By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Here is how the police investigate a fellow officer.
In the midnight hour of January 28, two uniformed patrolmen from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) pulled over seventeen-year-old Jeffrey Dawes and his sixteen-year-old passenger Aaron Carstens. The teenagers had led the state troopers on a freeway chase where speeds exceeded 100 mph.
When Dawes climbed out of his Firebird, however, he raised his arms in surrender.
Officer Jim French pushed the teenager, grabbing him by the back of the collar with his free hand. French's right hand accidentally squeezed the trigger of his .45-caliber semiautomatic, shooting Dawes in the head and killing him instantly.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office investigated the homicide to determine whether or not criminal charges should be filed against French of the DPS.
At the end of a long, taped interview, Sheriff's Detective Ken Floyd asked Officer French an astounding question.
Throughout the interrogation, Officer French was quite explicit: Jeffrey Dawes had his hands raised in surrender. Jeffrey Dawes was not carrying a weapon. Jeffrey Dawes had his back turned to the officer. And Jeffrey Dawes was not, repeat, was not resisting arrest.
Detective Ken Floyd: "Again, Jim, when you approached the driver to take him down, to take him into custody, was there ever any overt movement or any defensive-type movement or any aggressive-type movement out of this driver towards you? Was there, in other words, what I'm getting at, was there any type of struggle?"
Officer Jim French: "No, there was not."
Detective Ken Floyd: "He didn't offer any resistance?"
Officer Jim French: "I tried not to give him the opportunity to give any resistance."
Detective Ken Floyd: "So your stress level at that point, I'm sure the adrenaline is really flowing. Uh, could it have been that, that uh, due to the stress level of yourself at that point that you, he might have resisted some, and you just were not aware of it?"
Officer Jim French: "That's possible."
With such a rigorous line of interrogation by the Sheriff's Office, are you at all surprised that the county attorney found no grounds for prosecuting Officer French?
The day after the shooting, DPS spokesman Sergeant Allan Schmidt announced that Jeffrey Dawes was killed when he refused to get down on the ground as ordered. Schmidt said Officer French, in attempting to wrestle the teenager to the ground, suffered a "sympathetic muscle reaction." As French's left hand squeezed the seventeen-year-old's jacket, the officer's right hand automatically squeezed the trigger in sympathy.
We were supposed to accept this as the final word. The homicide was a perfectly understandable accident.
But there is nothing understandable at all about the killing of Jeffrey Dawes.
If this sympathetic muscle reaction is so automatic, so predictable, why did Officer French have his finger on the trigger? Jeffrey Dawes had given up. His hands were visible and raised in surrender.
A seven-year-old videotape interview with then-head of DPS Colonel Ralph Milstead makes it very clear why this shooting must not be whitewashed.
In 1983, Colonel Milstead fully explained the dangers of a sympathetic muscle reaction. " . . . when you're under stress and blood has gone to large muscle groups . . . you are confronted with a situation, both hands grasp at the same time, if one of them happens to have your weapon in it and you reach out to grab your suspect with the other hand, both hands squeeze at the same time. You are going to have an accidental discharge of the round," said Colonel Milstead.
"What we're finding is a lot of our officers don't know of this phenomenon. It's necessary for us to develop a training program where they become aware of that.
"There are many cases on file, many I've investigated personally, where the officer was reaching out to grab someone and squeeze the weapon at the same time. Ones I've investigated, on two occasions, have resulted in fatalities to the suspect."
Seven years later, the fatalities continue.
Sergeant Schmidt told the press that Jeffrey Dawes resisted arrest. The teenager refused to get on the ground when ordered to do so.
But the taped interviews with Officer Jim French and the other state trooper present at the shooting offer a different picture.
Both officers were screaming orders at Dawes. And both officers frankly admit that neither of them could understand what the other officer was shouting.
The question is whether or not seventeen-year-old Jeffrey Dawes understood the two state troopers any better than they understood each other.
Officer James Messerly: ". . . He [Dawes] stepped out of the driver's door and turned towards Officer French and myself. Officer French was giving him some commands and I was, uh, ask, I was requesting that he get down on the ground also. Uh, I believe that's what Officer French was asking, but I can't really be specific. I don't even know if the young man heard me because he turned towards Officer French . . . "
Sheriff's Detective J.J. Bushong: "Did you hear Officer Messerly giving any orders?"
Officer French: "I, I believe I could hear him, but I think the sound of my voice at that time was drowning him out."