Delaware Justice Department clears officers in 4 separate police shootings
A Wilmington police officer who opened fire on a man who had been asleep in his running SUV last year has been cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
Officer Luis Vazquez fired three rounds at Jabri Hunter, hitting him twice, after hearing a loud bang, caused by a colleague attempting to break the driver's side window.
The Department of Justice investigation determined that the bang contributed to Vazquez's state of mind that his – and his fellow officers' – safety was at risk.
The results of three other police use-of-force inquiries were also released by the Justice Department on Friday. In all four cases, the officers' were cleared of criminal wrongdoing. A police officer in Delaware has never been found criminally liable for a shooting.
Hunter's April 12 shooting – and the Justice Department's decision to clear Vazquez – has frustrated his family.
"You're an officer; you're supposed to be sure of what you hear and what you're doing," Hunter's mother, Classie, said Friday. "That doesn't give you no reason to shoot, just because you heard a window bust.
"I want to see justice for my son, and I want this officer to be held accountable."
Ken Cooper, a use-of-force expert and director of Tactical Handgun Training of New York, a facility that trains public safety and security officers, said this is a tough case, but the evidence seems to clear the officer.
He said officials have to answer three questions when analyzing these types of incidents: Was it reasonable? Was it necessary? Is there anything else the officer could have done?
"He may have felt there was no other choice," Cooper said. "Subjectively, if he thought there was a gunshot, there's impetus for him to use deadly force."
James Nolan, a former Wilmington Police lieutenant and current sociology professor at West Virginia University, said in an email that the clearing of criminal wrongdoing does not necessarily mean justice was served.
"For those outside of policing, it is difficult to reconcile justice department findings like these with the term justice," he wrote. "Communities and family members want to know why their loved ones were shot or killed. Although justified by DOJ in these cases, almost anyone could replay the situations in ways that avoided the shootings."
The Justice Department said Friday the four reports were released all at once because of when they "were ready and approved."
Each investigation took longer than usual "in large part due to the pandemic," Justice Department spokesman Mat Marshall said, "and they were all given final review and approval within the last few days. ... Getting them out on different days would have meant deliberately withholding reports that were finalized and ready for public/media consumption."
Hunter's shooting raised questions last year, especially as video obtained by Delaware Online/The News Journal differed from Wilmington police’s narrative.
Hunter was shot while in a GMC Yukon that had been stopped at 11th and Walnut streets. In a press release and court documents, Wilmington police said Hunter was in "a suspicious vehicle that was running and parked partially on the curb.”
The 22-year-old was also passed out behind the wheel.
Video and photos show the running SUV was fully on the street when two officers approached. One officer disappears from view as he goes toward the vehicle's driver side, while a second officer can be seen trying to first open the passenger-side door, then striking the passenger-side window.
Court documents show the officers issued loud "verbal commands."
Wilmington police said Vazquez fired his gun because of "Hunter's actions," but the department never explained what those actions were.
In its report, the Justice Department said Hunter was slumped over the steering wheel when Vazquez and two other officers approached the Yukon – Vazquez from the passenger side, Officers Harry Mann and Stephen Comer on the drivers' side.
"The officers started tapping and knocking on the windows of the Yukon to wake up Hunter," the report said. "The officers were concerned because the Yukon appeared to be in gear and running."
Hunter woke up and appeared startled, and the Yukon moved forward several feet. It then stopped.
The officers, according to the report, ordered Hunter to put the vehicle in park and to lower the window.
"Hunter ignored these commands," the report said.
Comer and Vazquez said they could see through the tinted windows that Hunter was reaching into his pants and believed he was reaching for a weapon.
"He's reaching! Stop reaching," Vazquez yelled as the Yukon moved forward again.
According to the report, Vazquez saw Hunter move his hands from his pants and then heard what he believed to be a gunshot.
"Unbeknownst to Officer Vazquez, Officer Mann had attempted to smash the window of the Yukon with his ASP (a tactical baton) as it was moving, while Officer Vazquez remained focused on Hunter, the driver," the report said. "Officer Mann's ASP did not break the window, but it made a loud bang.
"The loud bang from the ASP coupled with the sudden movement of Hunter's hands from his pants led Officer Vazquez to believe Hunter was shooting at Officers Mann and Comer on the driver's side of the Yukon."
Because of that, Vazquez fired his weapon three times, striking Hunter on the back side of his right shoulder and his right mid-torso area. Hunter also had an injury on his left palm that appeared to be from a sharp-edged object, the report said.
The Yukon coasted across 11th Street, coming to a stop after if came in contact with a chain-link fence.
Hunter was removed from the Yukon, the report said.
As he was given aid, the report said Hunter kept reaching for his waist area. Another officer searched Hunter and found a .380-caliber handgun in his pants, near his groin. Several bags of heroin were recovered at the scene, including in his sneaker.
According to the Justice Department, a toxicology report found Hunter tested positive for fentanyl, benzodiazepine and cannabinoids.
In justifying the shooting, the Justice Department said it looked at Vazquez's state of mind. This included Hunter's hand movements, the vehicle's moving and that Hunter "chose to arm himself with a firearm" – even though the report didn't mention the weapon was displayed.
Cooper, the trainer, has decades of teaching experience. He said stressful situations can cause humans to “tunnel in.
“He might not have realized the other officer was on the other side of the car,” Cooper said.
The 16-page report said after "careful consideration of the available evidence and the application of expert opinion to that evidence, Officer Vazquez reasonably believed that the use of deadly force upon Hunter was immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting Officer Mann, Officer Comer and himself from Hunter’s actions under the circumstances."
Hunter's mother said she disagrees with the Justice Department's conclusion and feels the shooting was wrong.
"He didn't do nothing wrong, and they need to be held accountable for what they've done," she said.
Hunter remains in custody at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution on drug and weapons charges.
In addition to the Hunter report, the Justice Department released three other reports clearing police in separate police shootings.
The first unfolded on March 5, 2020, when Wilmington police were called to the 3200 block of W. Second St. around 6:20 p.m. for reports of a domestic dispute.
When officers arrived, they found Orrin Daniels in a running vehicle on the street. Police said they repeatedly told him to stop the car, but he rammed a marked police vehicle and hit a second vehicle.
Daniels then drove toward two officers on the sidewalk, police said. Officers shot at him, hitting him once. After being shot, Daniels fled to the 900 block of N. Pine St., where police arrested him.
He was taken to a local hospital for treatment and was later charged with attempted murder.
At the time, community members and activists questioned the police account.
Richard Smith, president of the NAACP Delaware State Conference of Branches, said witnesses told him a slightly different story of what happened. They said that Daniels "didn't really try to run (the officers) over" and police shot at him before he fled in the car.
The Justice Department's Friday report cleared officers based on their statements as well as those from witnesses.
One witness said they did "not think Daniels was trying to kill anyone but was very high on drugs and was not capable of operating a vehicle," the report said.
"W1 (witness 1) stated the police 'did what they had to do' during the encounter with Daniels," it said.
Another witness told investigators they thought Daniels was going to run the officers over and that they were in danger.
The witness "believed the officers to be in fear for their life," the report said.
Delaware State Police troopers involved in the May 8 shooting of 29-year-old Sheldon Francis were also cleared by the Justice Department.
Just after 10 a.m. that day, Delaware State Police were called to the Delaware Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Glasgow for reports of a shooting. They found Lidia and Paul Marino, an older couple, shot by Francis.
The husband and wife, who were visiting their son's grave, both died.
After the shooting, Francis fled into nearby woods, hiding from law enforcement, Delaware State Police said. Francis remained there for almost six hours before exchanging gunfire with troopers.
Police later found Francis in the woods, dead from a single gunshot wound.
The agency has released little information about Francis or why he was at the cemetery, though Friday's report says family told investigators that Francis was “extremely paranoid” about contracting COVID-19 since the outset of the pandemic, and he set up a tent near the cemetery.
"Family described him as generally quiet and nonviolent, but that the pandemic caused him to develop a 'doomsday-like' attitude," the report said.
The Justice Department also cleared a New Castle County officer involved in the shooting of Robert Schneider.
Although Schneider was shot more than six months ago, county police never released the 58-year-old man’s name.
The DOJ report said New Castle County and state police responded to an Avon Drive residence in Claymont around 6:20 p.m. on Aug. 30 after a report of a domestic dispute in progress.
Officers arriving on the scene were told by a witness that Schneider was drunk and a verbal altercation inside the residence had occurred. The witness wanted to retrieve some belongings from inside the home, and officers approached the residence and were told by Schneider to not come any further onto his property. According to the report, officers could see a firearm in a holster on Schneider's belt.
Schneider refused to disarm and at one point put his hand on his weapon, the report said. Officers retreated behind patrol vehicles, and an hourlong standoff ensued. Schneider, according to the report, then began "moving in and out of his home with several firearms and a long gun, which he placed in the carport of the residence. He was also yelling and acting aggressively," the report said.
"The NCCPD crisis negotiation team and SWAT team were notified and responded to the residence. They attempted to engage Schneider in person, over loudspeaker, and by phone to try and get him to surrender, without success."
Just after 8:30 p.m., Schneider left his home and started walking down a sidewalk toward two county police officers and a state police officer, who commanded the man to stop, according to the report. The two county police officers said they heard Schneider say, "Just shoot me," as he walked toward them "with a cupped hand." He then raised a flashlight toward them. A county police officer, Steven Cronin, fired two rounds from his rifle, striking Schneider once in the abdomen. Cronin was wearing a body camera, and the footage released in the report shows Schneider raise what appears to be a flashlight before his is shot.
Police found two guns on him and multiple loaded magazines.
Cronin, according to the report, stated that he made the decision to fire based on the reports that Schneider was armed, refusing commands and approaching him and other officers. He also could not see Schneider's hands clearly and saw him lift his left hand in a "threatening" manner, the report said.
The Justice Department cleared Cronin of any wrongdoing because he "reasonably believed that the use of deadly force upon Schneider was immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself individually, other officers in the vicinity, and civilians nearby."
Schneider spent more than two weeks at Christiana Hospital recovering from his injuries before being released. He faces charges of offensive touching, interference with emergency communication and endangering the welfare of a child.
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