Community meeting aims to offer answers in police shooting

Polynesian leaders wonder if death of man swinging a stick was preventable.

Anchorage Daily NewsJuly 19, 2012 

Swinging a broomstick more than three feet long, Shane Tasi came within inches of Anchorage Police Officer Boaz Gionsen before Gionsen shot the 26-year-old dead, according to police.

An investigation cleared Gionsen of any criminal wrongdoing, but a town hall meeting Thursday night at the Loussac Library aimed to answer a bigger question: Was it the right thing to do?

That's something members of the local Polynesian community have asked repeatedly in the wake of the shooting, suggesting that Officer Gionsen could've used a less-lethal tactic.

At the urging of the Polynesian community, of which Tasi was a member, Anchorage police and city officials held the meeting to discuss officers' use of firearms when confronting violent suspects. The meeting, put on by the Anchorage Community Police Relations Task Force, included discussion of police policies in general but mostly focused on Tasi's shooting.

"I think I speak for everyone involved that we do not like meeting under these circumstances," Mayor Dan Sullivan said before apologizing to Tasi's family.

"In our community, we all have to be unified in ... respecting the rule of law, and to respect the people who enforce the law," Sullivan said a few moments later. "That's what keeps the fabric of our community strong."

Police Chief Mark Mew followed with a description of the events leading up to Tasi's death. Gionsen was separated from another officer when he arrived at Tasi's apartment building in Mountain View to investigate a disturbance, Mew said. Witnesses had called about a man getting "mixed up" in traffic, and others at the apartments heard Tasi thrashing inside his home after he returned, the chief said.

"They heard hollering and screaming. They heard glass breaking. They heard there were children in the home," Mew said.

Shortly after Gionsen arrived, Tasi is seen in surveillance video leaving the apartment and swinging the stick. Gionsen had only about four seconds to react with Tasi bearing down on him, Mew said. He fired three shots, two that hit Tasi in the chest and one that hit his shoulder, the chief said. Tasi died a short time later.

Toxicology results from an autopsy, released by police to local news media this week, showed Tasi was drunk and had marijuana and synthetic marijuana in his system.

The Rev. Fia Fitiausi, from the Pentecost Holiness Church, said members of his community are concerned now about trusting police. "Was the killing necessary? Not the shooting, the killing?" Fitiausi asked.

There were many different variables in the police response to Tasi, including the speed at which Tasi approached Gionsen and the fact that the police officer was not equipped with an electroshock device, commonly called a Taser, Mew said.

"If we changed the hypotheticals, we might've had a different outcome," Mew said. "The officers are trained to shoot at center mass if they're going to shoot. We don't shoot for fingers or toes or extremities. If we did that, to the best of my knowledge, we'd be the only department in the United States that does that."

"They shoot for the large area to make the person stop," Mew continued. "Unfortunately, we recognize that the byproduct of shooting someone center mass means that it's rarely going to be survivable, or it's often not going to be survivable. But that's not our intent. We're not trying to kill the person."

The shooting was within state law, Mew said. An internal review is ongoing, so it's not fully known yet if Gionsen followed police policy.

Fitiausi said that if the police are trained to protect the community, they shouldn't also be trained to use firearms in such a way that they end up killing people, even if the person is lashing out.

"That killing was a murder. It was not necessary," the reverend said.

Near the end of the meeting, Mayor Sullivan addressed Officer Gionsen's thoughts on the shooting.

"I know the officer involved is very troubled by the action he had to take," Sullivan said. "I know no member of our police force wants to be in a situation where a life is lost."

Miriama Aumavae, a college student and president of the new Polynesian Community Center who pushed for the town hall meeting, said she appreciated the police chief's answers on some difficult questions.

"It's a starting point from all the meetings we had before," Aumavae said. "I'm happy that some community members, some citizens, came out to be heard. Because I'm just one person."

Mew said he hoped the meeting would lead to better understanding between the police and the community they're sworn to protect.

"I don't think we can ever hurt the situation by talking more, at least trying to communicate," Mew said. "No matter what happened tonight, we're in better shape than we were yesterday. There's probably a lot of work still to do, and there's still a lot of emotion, and rightly so."

"I think there are some folks that just aren't going to see the situation the way the law sees the situation," he said. "We're open-minded about looking at this stuff. There are some suggestions that would never fly for a department in the United States. But we got a handful of things I hope we take a look at."

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