An Anchorage police officer shot and killed a blade-wielding man during a traffic stop Monday night in Fairview, police say.
Kenneth John, of Anchorage, is the third person killed by city police this year. Officers shot his cousin to death, also in Fairview, in April. Police had found no connection between the two shootings Monday afternoon, a spokeswoman said.
The latest encounter began at about 6:30 p.m. when an officer stopped John's Chevrolet Blazer on 12th Avenue, near Hyder Street, said spokeswoman Jennifer Castro. John stepped out of the vehicle and approached the officer's car, she said.
"In each hand, the driver was holding a knife or a bladed weapon," Castro said.
The officer, who police have not publicly named, retreated to the rear of the car and commanded John to stop or drop the weapons, she said. When John continued to approach, the officer opened fire, Castro said.
The shooting took place just two blocks from the parking lot of the Carrs Quality Center on Gambell Street, where officers shot and killed 27-year-old Detlef Wulf on April 5. Police say Wulf pointed a semi-automatic handgun at an officer.
Family members said Wulf and John were cousins.
John posted a picture of himself on Facebook posing with a memorial poster he made for a candlelight tribute for Wulf. John wrote on Facebook that he lived in Anchorage but is from the Yukon River village of Grayling.
Wulf lived for a time in the nearby village of Shageluk, according to his obituary.
John was a proud, hard-worker who graduated from Job Corps in Palmer but sometimes got into trouble with police when he drank, said Steve Hatzis, John's stepfather. John struggled with Wulf's death, he said.
"He just internalized his passing. The two of them they were really best friends," Hatzis said.
Police said detectives had not established any connection between the two men as of Tuesday afternoon. Police Chief Mark Mew said investigators are looking into whether the shootings are linked in any way.
"We've seen the Facebook (photos), so the implications there are not lost on us," Mew said.
In addition to pictures and posts showing a memorial for his cousin, John posed for his profile picture holding an assault rifle.
Family members said they were surprised to hear police say he threatened an officer.
"We're still kind of in shock," Amber Nicholi, John's cousin, said in a phone interview Tuesday. "(John) loved all his nieces and nephews. He loved his son a lot. That was his world."
Castro would not provide a more detailed description of the "bladed weapon" or weapons that police say John was carrying, citing the ongoing investigation.
Police had interviewed about eight people Tuesday, including one who saw the shooting, Castro said. Detectives hoped to talk to two more witnesses and did not want to influence their statements by describing the weapons or certain other details of the case, she said.
Castro said she did not know how many times John was shot. The medical examiner's office planned to perform an autopsy today, she said.
Within about 10 minutes of the shooting, medics drove John to a local hospital, where he was later pronounced dead, Castro said. She did not know the time of death and did not know why the officer originally contacted John for the traffic stop.
Police-involved shootings are generally reviewed by the state Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals to determine if the shooting was legally justified. The police department conducts its own internal review to see if the officers' actions followed department policy.
The Office of Special Prosecutions found the shooting of Detlef Wulf and the fatal February shooting of Carl Bowie, 25, who rammed a police car, to be legally justified, according to the department. An internal affairs investigation found the two shootings did not violate police policy, Castro said.
There have been 10 officer-involved shootings in Anchorage in the past year and a half. That includes five in 2012 and already five so far this year, according to the department.
In comparison, there were no more than three officer-involved shootings in any year between 2008 and 2011, police said.
Hatzis, John's stepfather, said he and the family are waiting to learn more facts about the Monday night shooting.
"They're confused as to how an officer would use such lethal force," Hatzis said. "There is an underlying thought that it's kind of a little bit, it's a little out of control here with the APD."
Earlier this month Mew announced a new department policy he hopes will reduce the rising numbers. Officers have been told to avoid shooting at drivers of moving vehicles if the driver is not armed, Mew said.
People are increasingly trying to ram their vehicles through police barricades, threatening officers, Mew said. Police will now use new tactics rather than gunfire - Mew has not said specifically what that strategy will include - to contain drivers that might try to hurt or kill officers with their vehicle.
Nicholi, John's cousin, suggested police could have wounded John Monday night, rather than killing him. Mew said that tactic is unrealistic and would be too dangerous, placing bystanders in harm's way.
"Shooting warning shots and shooting to wound people went out in the United States and in the western world decades ago," he said.
Nicholi also questioned why her cousin was killed when police seemed to take pains to spare other potentially dangerous offenders. A five-hour standoff between police and a woman carrying an air gun that resembled a handgun ended peacefully on Sunday, for example, after police evacuated neighbors and a SWAT team arrived.
Asked about Nicholi's concerns, Mew said that each encounter is different. He said he could not speak about the details of the recent standoff because of a pending court case. In general, he said, standoffs that involve the full SWAT team and negotiators give police more options than fast-moving encounters between a suspect and a single officer or a small number of police.
Attacks on police officers in Anchorage have been on the rise over the past decade, which might be contributing to the recent increase in officer-involved shootings, Mew said.
"The envelope's being pushed not only in the number of times that people are being violent, but the degree to which they're violent, and so we're getting into shooting situations," he said.