Experts disagree on whether bringing a rifle to a disturbance with a knife was a proper response by a Wichita police officer who shot John Paul Quintero on Jan. 3 or whether the type of gun mattered.
One criminal justice professor called it a “disproportionate” use of force. The goal is to meet force with the amount of force needed to control the situation – no more than necessary, said Candace McCoy, professor of criminal justice at the City University of New York.
“So if somebody had a gun, you don’t go in with a cannon,” said McCoy, who has studied deadly force since the 1970s.
Brian Withrow, a former Wichita State University criminal justice associate professor, says it’s important to remember that the officer was responding to a “highly charged situation with a knife.”
“We’ve trained officers for years to bring their most powerful weapon into situations,” said Withrow, a former Texas state trooper who now teaches at Texas State University in San Marcos.
Whether the officer had walked up with a handgun or a rifle doesn’t matter, Withrow said. What’s key, he said, is that according to the narrative police have provided, Quintero, 23, forced the officer into firing.
Quintero’s family has said that police escalated the situation, initially reported to 911 on the evening of Jan. 3 as a disturbance with a knife at a home in the 500 block of North Oliver. As officers headed there, dispatchers got at least three more calls, saying a suspect was under the influence of alcohol and armed with a knife, police have said.
McCoy and James A. Thompson, a Wichita lawyer who has pending lawsuits against the city over other fatal shootings by officers, say the presence of a rifle could “set off” someone who is intoxicated.
Need for rifles
The Wichita Police Department wouldn’t comment on the officer’s use of a rifle, outside a home where Quintero’s relatives lived. Police also wouldn’t disclose the type of rifle used in the Jan. 3 shooting, although in September 2011, The Eagle reported that the department was assigning “new AR-15 semi-automatic rifles to 36 hand-picked patrol officers.”
The department’s policy on rifles says “selected members of the department will be issued city owned patrol carbine .223 caliber rifles” and that among the situations in which a rifle can be deployed are those “involving the use of a weapon.”
A knife can be a deadly weapon and can penetrate a vest designed to stop bullets, Withrow noted.
The police policy, available on the department website under “Weapons/Use of Force Requirements,” lists seven situations in which a rifle could be used and says officers aren’t limited to those situations.
Rifles can be effective weapons to protect police when maximum firepower is needed, including where a shooting is underway or where suspects are wearing body armor or brandishing especially lethal weapons. Rifles are versatile because they are accurate at long distances, and at short range, they can be more effective than handguns because they can be easier to hold steady, according to law enforcement articles.
Around the nation, school shootings and a gun battle outside a California bank have shown law enforcement the need for rifles in patrol cars. In 1997, two men wearing body armor outside a bank in North Hollywood, Calif., fired high-powered rifles in a running battle with officers that lasted for nearly an hour before the two were killed.
But in the Quintero shooting, the New York professor and the Wichita lawyer said in separate interviews that the presence of a rifle could have made a tense situation worse.
“The appearance of a long gun (rifle) might set off a person who is drunk or high … and heighten the craziness,” said McCoy, the professor.
The job of police is “to de-escalate, to maintain the peace, not to create a war zone,” said Thompson, the lawyer. “To show up at a scene where things are already hostile and you pull out an assault weapon, that’s going to increase the tension, if not the hostility.”
Thompson is a local attorney who has pending lawsuits against the city in federal court over two other fatal shootings by Wichita police: the April 2012 death of Troy Lanning II and the July 2012 death of Karen Jackson.
Thompson describes himself as an Army veteran, “a staunch believer in the Second Amendment” and a frequent visitor to gun shows.
“I strongly believe in our Police Department, and I want our officers to be safe,” he said. “But we have to be careful. We have militarized our Police Department.”
The .223-caliber rifles are a military-type weapon, he said. Although officers should have the option of deploying such rifles, the use should be limited, he said.
Withrow, the former WSU academic, disagreed about how the presence of a rifle might affect the situation. Just about anything could set off someone who is drunk, he said.
“I think a reasonable person would see a rifle and know this is a much more powerful weapon than a pistol,” he said.
What’s key, Withrow said, is that according to police, Quintero stepped toward a male officer after he fired a Taser. Police have said that a female officer with the rifle then saw Quintero reach toward his waistband.
“So her only option was deadly force,” Withrow said of the female officer who fired. “If I were making this decision, I would clear the officer.”
The 911 call
Minutes before the shooting, police received 911 calls from Quintero’s relatives saying he was armed with a knife, under the influence of alcohol, “not all there right now” and threatening himself or others, according to audio or transcripts of calls related to the shooting.
Police have said that Quintero also threatened the officers and disobeyed commands before the shooting. The female officer fired two rounds from her rifle, striking him in the middle of his body. He died hours later at a hospital.
A motorist who drove by before the shooting said Quintero had his hands up while the officer had her rifle aimed at him.
Quintero’s 44-year-old father, Santiago Quintero, was present when his son was killed and gave a tearful account at a vigil this past week. The father said his son was unarmed and drunk before the shooting. Police said they had not recovered a weapon.
Santiago Quintero said his son “never stood a chance” against the officers.
“He was not perfect by any means,” he said at the vigil. “But he was my 23-year-old son. I noticed my son’s hands were up, he was Tased, his hands dropped to his sides and then he was shot.”
Thompson contends that under the Wichita police policy on dealing with mental health or substance abuse emergencies – which also is available online – officers are supposed to “remain calm and avoid overreacting.”
“Showing up with an assault rifle in this case is overreacting,” he said.
Especially in the case of someone who might have substance abuse or mental health issues, the goal is to slow things down, including by talking, Thompson said.
“Our police officers have this incredible tool that they don’t seem to use enough anymore, which is their words,” he said.
Effect of Tasers
Thompson and McCoy also voiced concerns about the Taser not working on Quintero.
“If they’ve got malfunctioning Tasers, they’ve got a real problem,” McCoy said. “Something’s real weird there that the Taser would have no effect.”
Tasers are designed to give an electrical jolt that temporarily immobilizes a suspect, but sometimes the probes don’t lodge correctly. If the target is wearing thick or loose clothing, the electrical charge that locks up muscles won’t fire. According to witness accounts or 911 calls, Quintero was wearing a jersey.
“We keep seeing this scenario where the Taser doesn’t work” and officers too quickly go to firing their guns, Thompson said.
In July, Police Chief Norman Williams said he had asked for a review of Tasers following two fatal shootings by police in which Tasers failed to stop suspects.
On July 4, Icarus Randolph, 26, was shot to death by an officer after a Taser didn’t immobilize him. Police said Randolph charged at an officer while brandishing a knife.
On April 10, David Zehring, 30, died after being shot several times by an officer after Zehring allegedly came at a Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy with a knife. Two deputies had fired Tasers at Zehring, without stopping him, before he was shot, authorities said.
In late July, The Eagle reported that statistics showed a drop in the percentage of Taser deployments that were rated “effective,” from 70 percent in 2011 to 54 percent as of July 2014.
Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or firstname.lastname@example.org.