Maricopa County Attorney: No Charges for Phoenix Cop Who Killed Ryan Whitaker

A Phoenix Police Department vehicle.
A Phoenix Police Department vehicle. Ash Ponders
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel won't file charges in the fatal shooting of Ryan Whitaker, a 40-year-old man who was shot by a Phoenix police officer last summer.

The killing helped fuel public outcry against policy brutality following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Whitaker's family joined an anti-police brutality protest that occurred in late August. On December 2, the Phoenix City Council agreed unanimously to a $3 million payout to Whitaker's family. The shooting even drew criticism from Councilman Sal DiCiccio, a staunch police advocate.

"Ryan Whitaker did everything right that night," DiCiccio said before the vote. "There was nothing he did wrong."

The investigation by the county attorney's office could also find no wrongdoing on the part of Whitaker. But neither did Cooke do anything unreasonable, especially given only seconds to make a decision, Adel said in a statement.

"Mr. Whitaker is dead and he shouldn’t be," she said. "Likewise, the officers appropriately responded to a call of an active situation of domestic violence."

On the evening of May 21 last year, Whitaker was in his apartment in Ahwatukee with his girlfriend. A neighbor above him heard what he thought was an "argument between a man and woman" in the unit below, and called 911 to report a domestic dispute.

“I can tell they are just at each other’s throats down there," he told the 911 operator at 10:18 p.m., according to a statement released by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office today. He called again 25 minutes later, asking police to hurry.

An investigation turned up no evidence of a physical dispute between Whitaker and his girlfriend, who told police that they were being loud while playing a video game and that while telling him she wasn't going away with him for the weekend as planned, "someone may have perceived an argument was occurring," but she denied it was a domestic dispute.

Phoenix Police officers John Ferragamo and Jeff Cooke both responded to the call, standing on opposite sides of the door, a common practice for their safety. Ferragamo knocked on Whitaker's door and announced, "Phoenix police!" Whitaker opened the door and stepped outside with a pistol in his hand. "What?" he asked.

"Whoa!" an officer says in the video of the incident released later. "Hands! Put your hands down!"

Whitaker appears to be complying when he's shot by Cooke.

He eventually died from his wounds.

In studying video of the incident frame by frame, " it appears that Mr. Whitaker was moving his gun to put it down and put his hands up," Adel's statement says after calling the shooting a tragedy. "It does not appear that Mr. Whitaker was a threat to the officers."

No charges would be filed against Officer Cooke because her office could not prove that his decision to shoot Whitaker was unlawful, she said, arguing that he was acting under the assumption that a severe domestic disturbance was taking place.

"The issue for me to decide is whether a crime occurred and, if so, whether there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction at trial," she said. "Officer Cooke made a decision based on the information he had – he could do no more. Based on what he knew, I cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his decision to use deadly physical force was an unreasonable one."

Cooke said in his interview with investigators that his decision to shoot Whitaker was based on the fact that he had a gun in his hand and that he "saw that gun start to move in the direction of" Officer Ferragamo, according to Adel's statement. He also said that he feared Ferragamo’s safety and shot Whitaker to prevent his partner from getting shot.

The officer's rationale for pulling the trigger doesn't hold water for Whitaker's sister, Katie Baeza, who told ABC15: "So his word is above the law and visual evidence? Because it made him feel a certain way, he’s allowed to shoot and kill someone?

Adel, who was hospitalized on the night of the November 3 election and has been recovering ever since, cited her injury as part of the reason for the delay in her review of the shooting and her office issuing a charging decision. Getting a "independent use-of-force expert" to review the case was another factor, she said.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Josh Kelety was a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety