factor in this case at all.”
The shooting follows a string of high-profile killings of unarmed black men by police, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, which set off weeks of protests and a national “Black Lives Matter” movement that has gained momentum across the country.
Olympia Mayor Stephen H. Buxbaum called for calm in the community.
“It deeply saddens me that we have two young people in the hospital as a result of an altercation with an officer of the law,” he said. “Let’s come together to support their needs, the officer’s needs, the needs of the families and our community’s needs. Let’s not be reactive.”
Merritt Long, a retired chairman of the state’s liquor control board, was one of several residents to attend the news conference Thursday.
“Does the punishment fit the crime?” he asked afterward. “Given the seeming epidemic of this happening not only here but in our country, it makes you pause and wonder what’s going on.”