SAN FRANCISCO – A dashboard camera recording of two California police officers discussing hitting a suspect armed with a knife with their police car before appearing to try to run him down does not make it more likely that they will face criminal charges in the fatal shooting of the man that ended the encounter, legal experts said Tuesday.
The officers may have reasonably feared for their lives or public safety, justifying any decision to use their vehicle to hit the man, said Philip Stinson, an associate professor in the criminal justice program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
“If you and I mowed somebody over, prosecutors would start with the assumption it was murder or manslaughter and work back from there,” he said. “With a police officer, the assumption they start with is, ‘Was this a justified use of deadly force?'”
Prosecutors will have to evaluate the use of the police car and subsequent shooting to determine whether force was justified in each case, he said.
Sacramento police have said Joseph Mann was waving a knife in the air and doing karate moves in the street just before officers responded. On police 911 recordings, callers said Mann also had a gun in his waistband and appeared to be mentally ill.
The officers can be heard on the recording saying, “I’m gonna hit him” and “OK, go for it” before appearing to drive their cruiser twice at Mann, who managed to scramble out of its way both times. The officers then stopped the cruiser, got out and pursued Mann on foot, and shot him 14 times.
Police found a knife but no gun after Mann was killed.
An attorney for Mann’s family, John Burris, said the officers who shot Mann, John Tennis and Randy Lozoya, acted like “big game hunters closing in on an animal.” Mann’s family wants prosecutors to charge the officers with murder.
Efforts to reach Tennis and Lozoya were not successful.
“It’s ugly, but it’s not necessarily illegal,” Jonathan Blanks, a researcher at the Cato Institute who studies police prosecutions, said about the attempt to use the police vehicle to stop Mann. “At the heat of the moment, you’re angered, your adrenaline’s going up, if you think this guy is a danger you’re not going to necessarily go in there with kid gloves.”
Blanks pointed to a case in Arizona last year in which a police officer rammed an armed suspect who police say had embarked on a daylong crime spree before stealing a rifle and shooting it in the air near businesses. The encounter was also captured on a dashboard camera.
An internal review by the Marana Police Department just north of Tucson found that Officer Michael Rapiejko acted swiftly and correctly, and prosecutors declined to charge him.
Prosecutors rarely file charges against police officers in part because legal rulings have given police leeway in the use of lethal force, Blanks said.
Prosecutors may also be reluctant to file charges because they work as colleagues with police and need the department to help make their cases, said Jody Armour, a criminal law professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.
When prosecutors do file charges, officers are rarely convicted.
“Police officers have a hero’s halo in the minds of many Americans,” Armour said.
In the Sacramento case, the officers could plausibly argue they thought the suspect had a gun, so they used their vehicles to protect themselves and the public, Armour said.
“By making a claim that is somewhat plausible, it may be enough for it to be exculpatory,” he said.
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