Did Phoenix Police Need to Kill Zachariah Pithan?
During the uproar over the 2010 shooting death of South Phoenix resident Danny Rodriguez by former Phoenix Police Officer Richard Chrisman, I often wondered why two Phoenix cops could not subdue one unarmed man without resorting to lethal force.
You may recall that the other Phoenix cop on the scene, Officer Sergio Virgillo, indicated that neither Rodriguez nor his dog, which Chrisman also killed, had done anything to justify the use of deadly force.
Chrisman was later fired by the PPD, and still faces charges of second degree murder, aggravated assault, and cruelty to animals. Trial dates in the case keep getting delayed.
Before shooting Rodriguez, Chrisman deployed both his pepper spray and his Taser. Still, Virgillo told investigators that Rodriguez had his hands up and had stepped back before Chrisman plugged him.
The Latino community was incensed by the shooting. The fact Rodriguez was Hispanic and Chrisman an Anglo lent fuel to the fire.
But there is no ethnic conflict when it comes to the shooting death of 22 year-old Zachariah Pithin on April 20, as he and the four officers who confronted him at his apartment that Saturday night are all white.
Perhaps that's why there's been little outcry over Pithin's death. And yet, Pithin's shooting seems just as questionable, if not more so, than the Rodriguez killing, even if we take the PPD's account of the incident as the Gospel truth.
After 9 p.m. on the 20th, Phoenix cops responded to a call of a fight in progress, according to the PPD's statement, issued the following day.
The brief police narrative reads, thus:
Upon arrival the (4) officers made contact with the witnesses who had called and learned that the suspect in the 3rd floor apartment across from them had been banging on their door and threatening them with bodily harm.
The officers approached the suspect's apartment and, observing that the apartment door was broken, called out to the suspect. The suspect came to the door and officers began giving commands for him to come out of the apartment which he refused. One officer attempted to remove the suspect from the apartment but the suspect grabbed the officer and pulled him inside. Officers attempted to take the suspect into custody and a physical fight ensued.
At one point the officers were able to get the suspect on the floor but as they attempted to subdue him the suspect broke away from the officers and grabbed what appeared to be a broken wooden table leg with a near pointed tip. The suspect raised the object in an attempt to strike one of the officers and at that time victim one (officer), fearing his partner was in danger of serious bodily harm, drew his service weapon and shot the suspect.
Phoenix fire was immediately called to the scene but the suspect succumbed to his injuries.
During the investigation several witnesses, including the initial callers, reported the suspect had been acting in a bizarre and aggressive manner throughout the day. Witnesses told investigators the suspect had threatened several residents and had destroyed several mail boxes at the community mail center.
This narrative does not mention the use of pepper spray or a Taser by these four officers. So I asked PPD spokesman Officer James Holmes about it. He confirmed that none of the officers involved deployed a Taser or pepper spray.
Holmes was unable to tell me how many shots were fired. All four officers were involved in the struggle with Pithan, according to Holmes. Currently, PPD is conducting both criminal and internal investigations into the shooting.
Meanwhile, they've listed the unnamed officers as "victims" of aggravated assault. Two of the officers sustained injuries from the fight with Pithan.
I asked Holmes if the injuries required hospitalization, to which he replied that the two officers were, "Transported, treated and released."
Was Pithin some hulking behemoth? Not according to paperwork for a prior offense in Maricopa County.
In 2009, Pithin pleaded guilty to the possession of marijuana, for which he received a suspended sentence and probation.
The court file describes him as being 5'10" and 150 pounds.
Pithan was declared indigent by the court and assigned an attorney, who moved for a mental evaluation of his client, writing in his motion that, "Defendant exhibited signs of mental instability and reported that he is undergoing mental health treatment."
The results of his examination by two doctors were sealed by the court. Ultimately, the judge found Pithan competent to assist in his own defense.
I contacted Pithan's parents for comment. In response, the family released the following statement:
"We are all shocked and deeply saddened by the sudden and unexpected loss of our son and brother, Zach Pithan, who was shot and killed by Phoenix police on Saturday April 20, 2013. Although Zach struggled for much of his life with mental illness, he was a good person with a great heart, and he was taken from us far too soon.
"We trust that the authorities who are investigating the circumstances surrounding Zach's death will do their duty, and many of our questions will soon be answered. As a family, we ask that the public and the media please respect our privacy during this difficult time as we grieve for Zach."
(Please note: A friend of the family has set up a memorial page, asking supporters for donations to cover expenses related to Pithan's death.)
The state statute that covers the use of deadly force by law enforcement is pretty broad, and may even cover threat by table leg, as far as I can tell.
But as with the Rodriguez slaying, one can't help but think that the PPD should have been able to take Zach into custody without firing a shot.
Especially when we're talking about four highly-trained law enforcement officers facing a 22 year-old with a table leg.
I know there are a lot of people out there who want us never to question the police. No matter what occurs, they give the cops a pass.
And there is the other camp, which demonizes police officers.
I decline to join either camp. Still, I'm left to wonder: Was Zachariah Pithan's killing necessary?
It is evident from messages posted to Facebook and elsewhere by friends and relatives that Pithan was loved and is grieved over.
Whatever the results of the investigation, Pithan's death is a tragedy for those who knew him. They deserve our condolences. They have mine.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.