Obey Little. Resist Even Less.

Further investigation in the Dawes case

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."

Sheriff's Detective J.J. Bushong: "Did you hear him shouting at the other subject after you had taken the driver to the ground?"

Officer French: "I could hear something on that side, but I knew he was saying something, but I couldn't understand exactly what he was saying . . . "

Throughout the investigation by the Sheriff's Office, the candor of Officer Jim French is remarkable. In repeated interviews, he is brutally honest about what happened during the shooting. Though he could have done so without fear of contradiction, he never suggested that Jeffrey Dawes resisted arrest.

If the truth is that Officer French's mistake led to a wrongful death, Officer French still prefers the truth to dishonesty.

Less admirable is the public-relations spin put upon the shooting by DPS.
In the beginning, we were told that nothing from the investigation would be released until the Sheriff's Office completed its probe.

It was only hours, however, before the character assassination of Jeffrey Dawes began.

Selected items from the investigation were leaked to the media.
DPS immediately released the radio transcript of the officers involved in the chase as well as the fact that Dawes, with a 0.11 blood-alcohol level, was legally intoxicated (though just barely--police sources estimate that fewer than four beers would have produced this reading in a person the size of Dawes).

This information is both relevant and damning.
In fact, if the chase came down the way we've been told, there is no excusing it. You can understand that a seventeen-year-old is capable of something as stupid as fleeing from the cops and endangering the lives of everyone who was on Interstate 10 that evening. But understanding just how thrilling teenagers find a chase is not the same as excusing it.

Still, the chase was over and the boy had surrendered with his hands in the air when he was shot.

The media campaign did not end with the selective release of the chase transcript and the blood-alcohol reading.

On Monday, January 29, Sheriff's Detective P.J. Riley was asked by Sergeant J.M. Mulhavey to run criminal background checks on the teenagers.

This information was then leaked to the press.
We learned that Dawes had blown a stop sign, had a single speeding ticket, was observed upon a moped without a permit, and had been caught drinking beer under age. A regular Pretty Boy Floyd.

Despite the fact that Detective Riley unearthed little except for the pettiest offenses, by Thursday, newspaper headlines were touting Jeffrey Dawes' criminal background.

At the same time, DPS' Schmidt was releasing reports, which got prominent play, on what a fine officer French was.

On February 2, the Sheriff's Office was notified by Southwestern Laboratories that after extensive screening, the body of Jeffrey Dawes was found to contain absolutely no drugs.

On February 5, Detective J.J. Bushong was still interviewing people on whether or not it was possible that Jeffrey Dawes was somehow involved in drugs.

Despite the fact that Dawes had absolutely no drugs in his body, despite the fact that the Sheriff's Office was told repeatedly by Dawes' classmates that he did not take drugs, unsubstantiated gossip was leaked to the press linking the slain teenager to drugs.

Shortly after the shooting, under a headline that read, "Report Says Teen Shot After Chase Was Drunk," Sergeant Schmidt from DPS was quoted at his cynical best telling a reporter that the slain teenager's parents would have all of their questions answered by the sheriff's investigation.

"I don't know if they'll be happy with the answers," said Sergeant Schmidt. "I'm not happy with everything my kids do."

Of course, the sheriff's investigation does not provide answers to all of the parents' questions.

Nowhere in the 600-page report is Colonel Milstead's warning about training to prevent "sympathetic muscle response" shooting mentioned.

Nowhere in the 600-page report is Officer French asked if he violated DPS training procedures.

Following Colonel Milstead's December '83 interview where he described the dangers of sympathetic muscle reaction, DPS in October '84 produced a training videotape specifically to deal with this problem. Although the training film, Involuntary Reflex, is a part of the Sheriff's Office catalogue of evidence, the issue is never raised with French.

In fact, DPS officers realized from the very beginning that the shooting of Jeffrey Dawes was a nightmare.

Attorney Richard Treon, representing Jeffrey Dawes' parents, has asked the DPS to turn over all the relevant tape-recorded conversations, not just the chase sequence, in this shooting.

So far, the state police have not complied.
The parents, however, do have one interesting tape.
The cassette arrived in the mail. It is a conversation monitored moments after the shooting between two DPS officers, one of whom is on the scene.

Officer on the scene: " . . . I'm not even sure it was a pursuit 'cause the guy did pull over . . . nothing more, now, uh, at the most, reckless driving."

Second Officer: "Not armed?"
Officer on the scene: "No, no weapons at this time . . . "
Second Officer: "Shit!"

Officer on the scene: "Yeah, that's about it . . . I have recommended to the deputy that the Sheriff's Office take the criminal part of it. That's what I would like to happen."

Second Officer: "Yeah, well, I would too, but if they are gonna decline to do that, we need to know that in the next few minutes."

Officer on the scene: "No, they will decline if we, if we, uh, ask them to decline it, I think they will. If we ask them to take it, they will take it . . . "

Second Officer: " . . . The press isn't on you yet, I assume?"
Officer on the scene: "No, but . . . the press isn't out here but it will be. Well, in fact, I'll have radio call out Allan Schmidt."

Second Officer: "Yeah."
Officer on the scene: "So we can make a press release on this."
Second Officer: "I think we better get him out there."

The more time you spend looking into the killing of Jeffrey Dawes, the more you appreciate how important public-relations mouthpiece Sergeant Allan Schmidt is to the state police.

Officer French was quite explicit: Jeffrey Dawes was not resisting arrest.

If the truth is that Officer French's mistake led to a wrongful death, Officer French still prefers the truth to dishonesty.

Understanding just how thrilling teenagers find a chase is not the same as excusing it.

A seven-year-old interview with Ralph Milstead makes it very clear why this shooting must not be whitewashed.

Both officers were screaming orders at Dawes.

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