Body Cam Video Won't End Debate About Winslow Officer's Shooting of Loreal Tsingine
Newly released body-cam video (see below) shows Loreal Tsingine brandishing a pair of scissors at Officer Austin Shipley of the Winslow Police Department before he shot her during a confrontation outside a Circle K store on Easter Sunday.
Versions of the video posted on YouTube have footage of the actual shooting edited out of the March 27 clip. It fades in as Shipley gets out of his car and confronts Tsingine, who is holding a pair of what appear to be bent-tipped medical scissors in her left hand. Shipley attempts to subdue Tsingine, pushing her to the ground. She gets up and brandishes the scissors again. Shipley shoves her away and takes a few steps back as she falls again, gets to her feet, and comes toward him, still seemingly holding the scissors. A second police officer enters the frame from the left. Then Shipley's sidearm enters the frame, aimed at Tsingine.
The most complete versions shared on YouTube freeze before Shipley fires, then pick up with an audio-only portion captured after Tsingine fell to the ground. The audio on the body cam reportedly did not kick in until after Shipley shot Tsingine.
Shipley, who had three years' experience and a reported history of using unnecessary force, was responding to a report of a woman shoplifting from the convenience store. He shot Tsingine five times, even as a fellow officer stepped near the line of fire, apparently attempting to help.
The Winslow Police Department released the video publicly on Wednesday, less than a week after Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery cleared Shipley of criminal wrongdoing. An internal-affairs investigation by the Mesa Police Department is ongoing.
Tsingine died from the gunshot wounds. She was 27 years old and had a history of mental illness. She was also the mother of an 8-year-old daughter.
The incident sparked protests by anti-police-brutality demonstrators in the northeastern Arizona town of Winslow, and about 20 demonstrators rallied last week in front of Montgomery's downtown Phoenix office to protest the prosecutor's decision. Montgomery made the call not to charge Shipley after his staff examined a report on the incident prepared by the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Though the video contradicts witness accounts that Tsingine never posed a physical threat, it's unlikely to change the minds of protesters and observers who see the shooting as emblematic of a nationwide problem with the way police use force. The shooting has also inflamed passions on the Navajo Nation, where claims of abuse at the hands of police have been raised for decades.
Navajo Nation Speaker LoRenzo Bates called on U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to order a federal probe into Tsingine's death following Montgomery's decision.
“There is clearly something wrong when an officer who is over six feet tall and well over 200 pounds uses deadly force on a person who weighed less than 100 pounds,” Bates said last week. “Why did Officer Shipley feel it was necessary to shoot Loreal repeatedly?”
The answer seems to be: That's what Shipley and other officers are trained to do in such situations.
(In fact, in unrelated incidents earlier this week, Tempe police shot and killed an unarmed robbery suspect on Wednesday, the same day Scottsdale police shot and killed a suspect who had confronted officers with a knife.)
When using lethal force, says Phoenix police Sergeant Vince Lewis, officers are guided by Arizona law and department policy.
Arizona Revised Statute 13-410 states that a peace officer is justified to use deadly force "only when the peace officer reasonably believes that it is necessary...to defend himself or a third person from what the peace officer reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.
This screenshot from the body-cam video shows Tsingine walking toward Officer Shipley, scissors in hand, as a second officer steps into the frame. Seconds later, Shipley shot Tsingine five times.
In the video footage, as Tsingine advances toward Shipley, she appears agitated and angry. At that point, authorities say, Shipley had his gun lowered as he backed off and screamed at her to drop the scissors. It is not clear whether Shipley was armed with a Taser, and if so, why he chose not to use it. In the audio portion of the clip, Shipley can be heard breathing heavily after shooting Tsingine and saying, "She came at me with those scissors."
Lewis says that typically an officer who fires at a suspect must believe there's a serious risk of injury or death. Once the decision to pull the trigger is made — often in a split second — more trained responses ought to kick in.
Lewis explains that officers are trained to shoot at the largest part of their target — the "center mass" — because that way they're less likely to miss.
"We have expert shooters on the [Phoenix] department, and some people who just meet minimum qualifications," he notes. To shoot at a smaller target — an arm, say, or a leg — would invite a miss, Lewis says.
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"We are responsible for every round," he says. "We don't have an infinite amount of bullets. Every shot counts."
Technically, officers are not supposed to shoot to kill, but to stop the threat. Shooting at the center mass offers the best chance of stopping a target in his or her tracks.
Liability, too, can be a concern. Shooter and suspect aren't always the only two people present. Sometimes there are bystanders. And sometimes, as was the case on Easter Sunday, there are other police officers.
Of course, that doesn't fully address the question posed by Bates and many others regarding the Tsingine shooting. Twinge was armed and seemingly belligerent. But she was also a petite woman. Shipley, as a selfie that was widely published after Tsingine died, is a big man.
But evaluating whether there's a serious risk to life and limb is a judgment call.
Lewis says officers take on inherent risks when they join a police force.
"However, we're human," he points out. "Our life is as valuable as anyone else's. We have families. We are going to do what we need to do."
In 2014, Phoenix launched a crisis-intervention team to help ensure that people who are picked up for mental-health concerns don't end up like Michelle Cusseaux, who in August of that year was shot dead after she allegedly rushed at officers with a hammer. And last year, as part of the ongoing national effort to reduce tensions between police and people of color, Tempe required all of its officers to attend a workshop on white privilege.
As the Cusseaux and Tsingine cases show, police need more training on how to deal with mentally ill people, even if they're armed.
Once an officer makes the decision to use deadly force, the moment can't be taken back. But the public will always have the benefit of hindsight in analyzing that moment.
"If you shoot them, it's, 'Why didn't you Tase them?' If you Tase them, 'Why didn't you pepper-spray them?'" Lewis says. "There's no way to please some people."
He adds, "I don't want to negate the concerns of the friends and family who are on the receiving end of police actions. We need to be criticized, we need to be critiqued and open ourselves to the community's response."
Responding on behalf of LoRenzo Bates, spokesman Jared Touchin says the Navajo Nation will continue to pursue federal intervention in the case. Bates was unable to return a call from New Times.
"Despite the release of the footage, the Navajo Nation stands on its original position," Touchin says.
On July 2, Tsingine's family filed a $10.5 million wrongful-death suit against the City of Winslow.
Below is video footage from the Winslow Police Department body cam: