In a deadly seconds-long encounter, a knife-wielding man charged a St. Paul police officer who yelled at him to drop the weapon before firing two fatal shots, according to body camera footage released Tuesday.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell released the recording at a news conference and made an emotional statement vehemently defending the officer’s actions in the Sept. 15 shooting in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood.
“When we make mistakes, the St. Paul Police Department has a proven record of taking responsibility. However, this is not one of those times,” Axtell said. “And while I recognize the trauma that has been caused by a history of policing practices throughout our country that have disproportionately affected communities of color, I also cannot stand by — I simply can’t sleep at night — knowing that a good officer, and all of our officers, are being assailed by people who don’t have the facts.”
Axtell appeared both angry at times and sad about the shooting, saying his heart goes out to the family of 31-year-old Ronald K. Davis, who was killed, and also to officer Steven Mattson, who has been with the St. Paul department for less than a year.
However, a coalition of activists reiterated their calls for an independent investigation and the release of additional video from the scene, saying Axtell’s comments undermined those seeking justice.
“We have a right to stand for justice. We have a right to accountability,” Nekima Levy-Armstrong said alongside others outside Western District headquarters hours after the footage was released.
The shooting occurred at the intersection of W. Thomas Avenue and N. Griggs Street shortly before 6 p.m. on that Sunday. It is the ninth officer-involved shooting in Minnesota this year.
The video shows Mattson’s squad car jolted as it is struck from behind by Davis. Mattson puts the car into park and taps the body camera on his chest so the audio begins as Mattson exits the squad.
Mattson appears to be barely out of the car when Davis is seen charging toward him with a knife in his right hand and his arm raised. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Holy [expletive]!” Mattson exclaims, falling on his back briefly with the camera showing images of leafy treetops and blue sky before he stands back up. “Get the [expletive] … Get away from me!” he yells.
Then Davis is heard saying, “Get the [expletive] up, man” as he charges again toward the officer and picks up the flashlight Mattson had dropped in the street.
“Get away from me! Drop the knife! Drop the [expletive] knife! Drop the knife!” Mattson said before he fired his gun twice.
The encounter lasted 13 seconds from when Mattson exited the squad to when shots were fired. Davis is briefly seen writhing on the ground near the curb immediately afterward. “Shots fired, shots fired, Thomas and Griggs, one has been shot,” Mattson said breathlessly as he radioed the incident. “Oh, [expletive]!”
“He’s still at gunpoint, he’s on the ground, he’s bleeding, have medics stage nearby,” Mattson continues, calmly directing a bystander to stay back. Heavy damage to the front end of the car Davis was driving could be seen.
The footage then ends.
Davis was pronounced dead at the scene and investigators found a knife next to his body, police said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Melvin Carter echoed Axtell in saying the officer acted appropriately.
“I see officer Mattson retreating and defending himself,” he said. “I can’t tell you what beyond that I would have expected him to do.”
Carter stopped short of saying the officer should not be charged, saying that decision would be made by the county attorney after the BCA investigation is complete.
On Sunday, a week after the shooting, several dozen protesters marched peacefully from the St. Paul Police Western District headquarters at 389 Hamline Av. N. to the site of the shooting, calling for justice for Davis.
Axtell said in his statement that he hoped the video’s release “Will allow us to move forward with mature discourse about how such tragedies can be prevented in the future — without having to wade through the waters of irresponsible accusations of murder, calculated cries of injustice, and threats made against an officer who had no choice but to defend himself against an immediate and violent attack.”
“Wearing a badge does not automatically make you wrong any more than standing in the street with a megaphone automatically makes you right,” he said.
In a statement, the Twin Cities Coalition 4 Justice 4 Jamar decried Axtell’s statements, and demanded the release of further documentation on the shooting.
“Such comments, especially in the midst of a pending investigation were unnecessary, inappropriate, and perpetuate a narrative that is anti-activist in a climate that is already hostile to activists and particularly people of color seeking justice,” the group said in a statement.
The officer-involved-shooting comes as St. Paul endures an unusual cycle of violence, including a triple shooting outside the State Fair on Labor Day. Axtell has beefed up patrols on the city’s streets. He and the mayor have been at odds over the chief’s push for more officers on the streets.