An Anchorage police officer who shot and killed a stick-wielding man outside a Mountain View apartment building earlier this month has been cleared of criminal wrongdoing, city officials said Wednesday.
Police chief Mark Mew, appearing at a news conference attended by the widow of Shane Tasi, said the state Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals determined that no charges are warranted against officer Boaz Gionson in the June 9 shooting.
The officer shot Tasi three times while responding to 911 calls about a commotion at the 26-year-old's home, Mew said.
A lawyer for Tasi's family, Phillip Weidner, said the family will probably file a civil lawsuit after reviewing the new details released by police. "They are horrified that their husband and father was shot down in front of his own apartment," Weidner said.
Tasi refused to put down a stick -- described by police Wednesday as a 39-inch broken broom handle -- after being told four times by Gionson to stop, Mew said. "He kept coming and kept swinging. The officer let him get within striking distance before he fired."
In determining that the shooting was justifiable under Alaska law, the state considered whether the officer believed he or others were in imminent danger of serious injury and death, Mew said.
Tasi could have seriously hurt the officer or a nearby witness with the stick, the police chief said, and the swiftness of the encounter forced a decision. The man was shot while swinging the stick, Mew said.
John Skidmore, director of the state Department of Law's criminal division, said the special prosecutions office reviews all the evidence -- videos, witness statements, scene diagrams -- before making a decision on whether a police shooting amounts to a crime. He wasn't directly involved in the Tasi case review, but used to supervise the office that handles such matters.
Wouldn't a private citizen face charges for shooting someone who was coming after them with a stick?
"The law views civilians and law enforcement officers differently," Skidmore said. Under Alaska law, private individuals have "a duty to retreat." Police do not.
Officers have a responsibility to walk into dangerous situations and keep the public safe, Skidmore said. "Right now in Alaska, the law says a citizen should retreat before resorting to deadly force. That same option is not available to a law enforcement officer."
"SMASH OF A WINDOW"
Police on Wednesday revealed, for the first time, details of the moments and seconds leading up to Tasi's death.
Mew told the story using 911 recordings, police photos and surveillance video that captured the instants before the shooting from multiple angles. Police did not show footage of the moment Gionson fired.
As the police chief talked, reporters crowded a meeting room at the department headquarters. Tasi's wife listened too, sitting beside her lawyer, Weidner, a family friend and the friend's young daughter.
The shooting came on a Saturday night, with the problems beginning when Tasi was traveling with his wife in Mountain View, Mew said.
"Mr. Tasi, we believe, was intoxicated. He was hanging out of the vehicle. He eventually fell out of the vehicle," Mew said. Tasi's wife drove home, the chief said, leaving him to walk to their apartment in the 700 block of North Bunn Street.
Around the same time, two people called 911 to report a man, now believed to be Tasi, was causing trouble in the area. One of the encounters involved vehicles or traffic, the chief said. "The other had something to do with him attacking someone's dog."
The problems continued when Tasi reached the fourplex where he lived with his wife and kids, the chief said. A 911 caller told dispatchers there was a fight in the apartment.
"We heard a big ol' smash of a window that got broken out and it sounds like people are screaming inside or something," a man tells police.
"Someone's getting their butt beat," the caller says moments later.
Police said there was no sign anyone had been injured in the home. Mew said it's unclear exactly what was happening in the apartment that caused neighbors to call 911.
"We know that when Mr. Tasi arrived home, a disturbance began," Mew said. "He was frustrated about the television, apparently. I'm not sure on the details on that."
Photos of the apartment show overturned furniture and appliances, including a refrigerator.
Three Good Samaritans who had been talking to a dispatcher can be seen on the surveillance video waving down a police car as it pulls up near the apartment.
Weidner, the family's lawyer, said Tasi's wife was changing her baby when she heard the shots. The couple had three children, ages 1 to 3. Tasi's wife is pregnant with a fourth, Weidner said.
Surveillance video shows Tasi stepping out of the apartment and striding toward Gionson, whipping the air with the broom handle. He's shirtless, walking fast on the sidewalk as he transfers the stick from his left to his right hand.
The police officer, a 26-year-old who has been on the force five years, had parked near an alley that separates North Bunn Street and North Lane Street, according to police. Other police officers were not yet close enough to aid in the encounter, police have said.
In the video, Tasi can be seen waving the broom handle as he makes his way toward Gionson and the alley. The video ends a moment before the shooting. But someone, presumably a police officer,, can be heard on the police radio: "Shots fired," he says.
The two men were about seven feet apart when Gionson fired, hitting Tasi in the chest and shoulder, police said.
Gionson was not carrying a Taser. Mew said police do not believe using non-lethal means such as a Taser or pepper spray would have been a reasonable option in the encounter with Tasi.
Generally, Anchorage police procedure calls for officers to use Tasers only when a second officer is present and able to provide armed, lethal backup if necessary, a department spokesman said.
"The officer said he felt he could and likely would have been knocked unconscious" had he not fired, Mew said. That could have allowed Tasi to grab his gun, which the officer had drawn, the police chief said.
Six seconds ticked by between the moment Tasi walked out the door and Gionson shot him, police said.
Tasi was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Weidner, the family's attorney, said Tasi's wife was sequestered in a laundry room during the encounter and then taken to the police department for questioning, preventing her from seeing him in his last moments.
"What was your authority for preventing the widow from going to her dying husband?" Weidner asked during the news conference. City Attorney Dennis Wheeler, in attendance along with Mayor Dan Sullivan, told police they didn't need to respond to the lawyer's question.
"There's no indications of any prior acts of misconduct or violence on his part," Weidner said later. "He was a loving husband and father that was shot down in front of his own apartment with his wife and babies inside."
Tasi was on criminal probation related to a 2007 drunken driving conviction at the time of the shooting. A judge in February extended his probation by a year after a probation officer reported Tasi failed to complete a substance abuse program, did not submit to drug tests, admitted to cocaine use in April 2011 and otherwise failed to meet conditions of his probation, according to court records.
"Mr. Tasi shows remorse for his mistakes, yet continues to make the same mistakes over and over again," probation officer Emily Sakis wrote in support of the petition to revoke probation. Toxicology reports in the case are not yet available, Mew said.
Members of Tasi's family and friends declined requests for interviews following the shooting and again on Wednesday after the news conference. Two wore matching black T-shirts that read "We Want Justice" on the front, "R.I.P. Shane Tasi" on the back.
Derek Hsieh, president of the Anchorage police union, said Gionson grew up "a couple hundred yards" from the apartments where he shot Tasi.