There are only two possibilities: Minneapolis police officer Efrem Hamilton was instinctively reacting to the threat of what he perceived was a carful of shooting suspects. Or he was a poorly-trained officer who recklessly opened fire on a carful of innocent people.
Those were the arguments presented to a jury Wednesday by the prosecution and defense at the opening of his trial. He faces charges of second-degree assault and two counts of intentional discharge of a firearm, all felonies.
Hamilton was put on leave after being relieved of duty a month after the Nov. 20, 2016 incident in downtown Minneapolis. He was later cleared of wrongdoing by a civilian panel that investigates police misconduct, but it’s unclear whether Police Chief Medaria Arradondo has made a final decision in the disciplinary case.
When approached after the hearing, Hamilton’s attorney Fred Bruno declined to comment, saying, “I’m on a gag order.”
On the night of the shooting, Hamilton, who was working an off-duty policing job at the nearby Pourhouse nightclub, responded to the scene after a dispatch call went out about a large brawl-turned-shooting near Target Field authorities said. When a car that was trying to back away from the chaotic scene ran into his police SUV, he fired a single round at the victims’ BMW, hitting its side. No one was hurt, but the incident prompted strong criticism from police reform groups, who questioned his decision to fire without warning and called for Hamilton’s firing.
On Wednesday, prosecutor Tara Ferguson Lopez argued that Hamilton acted recklessly when he fired at the sedan, without warning.
“The defendant then opens his squad door, jumps out of his squad and immediately fires a gunshot into the BMW,” she said. “A gunshot, no commands given before.”
The bullet “came awfully close” to hitting Devyn O’Curran, who was sitting in the back, she said.
Bruno countered that officers are allowed under state law to use lethal force to defend themselves or to stop potentially violent suspects. He argued that given what Hamilton had acted appropriately, based on the information he’d received from dispatchers — that there’d been a shooting nearby and a suspect’s vehicle was spotted leaving the area.
“He could’ve gone home to his family; he could’ve stopped to get a beer,” Bruno told jurors. “But, what did he do? He went to help out his brothers and sisters.”
Last January, The car’s six occupants — Deshaun Robinson, O’Curran, Chea Bemah, Caylea Wade, Michael Hughes and Thalia Johnson — reached a $150,000 civil settlement with the city. The payout will be split among them.
A few months later, Hamilton’s attorney filed a motion asking that his trial be moved out of Hennepin County because of the officer’s professional relationship with the prosecutor’s office in prosecuting crimes. The motion was denied.
Police forensic specialist Tracy McDougall, the only witness to take the stand on the first day of the trial, testified that she and her colleagues recovered a single bullet from a rear driver’s side panel.