How Defense Lawyers Challenge Justified Police Shootings
Ambiguity in video captured by officer's lapel camera.
March 14, 2014 - 4:44 pm
But let’s say Morrisey is so devoted to her client’s cause that she does take the matter before a civil jury in the hope of making him the richest man in the New Mexico penitentiary. Does she really expect twelve members of the Albuquerque community to agree that the shooting was unjustified? Consider: Officer Pitzer monitors a broadcast of an armed robbery, then responds to the location to find Ortega, the described suspect, in the parking lot. Pitzer orders him to show his hands, which Ortega refuses to do. Ortega then runs, pulling a gun from his pocket or waistband as he does so. Morrisey would argue, I presume, that Officer Pitzer should have been able to discern, as he chased Ortega through the parking lot, that her client merely intended to toss the gun away in the hope of escaping.
And this may well have been Ortega’s intent. But would any rational person argue that a police officer in Pitzer’s position should be obliged to wait until a suspect actually points a weapon before firing in self-defense? If I chase someone and he pulls out a gun, if I blithely assume that he is only attempting to abandon it and that I needn’t worry about being shot, the Divine Mrs. Dunphy will soon enough be breaking out the black dress. No, if you pull a gun on Officer Dunphy, the only assumption I will make is that you intend to shoot me with it if I am so circumspect in my reaction as to allow it. I will not be.
Now, as to the fact that, as the video shows, several of Pitzer’s rounds were fired after Ortega tossed the gun, this can be explained by what use-of-force experts call “lag time,” i.e., the lapse in time between the decision to shoot and the actual discharge of the weapon. At the instant Pitzer perceived that Ortega had pulled a gun, he made the decision that he had to fire or risk being shot. He fired two rounds, after which Ortega disappeared behind the parked car. Pitzer held his fire until Ortega emerged from behind the car still holding the gun, then fired again at what he very reasonably still perceived as a deadly threat. Yes, Ortega tossed the gun during the second volley of rounds, but even if Pitzer was able to see the gun fly through the air, it was too late for him to hold his fire. If anything, Pitzer was commendable in his restraint if not in his accuracy – only one of his eight shots struck Ortega.
And no assumptions should be made regarding Officer Pitzer’s involvement in three shootings in less than seven years. I know nothing of Pitzer or his previous shootings, and it may be borne out that, as attorney Morrisey insinuated, one of his previous shootings was unjustified. But even if that turns out to be the case, the Ortega shooting was not. A record of three shootings in a relatively short career might be an indication of a problem officer, but it is far more likely to be evidence that Officer Pitzer, unlike some officers, is willing to place himself in harm’s way for the benefit of the citizens he swore to protect. People were being menaced by an armed man, and Pitzer went directly there to confront him. And he did what any reasonable officer would do when the man chose to ignore his commands and draw a weapon. Far from being a problem officer, my guess is that his superiors would wish for more like him.
However commendable his actions may have been, Officer Pitzer will nonetheless be dragged through a hellish ordeal in the legal system, during which he will be vilified by Ms. Morrisey and others like her, while the loathsome predator he shot is portrayed as an unfortunate victim. In the end, Ortega will go to prison without the swag Morrisey envisions, and Officer Pitzer will be cleared of any wrongdoing. It’s a shame that it will take a year or two before we see it happen.