UPDATED at 9:24 p.m. Wednesday, May 18 with additional details.
Mad River Union
ARCATA - Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman expects to release the name on Thursday of a 26-year-old male shot four times by one of his officers in a parking lot confrontation early Tuesday evening, May 17. The shooting occurred at the Shell Food Mart service station, 14th and G Streets, in Northtown.
Chapman informed reporters at a press conference Wednesday afternoon that the suspect is in critical but stable condition, following surgery at a local hospital. He suffered two gunshot wounds to the torso and one each to his right arm and right leg. The four spent casings were recovered at the scene.
The chief said Arcata Police had had a couple of minor contacts with the man about a year ago, “very minor.”
The identities of the two officers who reported to the scene are also slated to be released Thursday. Both are on administrative leave, pending the outcome of a formal probe by the Humboldt County Critical Incident Response Team. It comprises investigators from the District Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and the Eureka and Fortuna Police Departments.
The chief said the investigation would take at least a couple of weeks, but APD was able to identify witnesses very quickly. The scene “was pretty contained,” so evidence collection was not overly complex, he added.
Chapman said his colleagues had documented the confrontation and the shooting with the help of civilian witnesses, supported by in-patrol car camera footage-cum-audio recordings, plus surveillance video captured by the Shell station’s monitors. Three police cars took the camera footage.
The chief delivered his department’s version of what happened in a written narrative from which he read at the press conference.
According to the APD’s chronology, the two officers arrived simultaneously at 14th and G at 6:51 p.m. Tuesday, eight minutes after dispatch received a telephone call from the Shell clerk. He reported a man drinking alcohol—what kind Chapman did not know—and “swinging two sticks in an aggressive manner.” The clerk managed to persuade the individual to leave the Food Mart.
Camera footage confirmed the suspect was brandishing two weapons, one in each hand. Chapman said one of them was a three-feet-long wooden stick resembling a thick dowel; the other was a metal cane.
The clerk characterized the aggressive gestures and body language as the suspect spinning the objects “in a Ninja fashion” and Chapman agreed the suspect was wielding them “in a martial arts manner."
Right at the corner of 14th and G, the suspect allegedly defied officers’ instructions to drop the weapons. The duo sought to de-escalate the face-off orally, “tried to get him to calm down a little bit,” which is captured on the audio, the chief said. “He was swinging both of those weapons towards the officers.”
The suspect allegedly quickly charged one of the officers directly, according to Chapman’s narrative, with the metal cane raised up over his head. That was “an apparent attempt to assault the officer,” the chief recounted. “It was clear, at least to me, he was trying to attack the officer with the metal cane.”
As the suspect maneuvered between two of the patrol cars and started to charge, one officer deployed a Taser, which had no effect. The man kept going forward and got “to within an arm’s length or so, almost on top of ” the second officer, who instantaneously fired four times “in rapid succession.”
The two subdued the man as he tried to get up and “there was a little bit of a struggle” before they handcuffed him. They immediately began first aid and life-saving operations while summoning an ambulance, which arrived at6:58 p.m.
Based on police radio traffic, about three minutes elapsed between the officers’ arrival at 6:51 and the Taser deployment at 6:54, followed more or less instantaneously by shots fired.
Asked what was going on during those critical 180 seconds, Chapman said each situation is unique. In general, however, “the officers are reading what is happening. It’s a dynamic situation and they’re trying to respond, coax [and] coach this individual to comply. Sometimes compliance happens immediately and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.”
Queried if an ongoing conversation went on between the officers and the suspect, Chapman replied, “Yes, they were definitely interacting and it was going both ways.” The individual employed aggressive language and profanity, the chief confirmed.
One of the officers has been with the department about seven years, Chapman estimated, the other maybe three and a half years.
As to how much de-escalation training APD officers receive, the chief said the department’s focus the past five or six years has been crisis intervention readiness, either a 32- or 40-hour class hosted jointly with the mental health branch of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Officers learn skills and techniques for dealing with individuals in crisis, geared primarily to mental health and how to defuse or de-escalate situations with certain words and phrases. “I believe nearly all of our officers have gone through the training, including my supervisory staff, management staff and myself,” as well as the two officers involved in the May 17 shooting. “As we bring on new hires, it’s our intent to have them train also.”
Chapman addressed at some length the social and psychological impact of the clash on the community-at-large. Calling it “a horrible, horrible situation,” he stated, “Certainly our thoughts are with the man who was shot, and of course the officers’ families in our community.
“It’s very impactful in your community when you have an event like this where one of our law enforcement officers is forced to discharge [his] firearm in the course of [his] duties. Certainly there are feelings of being unsafe, feelings that crime is rampant, that crime is out of control."
Chapman continued, “Our hope is through this (investigative) process that is set up county-wide . . . that we can kind of quell that a little bit, quickly and efficiently go through a thorough investigation and get information out to the public as quick as we can to help calm things down. But of course it’s tough. It’s difficult in this time of social media and instant access; a lot of rumors fly really fast and it’s tough for us in our traditional method of law enforcement to stay on top of it and get out in front of it.”
Underlining that April 1, 1980 was the last time an Arcata police officer was involved in a shooting that resulted in a death or injury, the chief asked for patience, conceding, “We are not practiced at this. We’re doing the best we can, but also understand please that it’s really early in this investigation.”
City Manager Karen Diemer closed the press conference with brief comments about the social and cultural milieu surrounding the shooting. Speaking of Northtown’s “densely used commercial and residential neighborhood,” she encouraged the many residents who may have seen or heard what happened to share their thoughts, solutions and ideas, not only about the confrontation but also about “what evidently is the growing complexity of the social issues in our community. If we can do our best to learn lessons from this incident and to share ideas and create solutions, that could be one positive outcome.”
Asked for examples of the increasing complexity, Diemer responded, “Anecdotally I know that our officers are increasingly dealing with complex issues of drug use in our community, more aggressive behavior from daily interactions that they have. It’s not an extreme escalating condition but the reports that we receive from residents as well are that there is some increasing concern."