Over and over, shooting probes exonerate officers
- Article by: ALEJANDRA MATOS and NICOLE NORFLEET
- Star Tribune staff writers
- April 26, 2014 - 7:47 AM
The state has investigated 83 shootings of individuals by law enforcement officers over the past decade, and all but one led to the same finding: The use of deadly force was justified.
Records of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that were examined by the Star Tribune found that the agency was called in to investigate shootings involving 65 departments statewide from 2003 through 2013. Collectively, those incidents resulted in the deaths of 44 people and injuries to 39 others, the records show.
In the only case deemed unjustified, a McLeod County sheriff’s deputy was indicted on a charge of a nonfatal shooting of an unarmed man in 2012, but charges were dismissed, records show.
In December, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau announced that the BCA would take over investigations of the city’s “critical incidents,” such as officer-involved shootings, as a move to increase public confidence. That proposal came under sharp criticism from the police union and Gov. Mark Dayton, and the BCA said earlier this month that “Minneapolis will continue to handle its own officer-involved shooting investigations.”
The BCA said its role is simply to provide the facts and an independent investigation, and that county attorneys make the determination on whether to pursue charges. Assistant Superintendent Drew Evans said it would be “inappropriate” for the BCA to make recommendations for criminal indictments or officer discipline.
“You’ll never see a file with us that says justified or unjustified, or any judgment, as to what occurred in that case,” Evans said.
The BCA’s “case closure reports” show law enforcement departments across the state dealing with split-second, often deadly, decisions. Many of those shot were suicidal, under the influence of drugs or alcohol or suffering other mental health crises. In all cases, the police officers said they felt their lives or the lives of their colleagues were in danger.
Yet the absence of charges against officers over the past 10 years indicates to some defense attorneys and advocates that county attorneys are reluctant to prosecute officers for fear of jeopardizing their relationship. They point to the need for an independent review board to consider whether an officer’s use of force warrants discipline.
“If there has only been one unjustified case, that in and of itself raises red flags,” said attorney Jim Behrenbrinker, who represents victims of alleged police brutality.
A local agency has discretion over whether to call in the BCA to look into a police-involved shooting. The records show they tend to be smaller agencies, because Minneapolis, St. Paul and other large departments often handle the cases internally.
Evans called its probes “conflict investigations,” because a department determines that investigating its own officers poses a potential conflict of interest.
“They are making a conscious decision to bring in that outside agency that is independent, unconnected to them, to conduct the investigation,” Evans said.
The case closure reports show instances where officers were dealing with violent attacks and high-speed chases, but there were also instances where victims had an unloaded or fake gun. In at least two cases, no weapon was found.
Officers often faced hostile and uncooperative people who posed an obvious threat. In 2010, Donnie Lira showed up at his estranged wife’s home in Mountain Iron, Minn., and shot several rifle rounds at her house, according to the BCA’s investigation. Officers from the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office and Minnesota State Patrol were heading to the home when trooper Travis Pearson encountered Lira’s vehicle.
When Pearson told Lira to show his hands, Lira pulled out the rifle and pointed it at Pearson. Pearson then fired his semiautomatic handgun and killed Lira, according to the documents.
After the BCA investigated the case, St. Louis County attorney Melanie Ford determined Pearson’s actions were justified, saying, “These actions placed trooper Pearson in the unfortunate position of having no [other] reasonable option than to fire at Lira.”
In at least 14 cases, officers faced individuals who were suicidal or had mental health issues, the Star Tribune’s analysis showed.
Just before her 23-year-old son was shot dead in July 2008, Tammy Hegi warned the officers that he wanted to end his life, Hegi said in an interview. Brandon Rodriguez had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend outside Hegi’s home in Hastings. Rodriguez got drunk and smashed the windows of her car. Then he grabbed a Samurai-style sword from the home and headed toward a cemetery behind his house.
A man reported that Rodriguez chased him in the cemetery and swung the sword at him after he said he was calling police, BCA records show. When police arrived, they jumped the back fence into the cemetery and ran after Rodriguez. “I told them when they were jumping the fence, ‘Don’t shoot him because he’s suicidal,’ ” Hegi said.
When he was confronted, Rodriguez charged toward the three Hastings police officers and a Dakota County sheriff’s deputy but stopped when he was ordered to drop his sword, authorities said. He started forward again and threatened to kill them. One officer used a stun gun on Rodriguez, but he kept advancing. Then Hastings Police Sgt. James Galland fired four shots at Rodriguez.
Hegi said she heard what she thought were firecrackers and then overheard over the police radio that shots had been fired. Rodriguez died at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.
“I don’t think he really thought that they were going to harm him,” Hegi said. “He was drunk. And he made a bad choice.”
Hegi was infuriated when the officers involved with the shooting were given awards. “I thought, how in the hell are they getting Medals of Honor when first of all there was nobody to save?” she said.
The BCA’s investigation was presented to a grand jury, who returned a “no bill” of charges against Galland.
Unjustified case thrown out
Rodriguez’s case belonged in the minority of BCA investigations in which a grand jury made the determination on whether to file charges. That decision is left to individual county attorneys 75 percent of the time.
Dakota County attorney James Backstrom said it’s up to the county attorneys to determine which cases are sent to a grand jury. He said he sends all shooting death cases to a grand jury, and said he has “prosecuted a number of law enforcement officers for committing crimes in Dakota County. They need to be held accountable like everyone else.”
The one BCA “conflict investigation” that led to charges had been presented to a grand jury. On April 13, 2012, McLeod County sheriff’s deputy Mark Eischens was part of a team searching the Rich Valley, Minn., home of Harry Ondracek.
Eischens told the BCA investigator he heard a loud bang or thud and thought it was a gunshot. Then Eischens said he saw Ondracek come into a doorway and “thought he was shooting at me.” Eischens shot and wounded Ondracek, who was unarmed.
The grand jury indicted the deputy on four charges, including intentional discharge of a firearm, second-degree assault and intent to inflict bodily harm. But Sibley County attorney David Schauer dropped the case after several officers changed their testimony and the court was persuaded by Eischens’ attorneys to use a different definition for the use-of-force standard, according to a letter Schauer sent to the BCA.
“At this time I do not believe the case can be proved up beyond a reasonable doubt,” Schauer wrote in a dismissal document filed in January.
In an interview, Schauer said even though he was forced to drop the case, he stands by the grand jury’s indictment. Eischens received no disciplinary action.
Sometimes attorneys have won compensation in civil court after officers have been exonerated on the criminal side.
In July 2009, LeSueur County sheriff’s deputy Todd Waldron shot Tyler Heilman twice in the chest after a traffic stop, BCA records show. Heilman was unarmed and dressed only in swim trunks. He scuffled with Waldron, who was in plain clothes and did not identify himself as a law officer, the records show.
A grand jury in Anoka County returned “no bills,” exonerating Waldron. He faced no disciplinary action.
Behrenbrinker, the attorney, represented Heilman’s family in a subsequent lawsuit against the LeSueur Sheriff’s Office. The county settled the family’s lawsuit in 2012 for $750,000.
Samuel Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska Omaha and author of two books on police accountability, said an “independent” review of an officer-involved shooting by the BCA is only “a good first step,” and said cases need to be reviewed outside of a criminal standard.
Walker suggests that the BCA should “broaden their mission” by reviewing whether use-of-force procedures were followed and making recommendations for officer discipline or further training. “It can reduce the likelihood that somebody will be unnecessarily shot and killed,” Walker said.
Evans, with the BCA, said that would “not be an appropriate role for us to play.”
“We are conducting a criminal investigation,” Evans said. “We are not the employer for those individual officers. They are the ones that need to make the determinations if there were any violations of their internal policies and procedures.”
Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028
© 2014 Star Tribune