Most officer-involved shootings last year deemed justified, county attorney says

2014-03-09T00:00:00Z 2014-03-09T11:49:40Z Most officer-involved shootings last year deemed justified, county attorney saysBy Kimberly Matas Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

While the investigation continues into the fatal shooting last month of a suspected bank robber by three Tucson police officers, records from the Pima County Attorney’s Office show that 13 of 15 shootings in 2013 involving area officers or deputies were determined to be justified.

However, in the other two cases — one was deemed unjustified and one was determined to be questionable — the County Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute, saying it was unlikely juries would find the involved law enforcement officers guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Last year, Tucson police officers were involved in eight shootings, five of which were fatal. Of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department six shootings, three were fatal. And one officer from the South Tucson Police Department was involved in a nonfatal shooting.

Police shooting

In documents released to the Star last week by the Pima County Attorney’s Office, it was determined that a shooting involving Tucson Police Officer Jamie Gutierrez was unjustified.

Gutierrez was setting up traffic cones to block a road Nov. 17 while detectives investigated a late-night homicide when Ramon Soto-Cedeno, then 36, drove around the cones.

Gutierrez, who was on foot, caught up to the truck and stopped it to talk to Soto-Cedeno and his passenger. In the county attorney’s report, Gutierrez said he placed his foot in the space between the passenger side door and the running board to keep the passenger from opening it. Gutierrez saw open beer containers in the truck and asked the driver to get out. Instead, Soto-Cedeno began driving away. Gutierrez, whose foot was stuck, was dragged alongside the truck.

With his free hand Gutierrez unholstered his gun and fired two shots into the truck before breaking free. Soto-Cedeno, who was shot in the leg, crashed his truck and ran to a mobile home park, where he was arrested.

Statements from officers and witnesses were “somewhat inconsistent” as to whether Gutierrez fired his gun before or after he fell from the truck, according to prosecutors.

“To properly evaluate Officer Gutierrez’ claim of self-defense, the State must evaluate whether it could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that at the time the officer fired his weapon, Officer Gutierrez’ use of force was not reasonable and immediately necessary under the circumstances,” the county attorney’s investigator, Chief Criminal Deputy Kellie Johnson, wrote in a January letter to Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor.

Ultimately, the investigator determined “Officer Gutierrez’ use of force was not justified under applicable law.

The report said, however, that to charge the officer with a crime prosecutors would need to show “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” that his conduct was not justified.

“I find it unlikely that the State could meet its burden of proof,” the investigator wrote. “Accordingly, there is no reasonable likelihood of conviction in this matter.”

Following an officer-involved shooting, Villaseñor convenes a board of inquiry to review the incident, said Lt. Chris Wildblood, a TPD spokesman.

The board makes a recommendation to the chief about possible disciplinary action or whether any issues need to be addressed or resolved in the areas of training, policy, equipment, tactics and supervision, Wildblood said.

“We do change training based on things we find out. When you go through training you can’t think of every contingency or scenario,” Wildblood said. “We tweak or adjust things and offer training based on lessons learned in those scenarios.”

The incident involving Gutierrez is still being reviewed, Wildblood said.

Sheriff’s procedure

The sheriff’s department has a similar review board of department personnel who examine all deputy shootings.

“They go over every aspect of the incident,” said Deputy Tracy Suitt, spokesman for the department. “If they see something was done in violation of policies or procedures, they decide what’s to be done,” whether that means a disciplinary action or additional training.

Because the County Attorney’s Office just released its review of a December shooting involving Sgt. Derek Tyra, the incident has not yet been reviewed by the department’s board. However, no disciplinary actions were taken in the other five deputy-involved shootings from 2013, Suitt said. In an assessment of the Dec. 2 incident involving Tyra, the County Attorney’s Office called the shooting “not unjustified” but didn’t go so far as to determine the use of force was justified, either — in part because the sergeant declined to make a statement “about his state of mind at the time he fired his weapon, and therefore there is no evidence of whether he subjectively believed that he or third parties were in imminent danger at the time he fired his rifle,” according to a letter from Johnson.

The morning of the shooting, deputies were called to a north-side home by a woman who said her roommate, Scott Mitchell, 46, was suicidal and had a firearm. After a five-hour standoff during which Mitchell shot and disabled a SWAT robot and fired several rounds at deputies, tear gas was fired into the home. When Mitchell came out, he was shot and killed by Tyra, a 14-year department veteran. A revolver and a rifle were found near Mitchell’s body.

In the county attorney’s report, Johnson wrote: “There is insufficient evidence to prove that Sgt. Tyra’s conduct was not justified. Therefore, there is no reasonable likelihood that a jury would convict him of any crime in connection with this incident.”

The most recent officer-involved shooting, which is still under review, occurred Feb. 22. Tucson Police Sgt. Jeremy Williams and Officers Jason Ives and Jason Hollander collectively fired 18 rounds, when they confronted a suspected armed bank robber in the back yard of a midtown home, said Sgt. Chris Widmer, a spokesman for the department.

Police said the suspect, Armando Alvarez, 44, was attempting to conceal a black object in his right hand behind his leg and refused to drop the object. 

"The suspect made a quick, furtive movement and raised the object up, pointing it in the direction of the officers," according to a TPD news release. 

All three officers fired their guns. Alvarez died at a hospital. After the shooting, officers learned Alvarez was holding a wrench, not a gun, Widmer said. However, in the suspect’s backpack, they found money stolen from the bank, and a black Airsoft pistol, which looks similar to a semi-automatic handgun but fires plastic pellets.

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