A Teen's Shooting Death Was Avoidable, Even If the Cops Call It "Justified"

The kid had it coming.

That's the impression conveyed by the press release from the Phoenix Police Department on the recent shooting death of 16-year-old Alexander Wilson by an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer.

Wilson was cruising the west side with his friend Will Brown, 18, in a Chevy Tahoe when the unidentified DPS officer ran the Tahoe's plate and learned the vehicle was stolen.

The officer tailed the Tahoe and "requested backups from his agency," the release states.

When the Tahoe pulled into a Chevron station, the officer followed, then got out of his patrol vehicle with an AR-15 and "positioned himself toward the front of the vehicle."

According to the release, the officer wanted "to see the occupants and to give them verbal commands until his backup could arrive."

Supposedly, the driver "did not comply and revved the vehicle's engine before putting it into gear, telling his passenger he was going to 'slam it.'"

Then the driver "drove at the officer," who fired one shot, killing Wilson.

The Tahoe crashed into a wall. The passenger fled the scene but later turned himself in to police, who eventually cut him loose with no charges.

The DPS officer is listed in the statement as the "victim" of "aggravated assault on a police officer," allowing the Phoenix PD to withhold the name of the "8-year veteran."

Why not accuse the dead kid of attempted murder while you're at it?

Sure, a car can be used as a lethal weapon. But this was a 31-year-old DPS officer wielding a semi-automatic long gun who made the decision to step "toward the front" of the Tahoe.

That's unlike any "victim" I've ever heard of, unless it's in some Monty Python skit in which a prisoner "assaults" a policeman by butting his head against the cop's billy club.

We do know the DPS officer is a white male. Both Wilson and Brown are black. But we don't know what the DPS officer could see inside the Tahoe.

One thing the DPS officer didn't see: a weapon. Both Brown and Wilson were unarmed, a fact omitted from the statement.

PPD spokesman Sergeant Trent Crump also tells me that no drugs were found in the vehicle. A toxicology report done for the autopsy will take several weeks.

The press statement notes that the teen had an "outstanding felony warrant for armed robbery."

Sounds like a bad-ass criminal on the lam, eh?

The court record tells a different story. As my colleague Weston Phippen recently reported as part of his dogged coverage of this shooting, the "armed robbery" in question occurred in 2012, a month after Wilson's 16th birthday.

Wilson approached two males in a park "with his hand in [his] waistband," threatening that "somebody's gonna get shot" and demanding the keys to one man's car and their wallets and cell phones.

In the eyes of the law, a simulated weapon is the same as an actual weapon. So when Wilson was caught, with a small amount of crack on him, he faced his first adult felony and adult misdemeanor charges.

He pleaded guilty to armed robbery and possession of drug paraphernalia. In a sentencing memorandum to the judge, Wilson's public defender discussed that Alex had "substantial mental health issues" and a "serious substance-abuse problem."

The lawyer wrote that Wilson's father "spent a substantial period in prison" and that Wilson lacked a positive male role model. He got probation, with a ton of conditions. The warrant was issued because he missed a court date.

All of this, of course, is irrelevant to the shooting. Because unlike some, I'm not willing to write off the life of a 16-year-old and say he deserved the death penalty because he was in a stolen car and previously had committed a crime.

This child of God was not expendable, as many of the online commenters to Phippen's reports on the killing maintain.

Granted, Wilson's family and friends have not done their loved one any favors by protesting at PPD headquarters wearing T-shirts that read, "Fuck the Police."

In their defense, outrage is often not politically correct or well-thought-out.

But back to the shooting itself. Phoenix cops say there's no video of it.

Some DPS cars have dash cams, and some don't. Crump says the DPS officer's did not.

Phippen checked with the Chevron station at 35th Avenue and Camelback Road, where the shooting took place. The manager told him there's a camera in the store, but it doesn't capture anything from the outside.

The clerk on duty that night didn't see anything 'til after the fact.

Leaving two witnesses: Brown and the DPS officer.

Brown told Phippen a slightly different version of events. He says Wilson didn't say "slam," but "smash," which Brown explained as slang for getting out of there fast.

He also maintains that Wilson threw the car into neutral by accident, revving it. Then the DPS officer fired.

And he says the DPS officer never activated his flashing lights.

I asked Crump whether the DPS officer had put on his lights or put a spotlight on the vehicle.

"No," he responded. "He didn't pull the car over. The driver pulled into the [Chevron] market prior to the stop. I don't know if he got his spotlight turned on."

For the sake of argument, let's say the shooting happened exactly the way the PPD says it happened.

What was the rush for the DPS officer after he ran the plate and it came back stolen?

Cops I know tell me that standard operating procedure would be to tail the car and wait for the requested backup. Why didn't he do that?

Did the officer request assistance from the Phoenix PD?

"I don't believe [the DPS] dispatcher notified Phoenix until the shooting occurred," Crump told me.

And while we're at it, why is a highway patrolman policing the city of Phoenix? Sure, the DPS has statewide authority, but . . .

Why did this DPS officer escalate the situation, particularly at a gas station?

The officer didn't know exactly who was in that car or whether they were armed. If they had been killers armed to the teeth and ready to throw down, does a firefight at a gas station really sound like a genius move?

Plus, what's the deal with the AR-15? Is that the go-to weapon of choice for cops these days?

I know they're as common as bubblegum in our heavily armed society — and I wouldn't argue against cops having them — but the streets of Phoenix are not exactly Afghanistan.

What's next? Will cops be carrying bazookas and hand grenades?

As far as the "aggravated assault" goes, I want to know whether the DPS officer was standing directly in front of the vehicle or off to the side, as the language of the press release suggests.

Indeed, Brown told Phippen that the DPS officer was aiming at them from behind a metal clothing-donation bin.

If he was not directly in front of the Tahoe, then his life was not in danger.

And if he was in front of the car, that was the officer's move, suddenly making deadly a situation that was not deadly to begin with.

For most of these questions, we'll have to await the conclusion of the PPD's criminal investigation and the internal one by the DPS.

Investigators may be able to "justify" the shooting — and much of the public will just shrug.

But was this incident avoidable?

According to what the PPD is putting out there, it certainly sounds like it was, making the death of this 16-year-old unnecessary.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons