A Board of Inquiry has found a Tucson police officer who shot an armed suspect last year to have been justified in his use of deadly force, but recommended changes be implemented within the department.
In December, a TPD administrative board of inquiry said in a report that Officer Ryder Schrage made significant attempts to communicate with the suspect, but was “forced into a dangerous position.”
“He had no choice but to defend himself against (the suspect) advancing on him with two sharp objects,” the report said.
While the shooting was justified, the board found a number of issues with how the situation played out and it said there was “some opportunity for improvement in the areas of policy, training, equipment and tactics.”
On July 8, 2016, police officers with the mental-health support team responded to a call for assistance from the mobile acute crisis team to help serve a petition of mental-health evaluation on Abraham Smith after his family learned he’d “recently made attempts to barter for a handgun with his neighbors,” the report said.
After running a records check on Smith, Schrage learned he had previous contacts with police. His sister told officers that he’d taken a vow of silence, but was able to hear.
Three officers approached Smith’s trailer and knocked on the door for at least 10 minutes before retrieving a key from Smith’s sister and unlocking the door, as Schrage announced what they were doing, the report said.
After opening the door, Schrage called out to Smith for another five to 10 minutes, before announcing that officers were entering the trailer, according to the report.
Smith came out of the bathroom wearing a heavy winter coat, winter gloves and had a large knife in one hand and a piece of glass in the other. As Smith came toward the officers — who were about 8 feet away — they retreated from the trailer, but Schrage ended up backed against a fence, the report said.
As the officers continued to tell Smith to drop the weapons, he advanced toward Schrage “not in a sprint but a rapid walk, coming within 4 feet of Schrage before he fired his gun. Smith kept advancing and Schrage shot him a second time, having to move out of the way to avoid Smith falling on him.”
In November, the Pima County Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against Schrage, saying he reasonably feared for his safety and his actions were justified under the law.
The six-person Board of Inquiry — made up of police employees, a legal adviser and an independent police auditor — interviewed the three officers involved, the mental-health support team supervisor and a patrol supervisor who arrived at the scene after the incident.
While the board decided that equipment and supervision weren’t factors in the incident, they recommended some policy changes related to supervisor notification.
While officers on the mental-health support team aren’t required to notify supervisors before making entry, officers in other divisions are required to do so, after which a sergeant will decide if they need to respond to the scene.
The board recommended that the policy be changed to require supervisor notification by all officers before entering a residence to serve mental-health orders, including the mental-health support team.
The board also recommended a policy change that officers be required to use de-escalation tactics to reduce the need for force, if time and circumstances allow.
In regard to training, the board suggested that additional scenario-based training in these types of situations be required, as well as an additional annual class on tactics used by the mental-health support team.
During their interviews, the officers admitted to not creating a tactical plan before entering the trailer, leading the board to recommend that tactical-response training be used as a refresher course for advanced officer training.
“The officers did not contain the trailer, evacuate the immediate area or give assignments for containment, negotiations, and having an arrest team in place, prior to attempting contact with (Smith,)” the report said.
Although equipment wasn’t a factor in the incident, because of the winter coat Smith was wearing, Schrage didn’t think his TASER would be effective in stopping Smith.
The mental-health support team is not assigned flex batons or ballistic shields, which Schrage asked be issued to team members, and which the board said would need to be explored based on the availability of the items.
On March 21, Police Chief Chris Magnus signed off on the review and asked that a team meet to implement strategies for all of the board’s recommendations.
The changes to the department’s general orders that covers the MHST and mental-health calls are in the process of being written, after which they’ll go through a multi-level review process before being implemented, said Sgt. Pete Dugan.