Misleading news reports of police shootings

Fox31 Denver — Shots fired: The data behind deadly force in Colorado:

Earlier this year Denver officers shot and killed a mentally ill man named Paul Castaway. Security camera video shows Castaway holding a knife to his own throat (and walking toward police) before an officer opened fire in front of more than a dozen children at a mobile home park.

And 20-year-old Ryan Ronquillo died in a hail of police bullets while attending a friend’s funeral. Denver police were trying to arrest Ronquillo on a car theft warrant when he reportedly tried to flee.

In both cases, officers were cleared of wrongdoing.

The above statements appear in a report by Fox31 in which the overall intent  is to show that police officers are often shooting suspects without justification.

I am not familiar with either of these cases and therefore do not claim to know anything more about them other than what is stated here by Fox31 News.  No one needs to know anything more about these cases to know that Fox31’s report is misleading.

In the Paul Castaway matter Fox says he was holding a knife to his own throat and walking toward a police officer. There were children present. Fox doesn’t say any of the children were injured so apparently none of them were in the officer’s line of fire.

On these facts alone the officer was justified and appropriately cleared by his department. Former police lieutenant Dennis Tueller did some experiments several decades ago to determine when and under what circumstances a man with a knife presents a deadly threat to a police officer (or to anyone), justifying that police officer (or anyone so threatened) in shooting the person wielding the knife.  A stabbing in the chest or abdomen is a grievous wound likely to cause death. Tueller found that a reasonably physically fit man can cover a distance of at least 21 feet and perhaps more in less than 2 seconds. A police officer likely needs all that time to raise his weapon, aim and shoot. That means that if the officer does not act immediately he may be killed or seriously injured.

Even if the officer already had the person making the threat in his gun sights, he would still be justified in shooting to stop the threat if the person was not complying with verbal commands to drop the knife. That the man was walking and not running is irrelevant if he was within the threat distance found by Tueller to be deadly.

Holding a knife to one’s own throat is barely less threatening to the officer than if the knife were upraised. A reasonably physically fit person can still plunge the knife forward in less than a heartbeat, perhaps his victim’s last heartbeat.

Almost all police officers are trained to do exactly what this officer did (according to Fox31) and that is most likely why he was cleared of any wrongdoing.  If one desires to live a long life one should never threaten a police officer (or anyone else) with a knife.

The Ryan Ronquillo story is almost certainly not as simple as Fox31 states above. The standard for shooting a fleeing felon were laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in Garner v. Tennessee in 1985 holding that a fleeing felon may not be fired upon unless “the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”  In other words the fleeing felon may be shot only if he presents such a threat to innocent life that his continued freedom cannot be tolerated.  Cops don’t shoot a fleeing suspect on no more than a car theft warrant.  Before 1985 it may have been different but since then all cops are trained under the rule of Garner.

The Fox31 statement on the shooting of Ryan Ronquillo is deficient on its face.  There had to be facts justifying the shooting which Fox31 leaves out. Otherwise, the shooting would not have been  justified, and the officer would not have been cleared. Since Fox31 is the one making the claim here the burden was on Fox31 to state the facts properly and completely. What they did say is misleading and suggests a political agenda has been allowed to take preference over honest reporting.

It’s not merely because both officers here were cleared of wrongdoing that we know they acted properly.  The burden on Fox31, in order to support the overall theme of its report, was to show that the Denver Police Department was wrong, that the officers were guilty of a crime.  Nothing stated in the report gives the reader any indication. Innuendo and speculation seems to be what Fox31 is asking of its readers. That is journalistic malpractice.

In Denver the District Attorney’s office reviews all police shooting and puts its report up at denverda.org.  The Castaway report is at here.  The officer’s statement was as follows:

I took a wide approach to the corner, and as I came around, he jumped out with the knife to his throat and he immediately started walking towards me aggressively and – and it wasn’t even a walk – it was – it was a fast walk. I had my gun pointed at him. I was yelling for him to drop the knife. I started to back up to try to create some distance between me and him and I hit something – I ran into something, and then I stumbled over kind of a speed bump and lost my footing for a second. And he just started coming even faster and faster and he was probably five to six feet approximately, I think, from me, and he started to move the knife from his throat towards me, and he didn’t stick it out, but he brought it down, and he was walking at me just aggressively and he wouldn’t stop, and I didn’t feel like I could back up anymore. I had already almost fell down.

I knew that those kids were still behind me. They weren’t listening for me to tell them to go into the house. I – at that point when that knife came down and he was so close, I – I made the decision to shoot. I thought he was going to stab me with the knife. I thought he was going to try to kill me.

The DA’s letter to the Police Chief explaining why he found the officer to have acted properly says that the officer’s statement is corroborated by video surveillance. Fox31 reporters are apparently too lazy to have looked this up. All it would have taken is a couple of mouse clicks on a computer.

The Ryan Ronquillo report is here. In that case the suspect was not even a fleeing felon at the moment he was shot. He was in the process of making a direct deadly threat to officers with a formidable weapon, an automobile. DA Mitch Morrissey said,

This incident is a direct result of choices made by Ronquillo: He first chose to steal a car. He then chose to flee despite almost no viable options – backing up and hitting two private cars, one occupied by several members of a family, then running into a police car. He then chose to drive forward toward armed law enforcement officers who had given him repeated commands to stop and repeated opportunities to surrender. As noted previously, the violence of his actions can be seen in the surveillance video; that fact that no civilians and only one officer was injured is remarkable.

The principles of Tennessee v. Garner were not necessary to justify the shooting of Ryan Ronquillo because he was not shot to prevent him from committing future violence but to stop his present violence then and there.

See this very thorough report from Westword.


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