Minneapolis police officer Efrem Hamilton said he reacted the only way he could when he fired his service weapon at what he believed was a shooting suspect’s vehicle colliding with his Minneapolis police SUV.
The prosecution sees it differently.
Hamilton took the stand Tuesday in his second-degree assault trial for the November 2016 shooting near Target Field. He denied acting recklessly by firing a bullet into a carful of people, who turned out to be fleeing the shooting he was responding to. Instead, he testified, that he was acting on information from dispatchers, who identified the suspect’s vehicle as a “gray sedan.”
At the time of the shooting, Hamilton was unaware that officers nearby had already stopped another vehicle matching that description, his lawyer Fred Bruno said.
No one was injured when Hamilton fired, but Hennepin County prosecutors took the unusual step of charging an officer “acting under the color of the law.”
The prosecution rested its case earlier in the day on Tuesday.
Hamilton, who was working off-duty at a downtown nightclub when he heard police radio reports about a large brawl-turned-shooting, acknowledged that officers are trained to de-escalate and to use deadly force only as a last resort. But he told jurors that he feared for his life when he heard what sounded like an engine revving.
He told jurors that he didn’t have time to consider whether the driver’s actions resulted from other factors like drugs, alcohol or a medical condition — as officers are trained to do.
Hesitating could have put his life or those of fellow officers in danger, Hamilton testified, which forced him to make a split-second decision.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Tara Ferguson Lopez questioned whether Hamilton, who testified that he was aiming at the engine block, stopped to consider whether the bullet could have sailed past the car and hit any of the dozens of bystanders.
“And you still took that shot?” she asked.
“I did take that shot, yes,” he responded.
Video of the encounter, captured on his police squad’s dash camera, shows that Hamilton fired almost immediately after getting out of the squad.
Ferguson Lopez said the officer’s response was disproportionate with the threat posed. Other officers who responded at the scene didn’t fire their weapons, she argued.
“You had a property damage accident, yet you felt you had no [other] option?” she asked Hamilton on cross-examination.
He responded that in such a case, retreat isn’t an option.
“You have to win or you die,” he said.
“You didn’t die from this minor property accident, did you officer?” Ferguson Lopez responded.
A day after accusing three of her witnesses, who were also police officers, of changing their testimony on the stand, prosecutor Ferguson Lopez again hammered on what she saw as inconsistencies in Hamilton’s accounts.
The defense is expected to call its remaining witnesses on Wednesday.