No Charges Filed Against Tempe Officer Who Shot Teen in the Back

Antonio Arce
Antonio Arce Facebook
(UPDATE June 25, 2020: The city of Tempe announced that it settled with the Arce family for $2 million.)

Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel on Friday announced that her office will not file charges against a former Tempe police officer who fatally shot 14-year-old Antonio Arce in the back more than a year ago.

Former officer Joseph Jaen shot Arce as he was fleeing down an alley on January 16, 2019, during a call for a suspected burglary of a truck. Arce was holding a toy replica gun at the time Jaen fired two shots at his back. The teenager's death received national attention after the Tempe Police Department released body camera footage of the incident.

"Based on the facts and the evidence in this case, Officer Jaen believed he was in imminent danger," Adel said. "Officer Jaen believed those in the immediate area were in immediate danger and Officer Jaen believed he had no other choice but to fire his weapon to protect himself and the community."

She continued: "That day Officer Jaen did not see a 14-year-old boy with a replica. In that moment he saw a suspect running through a neighborhood with a weapon. In those split seconds, Officer Jaen believed someone was fleeing the scene of a crime."

Adel said she did not believe that the evidence in the case would lead to a conviction at trial.

While Jaen will not face any criminal charges, Tempe Police also announced on Friday that his shooting of Arce violated the department's use-of-force policy.

Jaen resigned from the force in May. The Arizona Republic reported earlier this month that Tempe Police Public Safety Personnel Retirement System Board voted to award Jaen roughly $29,000 in annual benefits after an "accidental disability retirement."

click to enlarge Officer Joseph Jaen - TEMPE POLICE DEPARTMENT
Officer Joseph Jaen
Tempe Police Department
The non-prosecution represents Adel's first major decision on a high-profile police shooting since she took office in October. It is certain to anger activists, including members of the nonprofit Poder in Action, who have called the killing a "murder." Poder in Action released the following statement on social media Friday:

"We are outraged. This is what we can expect from a system designed to protect itself, from a county attorney who said they could be different, from a Tempe council that stayed silent, from a department that did not fire Jaen and continues to harass, shoot and kill young brown and black men."

Adel, a Republican, was appointed by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors after former top prosecutor Bill Montgomery left for a seat on the Arizona Supreme Court. She faces a likely election against a Democrat in November.

Hours after Adel's announcement, Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir held a press conference at her department's headquarters in which she stated that Jaen "failed to comply with the department's use of force departmental guidelines."

She added that Jaen would have faced discipline if he had not first resigned, later adding that the discipline could have ranged from 40 hours suspension to termination.

"As a chief, as a person, as a human being in this community, I grieve the loss of Antonio Arce," Moir said. "It breaks my heart."

Speaking at the same event, Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell said: "While I still do not feel it is appropriate not to comment on the county attorney's decision not to charge officer Jaen, it is difficult and upsetting to learn that police department policies and procedures were not followed."

Tempe police conducted the criminal homicide investigation into the shooting and submitted the case to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office on February 15, 2019.

Arce's family filed a lawsuit against the Tempe Police Department this month, alleging wrongful death and negligence. The family earlier asked for $5 million in a notice of claim, a required step when people want to sue public entities.

Danny Ortega, the attorney representing Arce's family in their civil case, told Phoenix New Times over the phone that his clients are "disappointed in Adel's decision.

He noted that in civil matters, the standard for winning is a "preponderance of evidence," rather than the stricter standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt."

"Antonio never pointed a weapon at Officer Jaen. In fact, Antonio had his back turned, was over 100 feet away, and never faced Officer Jaen in anyway," Ortega said.

He added: "We will seek justice and the appropriate remedies through our civil case.

This story was updated after publication with more comments from Poder, Chief Moir, and Mayor Mark Mitchell.
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh