Itchy Trigger Fingers: A Look at Phoenix-Area Police Shootings in 2013

Last week, the trial started for former Phoenix police officer Richard Chrisman, who's accused of killing Daniel Rodriguez for no apparent reason. Chrisman shot the man dead in his mother's trailer, and the ex-cop's partner has even said there was no threat to his life, and therefore no reason to kill.

It's got us thinking about use of deadly force.

Officers are allowed to shoot to protect themselves and others when they perceive their lives, or the lives of others, to be at risk.

They're allowed to kill a suspect to prevent the escape of someone who the officer believes could cause the "infliction or threat of serious physical injury or death, and is likely to endanger human life" if allowed to flee, according to Phoenix police policy.

There are many guidelines, some obscured more than others in the vagary of official jargon. You can read Phoenix's here (page 32).

We know not all officer shootings are avoidable or unjustified. In many cases, we're glad cops carry guns, because thugs do, too (and because this is Arizona, nearly everyone does). But it would appear that in some of the following situations, firing at the suspect could have been avoided.

As you read these -- a few examples from this year, placed in no particular order -- keep this in mind:

"Deadly force is utilized as a last resort when other measures are not practical under the existing circumstances."

Zachariah Pithan

On April 20th, Phoenix cops responded to a call about a fight at an apartment complex. Four officers contacted the witness, who had been threatened by their neighbor, Zachariah Pithan, a 22 year old with a history of mental illness.

The door to Pithan's apartment had been broken, police said in their report, and the officers called to him, commanding him to leave the apartment. Pithan approached the door and told officers he wasn't going anywhere. One officer tried to drag him out. Instead, Pithan pulled the cop inside.

The four officers struggled with Pithan, who was about 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds.

The armed officers, presumably trained in some type of combat techniques, wrenched and wrestled the skinny young man to the floor finally. But Pithan once again broke away, grabbing a broken wooden table leg "with a near pointed tip."

Pithan raised his deadly weapon -- again, a broken table leg -- and, finding their lives threatened, an officer shot Pithan dead. None of the four officers used pepper spray or their stun guns.

William Barrett

Outside of Tempe's House of Tricks restaurant on May 27, police shot a man in the hand after he allegedly hurled a wine bottle at an officer.

Around 3:45 a.m. on May 27, an officer responded to the call about a man breaking into the restaurant, and tearing the place apart.

The officer soon found William Barrett reportedly hurling objects, yelling, breaking glass and being a general nuisance, according to the police report.

When the officer approached Barrett, he walked toward the officer and chucked a bottle at him, according to police.

After being hit in the head by the flying bottle, the officer shot Barrett in the hand -- unlikely a spectacular act of precision shooting, rather than missing some other part of Barrett's body.  

Firefighters treated Barrett, who police say struggled and spat on emergency responders while they wheeled him to the hospital. 

In a later interview with Channel 3 TV, Barrett claimed that he broke into the restaurant because he was looking for a diamond he planned to give to his girlfriend, which he had apparently lost.

Chris Chipman

On August 4th at 9:30 a.m., officers attempted to serve a felony warrant on a man named Chris Chipman, who, according to police, had a history of robbery, burglary, theft, and among other crimes, was a suspected drug dealer.

He also used a wheelchair to move about.

As police confirmed the warrant, they noticed Chipman, 49, fidgeting in his wheelchair and fiddling with his waste band, according to police.

Officers discovered two knives hidden away, and noted another peculiar bulge in his pants. It turned out to be a handgun.

An officer grabbed at the gun. During the struggle, another of the four officers who had come to arrest Chipman shot and killed him.

Shaun Nathaniel Walters

Officers responded to a call an Avondale convenience store on July 30th, after they received a call saying a man was acting erratically.

When officers arrived that morning at the Circle K near Avondale Boulevard and McDowell Road, they say 19-year-old Shaun Nathaniel Walters wielded a knife and Taser.

Police shot Walters, and later air lifted him to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, where doctors declared the young man dead.

Alexander Wilson

On Sunday, April 7, around 9:30 p.m., near 27th Avenue and Camelback road, a DPS officer ran the license of a tan Chevrolet Tahoe. The plates returned stolen.

The officer followed Alexander Wilson, 16, and his passenger, 18-year-old Will Brown, to 35th Avenue and Camelback Road. The officer tailed the car into a Chevron, parking about five feet behind the SUV. 

Brown later told police he didn't know the car was stolen and the two had borrowed the SUV from a friend who said he recently bought it. 

The DPS officer could only have speculated as to who was in the car, or if they were armed. The officer had not put on his sirens or his lights, not even the spotlight on top. 

Even so, he sprang from his car with his AR-15 rifle and headed toward the SUV. 

Meanwhile, 23-year-old Refugio Rodriguez had run out of gas. Rodriguez said he saw the officer bail from his car, yelling at the driver of the Tahoe and armed with his assault rifle.

The officer held his rifle out and moved past a blue clothes recycling bin, up over a curb and within a few feet of the Tahoe.

Wilson tried to put the car into gear to drive away, but Brown says it stuck in neutral and the engine revved.

The DPS officer fired through the window and killed Wilson.

John Loxas

This shooting occurred last year, but the family of John Loxas, who was unarmed when officer James Peters shot and killed him, settled this year in a lawsuit against the city of Scottsdale for $4.25 million.

It seems for Scottsdale Officer Peters, it was nothing new, as this was the trigger-happy cop's sixth fatal shooting.

On Valentine's Day, 2012, officers responded to Loxas' house after neighbors said he'd pointed a gun at them. When police knocked on the door, Loxas, 50, answered with his 7-month-old grandson cradled in his arms.

Police said they saw Loxas reach for something to his right and Peters, standing at the edge of the driveway with his rifle leveled, shot Loxas in the head, baby in hands.

Investigators later discovered the object Loxas had attempted to grab was his cell phone in his pant pocket.

Running from police, hurling wine bottles, hoarding weapons in your pants and brandishing a wooden table leg is dangerous. Granted, most these people weren't exemplary citizens, or, in some cases, people you'd even want to sit across a restaurant booth from.

But why not mace the guy in the wheel chair? And why can't four cops take down a 150-pound 22-year-old? If deadly force was a last option, it seems some of these deaths could have been avoided.

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