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Cops Respond to Officer Shooting Armed Shoplifting Suspect in a Wheelchair
St. Croix Co., WI.
   
 
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Scores of officers around the country had a lot to say about the shooting of a shoplifting suspect in a wheelchair, armed with a knife and slowly fleeing an officer who fired 9 rounds as the man approached a Lowe’s entrance.

Watch body cam footage of the shooting HERE.

Read our article on the incident HERE.

Here are some of the responses we received from Calibre newsletter readers:

Sgt. Ryan DeBolt with the Obetz (OH) PD wrote:

NO, that officer’s actions were not justified in that situation and those actions make us all look bad.  He was conditioned from training to see a knife, recognize a threatening subject who is not listening and deliver lethal force.  What he forgot about was the context of the situation.  The pre-conditioning MUST be limited in current times.  Gone are the days of “gun–threat–shoot.”  It’s not automatic and that’s what happened there.  Not a fan at all!!

Retired Patrol Deputy Tom Vande Berg formerly with St. Croix Co. (WI) SO responded:

We used to have calls on a subject in a wheelchair creating a disturbance who would ram his wheelchair into officers legs. My co-worker used his PR-24 to jam the wheels. I don’t know how big the wheels were on the power chair, and if a baton could work, but OC would have taken away his vision and a baton strike to the hand would have disarmed him. Or push the power chair over!

Lt. Michael Wilson with the City of Williston (ND) PD shared:

If anything exemplifies a lack of creativity in critical thinking, this does.

A serious problem I’m noticing with a number of younger officers is that they’re the product of a social/education system that does NOT reward independent critical thought. They’re absolutely capable of doing it. The current group of younger officers are definitely intelligent, but some training makes it seem like there’s only this one way to respond to certain things and if you don’t follow the script you’re liable to get hung out to dry.

We can’t do that, not with the current generation of new officers. They need to be coached to think on their feet and their successful actions outside of the “paint by numbers” thought process needs to be rewarded at every opportunity.

The conditions in this video should not have to be specifically duplicated in training down to the minute detail. I’d have serious doubts about a person who said, “Well, I wasn’t trained how to deal with someone in a wheelchair”.

The wheelchair affects the mobility conditions of the person in it. It makes a potential victim more vulnerable. It does the same for a possible suspect. While it’s impossible to know from this video if the officer was aware of any other facts, it is only an assumption that someone seated in a wheelchair is actually bound to it. Maybe the person’s mobility is compromised but are they able to walk or even run for short distances? Maybe they don’t need it at all. Maybe they can’t move an inch without its help.

You know how you find out? Remove the wheelchair from consideration.

This was potentially the easiest threat to stop simply by grabbing the back of the wheelchair and dumping it over to the side or even backwards. The electric scooters may have something accessible from the back of the chair to kill the power to the motor.

None of those thoughts appear to have occurred to the primary officer. If you dump the chair over and the person gets up and starts walking, that changes things. If, however, they just lay there, you’ve neutralized the continued threat they pose by being mobile. Now you can take your time in deciding how best to get the knife away from the disabled human being that is lying in a parking lot.

How about the Taser? How about ANYTHING at all?

For the entire contact, walking through the parking lot to the store, the officer had a multitude of options. He exercised none of them other than trying to get the suspect to obey his verbal orders and then jumping immediately to shooting him once the man reached the entrance to the store.

From the actions observed it looks like this officer’s thinking was limited to simple math, “Has Knife = Use Gun.” While I caution against ever taking a person armed with a knife lightly, a person with a knife in a wheelchair doesn’t exactly fit the conditions of the “21-Foot” scenario. Even if the chair has a turbo setting, the seating position in the chair limits the suspect’s reach and potential attack options.

This video actually made me angry to watch. In my own opinion, the secondary officer witnessed a murder. Her apparent stunned reaction is in line with most of my officers when I showed them this in briefing tonight. We had a discussion. Thankfully, nobody on my shift thought this use of force was reasonable.

The worst thing is, there may be no way of knowing if someone you work with is capable of this until you’re standing there, dumbfounded, like the second officer in this video.

That leads us to a new question: What was her responsibility after witnessing this?

Former Assistant Chief and current Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Dave Patterson commented:

First, this was a property crime.

Second, the two-officer ratio is a factor with a wheelchair bound person armed with a cutting instrument. On this note, should they have attempted less lethal means if the opportunity was there? Yes. OC, Taser, Beanbag? At 2-3 mph, a reasonable officer should be able to gain a position of advantage and/or angle to deliver these. Other options could be to disable the chair, block the chair, tip over the chair from a safe position.

Third, what were those inside doing? Could they or did they retreat from the area? At 2-3 mph most people could have gained space if needed, I suspect.

Fourth, perspective–what did or did not one officer see verses the other? Were there compelling reasons for not attempting less that lethal means?

Very sad, in my mind. Not justified and a 42 USC 1983 violation as well.

From Sgt. Aaron Evans with the Special Operations Unit at Lee’s Summit (MO) PD:

First, a huge thank you to Calibre Press for all you do and your continued support of law enforcement with outstanding training both in-person and online.

To answer your question: “Have you ever trained for a scenario like the one in the video below?”

YES.

In fact, a scenario very similar to this one is used during our less lethal shotgun training course. It comes up during the legal justifications for use of force, when we discuss the training topic of means + motive + opportunity.

In essence, we talk about a man in a wheelchair, holding a knife, and threatening to cut anyone who comes near him – but nobody is close by. At that moment the man in the wheelchair has means + motive but does not have opportunity. Therefore, the use of force (especially a bean bag from a shotgun – located at “Impact weapons” on our UOF policy, and just below “Deadly Force”) is not apparently justified, warranted, or necessary.

The instruction is to:

— Continue/ensure the isolation of the male in the wheelchair

— Evaluate the Priority of Life – (Hostages/Victims, Innocent Bystanders, Officers/First Responders, Suspects/Subjects)

— Remember the Sanctity of Life – our purpose and goal is to stop the threat, but also to save lives (including the life of the person posing the threat)

— What crime? At best a threat or peace disturbance in our jurisdiction (City-level ordinance violation) – not to the level of impact weapons/deadly force

— Evaluate the situation for potential problems – wheelchair guy trying to leave, throw knife, produce a firearm, etc.

— Develop immediate action plan if he tries to go mobile, surrenders, or produces firearm, etc.

— Use verbal commands and dialogue in an attempt to de-escalate the male’s hostility

— Prioritize lower levels of UOF – can a Taser be deployed safely or even OC?

Can we use time itself to wear him down?

In this particular incident, I feel the officer missed several windows of opportunity to stop the male prior to him getting close to the entrance door/employee. The male had wheeled himself some distance across the parking lot. That was the perfect time for Taser or OC. Unfortunately, it appears the officer fixated on the “threat,” the Priority of Life (employee near the entrance the wheelchair guy was heading toward), and the failure to obey commands (resisting).

Simply ordering the employee to get out of the way would have likely solved that problem and provided more time to make a decision for a less lethal UOF.

Plus – shooting him 9 times…ugh! I don’t think this officer will survive this review, criminally or civilly.

16-year law enforcement veteran Kenneth Wilkinson who served with a variety of NY agencies wrote:

That is a totally unjustified shooting. They could have used less than deadly force to stop this man. Taser, pepper spray, or just have let him go and arrest him later on a warrant. How can you live with yourself after killing a man in a wheel chair over a TOOL BOX??????

Constable Bruce Scott with Dallam Co. (TX) SO responded:

My first thought; Taser. If Taser isn’t available, ASP. He was a potential threat to other people if he got close enough to them, but not necessarily an immediate threat.

Also, looking at the officer’s body, if one of his shots had been errant, I’m not sure if a shopper or employee may have been in the line of fire.

I don’t see the use of deadly force was justified at that point. And 9 rounds?

I bet the officer, if asked right after the shooting, couldn’t tell you how many rounds he fired. If he could, I think there definitely would be a bigger problem.

Lt. John Phillips with the Wausau (WI) PD said:

Was the shooting officer left with no choice? Based on the video, No.  There were definitelyother options. How about moving along and “decentralizing” the wheelchair (tipping it over).  Walking along with the subject and communicating to staff inside that the subject has a knife and to move out of the way or lock down.  Once deadly cover is established, a less lethal option like a Taser or Impact Munitions, if available, could be employed.  I recognize this is would be difficult, but turning off the wheelchair’s power. Many of those have power switches in the back of them.

Does the Graham Standard (objective reasonableness) as well as the parameters of the Deadly Force Triangle justify the decisions made in the moment?

The 3 prong Graham standard would be hard to meet based on the video alone.

— The severity of the crime?

Retail theft, and a possible brandishing-type charge.  In WI this would be Disorderly Conduct and Retail theft w/a use of a dangerous weapons enhancement making it a lower- level felony.  This doesn’t meet the level necessary for the deadly force SCOTUS reviews I have seen.

— Does the suspect pose an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others?

I think this is where the most disagreement will occur.  The model we use in WI is the imminent threat criteria.  The suspect must have a weapon, intent, and a delivery system.  While this suspect did indeed have a weapon, and some intent was shown by displaying the knife to the store’s employee and the officer when confronted for the retail theft, the delivery system would be difficult for me to articulate based on the video alone.  Let me explain.  The subject was moving away from the store employee and officer which he had threatened at a slow but deliberate pace (2-3mph).  The subject was given commands, however the limited mobility, lack of any additional statements (going back to his intent) or actions towards others does not show clear intent by the subject that he  intended to do harm to anyone else, and was moving away from the persons he threatened.  While displaying the weapon does show some level of intent? Here the subject displayed a weapon but made not movements towards the officer or store employee and immediately begins moving away from them.

I am sure the argument is going to be made that the store employee where the subject was going in was at risk.  I understand this thinking, however I believe this is a stretch at best.  Again, the subject made no threats or statements about harming anyone else.  The subject isn’t wilding swing the knife around or moving rapidly towards others showing additional intent.

— Is the suspect actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight?

There is no active resistance.  While the subject is not complying with lawful orders, flight for me is a stretch here.

Overall, I do not believe these 3 prongs have been met.  Now I don’t know what the officer knew or perceived at the time which is an important piece to this analysis.  Nor do I know what level of training this office had which is also important to the analysis.

Could/should this have been handled differently? If so, what are your suggestions?

There were options.  How about tipping (decentralizing) the wheelchair.  Communicating with the store employees inside the store and ordering them to get out of the way and possibly lock the store down.  Once deadly cover is established a less lethal option (Taser, Impact Munitions, if available) could be deployed.  I recognize this would be difficult, but turning the power off the wheelchair.

Overall, communication, positioning, and tactics could have been used to the officers advantage in this situation.  While some pieces are still unknown, this does not help our profession in a time where the public and more than ever the courts expect us to exhaust all options.

From State Game Warden Darren David with the PA Game Commission:

To me, this is 10 times more obviously wrong than the Derek Chauvin case.

I do not see any possible way to justify an immediate need to use deadly force when it was inflicted, even if a taser was unavailable (which if available, should have been used instead to induce him to drop the knife).

The only, albeit eventual, exception would be if and when the subject, with knife at the ready, would have been on the verge of coming into contact with an equally or more disabled person, whether they be also in a wheelchair, crawling on the floor, etc. or someone that would otherwise be totally cornered and helpless.  Otherwise, this is a very bad shoot.

Officer Daniel King (ret.) formerly with the St. Paul (MN) PD wrote:

Sorry, Way over the top. What about OC or Taser? Or wait for more backup and form a plan to dump him out of that chair. I know he could have been faking his disability, but the cop could just walk along behind him and shoot later if it became necessary. I think he will be charged and convicted. Sad for all.

Dezi Meza who worked uniformed patrol for 17 years at the Albany (OR) PD wrote:

After reviewing the available details and the video, this sadly appears to be another incident that will absolutely vilify the profession as a whole.

Even without the very clear video, the basic fact that the man is traveling in a wheelchair at such a slow pace is a pretty clear indicator that the threat factor is drastically reduced. He is also in the process of fleeing and shot from the side at a distance, clearly not actively attacking anyone.

Hypothetically, even if the man is semi-ambulatory, any able-bodied citizen or officer could likely easily escape potential harm from him should he make entry into the store and suddenly leap out of his chair. And even if he did, the active threat could then be assessed and articulated differently.

This situation was horrifically rushed and could have easily been dealt with in a less lethal manner. I am sure that agency has less lethal options. I’m also sure that even any remotely trained officer could have made a fairly simple tactical approach and knocked over the wheelchair without being harmed. Throw a dang stick in the wheels for God’s sake. You’re in a Lowes!!!

There are numerous other options that could have been used that were not only not lethal to the suspect, but less dangerous to bystanders.

Just another very, very poor example of an officer getting tunnel vision and I will be very shocked if he is not criminally prosecuted.

A 27-year veteran officer commented:

Reference this OIS, there is a subject that committed a theft then pulled a knife on security. Sounds a bit like a robbery. Now, this subject (robbery suspect) is in a wheelchair. He rolls toward an open business, still armed with a knife, and refused clear Officer commands. I do not know if the Officer had a taser. I do not know if the back-up Officer had a flex baton or other less lethal, in the cruiser.

I do know that a knife never jams or runs out of ammo and can pose a threat to anyone in close proximity. The officer did not have the ability to control employee or customer movement, inside of the business or near the front door. The Officer on that call, in that difficult spot, has to justify his/her actions. I was not there, so I cannot justify it for the Officer.

I am glad Calibre Press ran this. These times call for better training and mental preparedness for officers.

Sgt. Alex Marmolejo (ret.) formerly with the Corona (CA) PD said:

It’s unfortunate the suspect was shot and killed. Let’s hope the officer who shot the suspect can justify his use of force in killing / stopping this suspect.

These types of incidents are very important to discuss during briefing / training sessions, so all officers can have input on how they would have handled an incident like this. I know the full report was not printed in this article, there are some questions and information I would like to know:

When the suspect pulled the knife, did he just display it or point it in a threatening manner?

What was the size of the knife (if it is a very small knife, less of a danger)?

Did he make verbal threats?

When the suspect pulled the knife and started towards Lowe’s, what is the distance from here to the entrance?

Did Officers and the Loss Prevention Officer see the Lowe’s employee at the entrance?

As this incident started, could someone “confirm” that the suspect did steal something and the value of the property stolen?

Severity of the crime: I know suspect is armed with some type of knife (size?). Once the suspect has been contacted, the officer can’t place himself in a position where maybe the suspect throws the knife and strikes him, causing injury, perhaps severe or possibly fatal.

Immediate threat to all: Unless you let it get out of hand, you have an open parking lot that the suspect is driving through with his wheelchair. Who is in the area that is not involved? Tell them to get away from the suspect’s area. Don’t place yourself in a bad position.

Resisting/evading arrest: Could be a very weak argument. Was there a theft? Was it confirmed? Here in California, the value of property being taken has to be over $1000.00 for the police to do anything. Funny situation: About two months ago at a local Lowe’s, one of their employees was informed by a local police officer that there had been an increase in 211 P.C. calls (taking of property by force/threats). Business have to sometimes stretch situations for the police to do their job, like arrest someone.  It does not appear the suspect had a large amount of suspected stolen property on him. If no one saw a crime/theft, the officer had NO business stopping the suspect

Primary officer fires but backup officer does not. Again, I would hope/pray the initial Officer can justify the reason for firing/stopping/killing the suspect. On the back up Officer, I would say this Officer did not fire because she didn’t see everything that happened before arriving. Experience levels of both Officers could be a reason why one fired and not the other. One Officer can be a hard charger (doing his job) and the other being a slug (one who avoids his job).

Was the shooting officer left with any choice? Back to my early comment, Officer needs to justify his ACTIONS. See suggestions.

Options? Yes, lots of options. See suggestions.

Justified shooting? From what I have in this article, I would say “no”. Getting some answers on some of the above information could maybe change things. The Officer’s statement could maybe help the situation out. Background information on the suspect: even though suspect is in a wheelchair, was he capable of hurting/killing others? Knife size? If it was a knife from a Cracker Jack Candy Box, the Police are going to have huge issues with this shooting/killing.

Could this have been handled differently? Hell yes.

Suggestions:  What things I would consider, before I would even shoot at the suspect? I keep falling back on issues/questions I mentioned earlier, but I think they are important.

How big was the knife? Was the suspect even capable of using it or throwing it? Did he have full strength of his arms? What was the distance from Lowe’s? More distance gives me more time to set up a game plan on addressing the suspect. I would have the Loss Prevention Officer distract the suspect from the front – at a safe distance — at a safe distance which would allow me to approach the suspect from the back of his wheelchair and: strike him with my baton (knife hand, collar bone), mace him and if approaching him was questionable, spray him with my car fire extinguisher. Something else to consider: from the rear of the suspect, are we able to push his wheelchair over? How about even stopping/parking your police car in front of the suspect, and another Officer can mace him, etc.

In a situation like this, an officer’s experience level can be a big factor. In handling your police calls, an officer needs to think and be smart. In today’s world, it appears everyone is waiting for police officers to do wrong. We need to be one step ahead of these clowns/jerks.

From Lt. John Phillips with the Wausau (WI) PD:

Was the shooting officer left with no choice? Based on the video, No.  There were definitelyother options. How about moving along and “decentralizing” the wheelchair (tipping it over).  Walking along with the subject and communicating to staff inside that the subject has a knife and to move out of the way or lock down.  Once deadly cover is established, a less lethal option like a Taser or Impact Munitions, if available, could be employed.  I recognize this is would be difficult, but turning off the wheelchair’s power. Many of those have power switches in the back of them.

Does the Graham Standard (objective reasonableness) as well as the parameters of the Deadly Force Triangle justify the decisions made in the moment?

The 3 prong Graham standard would be hard to meet based on the video alone.

1)     The severity of the crime?

Retail theft, and a possible brandishing-type charge.  In WI this would be Disorderly Conduct and Retail theft w/a use of a dangerous weapons enhancement making it a lower- level felony.  This doesn’t meet the level necessary for the deadly force SCOTUS reviews I have seen.

2)     Does the suspect pose an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others?I think this is where the most disagreement will occur.  The model we use in WI is the imminent threat criteria.  The suspect must have a weapon, intent, and a delivery system.  While this suspect did indeed have a weapon, and some intent was shown by displaying the knife to the store’s employee and the officer when confronted for the retail theft, the delivery system would be difficult for me to articulate based on the video alone.  Let me explain.  The subject was moving away from the store employee and officer which he had threatened at a slow but deliberate pace (2-3mph).  The subject was given commands, however the limited mobility, lack of any additional statements (going back to his intent) or actions towards others does not show clear intent by the subject that he  intended to do harm to anyone else, and was moving away from the persons he threatened.  While displaying the weapon does show some level of intent? Here the subject displayed a weapon but made not movements towards the officer or store employee and immediately begins moving away from them.

I am sure the argument is going to be made that the store employee where the subject was going in was at risk.  I understand this thinking, however I believe this is a stretch at best.  Again, the subject made no threats or statements about harming anyone else.  The subject isn’t wilding swing the knife around or moving rapidly towards others showing additional intent.

3)     Is the suspect actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight?

There is no active resistance.  While the subject is not complying with lawful orders, flight for me is a stretch here.

Overall, I do not believe these 3 prongs have been met.  Now I don’t know what the officer knew or perceived at the time which is an important piece to this analysis.  Nor do I know what level of training this office had which is also important to the analysis.

Could/should this have been handled differently? If so, what are your suggestions?

There were options.  How about tipping (decentralizing) the wheelchair.  Communicating with the store employees inside the store and ordering them to get out of the way and possibly lock the store down.  Once deadly cover is established a less lethal option (Taser, Impact Munitions, if available) could be deployed.  I recognize this would be difficult, but turning the power off the wheelchair.

Overall, communication, positioning, and tactics could have been used to the officers advantage in this situation.  While some pieces are still unknown, this does not help our profession in a time where the public and more than ever the courts expect us to exhaust all options.



Comments:
This is really overstepping your authority. A 60 YO man in a wheel chair wielding a knife. OK, this was totally way too much gun play by an officer against a wheelchair bound 60 year old person. A broom stick through the wheels would have stopped him where he sat. This person should not have even been considered for the job of law enforcement.
Posted by Sasquatch at 12/22/2021 2:12:11 PM

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