The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
Since a Raleigh police officer fatally shot a man on the Beltline last month, his widow and social justice activists repeatedly have said the situation could have been handled differently before it escalated to his death.
Police body camera footage was released earlier this month that shows officers repeatedly telling 43-year-old Daniel Turcios to drop a knife he was holding before an officer tased him and a second officer shot him five times.
While an investigation determines whether the officers’ actions were justified, the department’s use-of-force policy has come under scrutiny by Turcios’ family and activists.
The Raleigh Police Department’s policy dictates that force is only used “when all other means of resolving a situation have been exhausted or are clearly inapplicable,” while acknowledging that officers “are required to make split-second decisions in quickly evolving circumstances.”
“Force will be used only to the degree necessary to control the situation,” the policy states, and officers are instructed to use firearms only “as a last resort, when other means have failed or are inapplicable.”
Turcios’ family and police have given different perspectives of what happened that day. Rosa Jerez, Turcios’ wife, was on the scene when her husband was shot. At a recent vigil, she asked why police didn’t give her a chance to talk to her husband before they shot him, The News & Observer reported.
“If he carried a knife, why wasn’t he shot in the hand, why didn’t they shoot his feet?” Jerez said. “If he committed (a crime), he had to pay for it. That’s what jail is there for. Why take his life? The father of a family?”
The State Bureau of Investigations is conducting a criminal investigation of the case and will report its findings to Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who will decide whether charges are filed.
Here’s what we know about Turcios’ death and the city’s use of force policies.
What we know about the shooting
Turcios, a native of El Salvador, was involved in a car crash on I-440 on Jan. 11, that caused his car to flip over, according to his family and Raleigh police. Raleigh police say officers were told that the driver was intoxicated, but police have not confirmed whether that was the case.
What happened next occurred over just a few minutes as five officers and first-responders gradually arrived at the scene. Turcios was holding a knife and walking away from officers and the crowd. Officers repeatedly told him to drop the knife. Family members say Turcios did not understand their commands because he had a limited understanding of English and was disoriented by the crash.
Sgt. W.B. Tapscott then fired a Taser at Turcios’ back, and Turcios fell to the ground. Video shows Turcios groaning and struggling to get up. Within seconds, he tries to get to his feet while officers try to restrain him.
A police report said he “swung the knife towards the officers, nearly making contact” with one of them.
Videos show Turcios jerking toward one of the officers with the knife in his hand and his arm extended. The officer falls backward, and the blade appears to narrowly pass his leg.
Officer A.A. Smith fired twice at Turcios. Footage shows Turcios struggling to get up. Five seconds after the initial shots, Smith fired three more shots at Turcios. Police said Turcios was moving toward Smith, prompting the additional shots.
What RPD’s policies say
Raleigh’s policy outlines a “linear use of force continuum,” which demonstrates the progression of levels of force, ranging from physical presence and verbal commands to deadly force.
“When force is required, officers should use the lowest level of force that is appropriate and likely to be effective given the totality of the circumstances,” the policies state.
Less lethal weapons, including Tasers, come just before deadly force on the continuum.
“A conducted energy device shall only be used in response to active resistance, which is defined as the use of personal weapons (i.e. hands, feet, or other body parts) or other weapons in order to assault or gain a positional advantage from which an assault is or would be likely,” the policies state.
According to Raleigh Police Department policy, conducted energy devices should not be used under the following circumstances:
— When the subject is only offering passive resistance, which is defined as simple non-compliance to a lawful command. Such resistance may include physical resistance which does not pose an imminent threat of assault or indicate escalating aggression.
— As punishment.
— In defense of “verbal” threats alone.
— Near potentially flammable, volatile, or explosive materials to include alcohol-based pepper spray.
— On pregnant women, elderly persons, young children, or visibly frail persons unless exigent circumstances exist.
— On handcuffed persons unless they are aggressively resisting, violent and likely to harm themselves or others.
— When a subject is in physical control of a vehicle in motion or if the officer can determine the vehicle is in gear.
— When a subject is operating a device that increases injury risk (bicycle, skateboard, roller blades, etc.).
— When a subject is in a location where a fall may cause serious physical injury or death.
— To affect an investigative stop/detention.
— Simply because a suspect is running away from an officer. However, a conducted energy device maybe used if a subject is escaping by means of active resistance or the officer has probable cause to believe the subject is wanted for a violent felony.
“Officers shall continually reassess the situation to determine whether the subject continues to pose an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or third parties,” the policies state.
Warning shots are not permitted, according to policy.
‘Totality of circumstances’ important
Keith Taylor, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former member of the New York Police Department, said “the totality of the circumstances” is important in determining whether each use of force is warranted, including the deployment of a Taser and each set of gunshots.
Eyewitness testimony, including the testimony of the officers, has its own limitations, Taylor added. People at the scene may report seeing different things, further underscoring the importance of body camera footage, he said.
Taylor, who reviewed the footage compiled by RPD at The N&O’s request, said he believed the use of force was justified, stating that Turcios did not appear to be “responding to the escalating use of force from the officers.”
“The fact that he was walking away is secondary to the fact that he was disregarding police lawful orders to drop the weapon and not to move,” he said.
Taylor said that officers must consider the safety of first responders, family members and bystanders when making decisions.
“To let him walk off with a knife would be a dereliction of duty,” he said.
But before he saw the released body camera videos, Taylor said Turcios’ family has “a right to and they should scrutinize the actions of the police.”
“Sometimes officers do make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes lead to loss of life,” Taylor said.
Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC, said the use of the taser “was completely unwarranted,” and “completely premature.”
“He doesn’t have a car, there’s nowhere for him to go, except to walk,” she said. “How hard would it have been to just let him walk? And who is harmed?”
Taylor said it’s very difficult to knock a knife from someone’s hand, and the type of knife a person carries does not qualify the threat it represents.
“It doesn’t have to be a butcher’s knife to kill someone,” he said. “A small sharp object can do a serious amount of damage — can take someone’s life — if used in a deadly way.”
Blagrove does not believe the gunshots were justified.
“I don’t see a man that is trying to attack law enforcement,” she added. “I see a man trying to get his bearings after being tased.”
Taylor said there’s no guarantee that initial shots are sufficient to stop someone intending harm.
“At the end of the day, if an officer is threatened with serious bodily harm, it’s hard to argue that a serious use of force is not justified,” he said.
Public ‘should scrutinize the actions of police.’
Prior to the release of the body camera footage, Taylor told the N&O that the public should ask questions when force is used.
“Excessive force is a concern,” he said. “It’s important for people to scrutinize, for the general public to have a role in this process and not simply accept any explanation. You question those explanations.”
Blagrove said the use of force policies needed to be “dismantled and rebuilt” with input from community members “who have been directly impacted by police violence.”
“The police are incapable of policing themselves,” she said, adding she believes “the policies are written and designed to protect and insulate law enforcement officers from accountability.”
She said she hopes to see charges in the Turcios case.
“It should be left up to a jury to determine whether or not this man murdered Daniel and took him away from his children,” she said. “His family deserves that.”
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