Phoenix Law Enforcement Assn. defends officer's use of force

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PLEA news conference (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) PLEA news conference (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
PLEA news conference (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) PLEA news conference (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Suspect hurled rocks or bricks at police precinct on Dec. 26, 2015 (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Suspect hurled rocks or bricks at police precinct on Dec. 26, 2015 (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Suspect hurled rocks or bricks at police precinct on Dec. 26, 2015 (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Suspect hurled rocks or bricks at police precinct on Dec. 26, 2015 (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

When is police “use of force” justified?

The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) held a news conference Wednesday regarding that topic.

[RAW VIDEO: PLEA use of force news conference]

PLEA is defending a Phoenix police officer involved in a 2015 shooting. PLEA is also criticizing how Phoenix police Chief Jeri Williams handled the case.

“Police managers will often take the politically safe route when it comes to police use of force matters,” said Ken Crane, president of PLEA. “This means the men and women who daily man the front lines are sometimes sacrificed for the benefit of the politically correct decision.”

PLEA’s concerns date back to a Dec. 26, 2015, incident, when a suspect throwing bricks at a police car and precinct substation died in an officer-involved shooting.

It happened in the area of 39th Avenue and Cactus Road just before noon. 

[RELATED: Officer at police precinct shoots, kills brick-throwing man]

 On that day, an officer was leaving the precinct when the man threw a rock or brick at his patrol car.

While the officer was calling dispatch, the man threw additional bricks, breaking a precinct door, police said.  

Officers in the building managed to leave and approach the man.

“An officer and a sergeant had to contend with an unstable, uncontained violent subject,” Crane said.

“The suspect was still holding rocks/bricks and was refusing to stop, drop the objects, or obey any police direction,” Phoenix police Sgt. Jonathan Howard said at the time.

The suspect then reportedly threw a large rock or brick at one of the officers. It glanced off a tree and hit the officer in the hand. 

The officer fired, striking the suspect. 

The suspect was taken to the hospital in critical condition and later died. He was identified as 41-year-old Lonnie Niesen.

[RELATED: Phoenix investigators ID man shot dead outside police station]

 The incident was investigated, but the officer who fired the gun was cleared.

“The officer was cleared by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office of any wrongdoing,” said Crane.

But 15 months later, a police department Use of Force Board reviewed the incident and recommended that the force be designated “out of policy.”

At the time, Phoenix Police chief Jeri Williams went with the recommendation of the board.

“This raises a question,” said Crane. “How did the officer go from hero to zero in 15 months?”

PLEA’s website states what they say happened next:

“PLEA intervened and asked for a meeting and she agreed.  Chief Williams came to the PLEA office and we thoroughly briefed her on all aspects of the case. She agreed to give it a re-look and get back with us. PLEA received an email from her on July 28, 2017. Chief Williams indicated she would not reverse the Use of Force Board recommendation. By our count we brought the subject up for discussion on three occasions over a time period of several months.

In her e-mail to PLEA the Chief stated:

“While your discussion was compelling, I do believe the officer could have chosen to move out of the path of the river rocks and cinder blocks thrown by the suspect.”

“The chief, in turn, recently informed us that she’s now planning to have an outside agency do an independent review,” said Crane. “This is nothing more than a smoke and mirrors ploy in an effort to have another agency head backstop her decision.”

On Wednesday following the news conference, Chief Williams issued a response regarding PLEA’s concerns.

She says:

Law enforcement worldwide is under constant analysis as officers are regularly judged on their actions and inactions.   As a 30-year veteran, I understand first-hand the challenges and split-second decision making our officers face every day.  Each analysis is unique and cannot be compared to other situations. 

In Phoenix, we welcome the opportunity to self-examine our work.  We have a Use of Force and Discipline Review Boards that consist of citizens, peers including sworn officers, supervisors and subject matter experts.  The purposes of these Boards is to conduct an independent administrative review that scrutinizes police situations. These Boards are used in addition to other standard internal review processes. I take the recommendations of the Boards very seriously.  While there are times I may not agree with their recommendations and I may request more analysis, I know the Boards make their decisions on extensive review and testimony.

Our police officers are in unique positions that require them to have extra authority to protect and serve our community.  With that comes a commitment to hold ourselves accountable for our actions.  When we do not adhere to our own high standards and our own internal review processes, we place our officers and our community in danger and we erode the public trust we work so hard to maintain.

That fatal shooting at the heart of this controversy was actually incorporated into de-escalation training that Phoenix police officers now go through.

[RELATED: Behind the scenes with Phoenix police de-escalation training]

Phoenix PD was one of the first agencies in the country to adopt specific training to defuse deadly encounters.

Every Phoenix officer was run through drills based on real cases Phoenix officers have had to encounter that test deadly use of force in everyday patrol calls.

“A lot of times, it's the calls you become complacent on that turn into very deadly encounters,” said Phoenix training Sgt. Mark Heimall.

He worked with officers, teaching them the importance of maintaining control, that whenever possible, you slow the scene, kind of press pause, to think of the best and safest tactics.

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