The family of an Anchorage man who was wielding a broom handle when a police officer shot and killed him last year is now suing the police department.
The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in Anchorage Superior Court Thursday by lawyer Phillip Weidner on behalf of Shane Tasi's estate, his widow Jean Taualo-Tasi and their four children. The suit demands at least $1 million for the 26-year-old's death and his family's emotional distress and asks for punitive damages from officers involved in the June 2012 incident. It also accuses the police officer who shot Tasi of using deadly force more quickly than he would in other cases because Tasi was Samoan and "a person of color."
The state Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals cleared the officer, Boaz Gionson, of any criminal wrongdoing in the fatal shooting. Police Chief Mark Mew said Gionson had followed department policy and that the officer's own ethnicity -- Paicific Islander -- would seem to disprove the theory that issues of race were involved.
Police said officers went to Tasi's apartment building in Mountain View after reports of commotion in the street and then inside the Tasi family's apartment. Gionson had parked nearby, just before other officers arrived, and surveillance video showed Tasi leaving the apartment swinging what police said was a 39-inch broken broom handle.
Six seconds passed from the moment Tasi left the apartment to when he was shot, police said.
Gionson told Tasi four times to drop the long stick, Mew said. Tasi got close enough that it appeared he was about to strike the officer, who feared he would be knocked unconscious, Mew said. That could have given Tasi access to the police officer's handgun and put others at greater risk, the police chief said.
"A cop has to protect himself and protect the people around him," Mew said. "The officer could've run away and left two innocent bystanders alone and unarmed with Mr. Tasi. But that is not his job. His job is to protect citizens."
Gionson shot three times, hitting Tasi in the chest and shoulder, police said. Tasi was pronounced dead later at a hospital. An autopsy showed he had alcohol, marijuana and Spice in his body.
In the lawsuit, Weidner wrote that the shooting was unjustified and preventable, and that other officers were out of line when they confined Tasi's wife, pregnant at the time with their fourth child, in a laundry room while Tasi lay dying.
The first shot knocked Tasi down, and the subsequent two shots were fatal and unnecessary, Weidner wrote.
Three men had pounded on Tasi's window, and Tasi left the apartment with the broomstick to investigate what he thought was a threat, Weidner said in a phone interview. He might not have even known Gionson was a police officer, the lawyer said.
"The issue about what warnings the officer gave or what commands he gave is still to be resolved," Weidner said. "I still think that a jury will find that there's no excuse for shooting down a man who merely has a stick in his hand."
"The video actually shows he was raising his hands in the air at the time he was shot," Weidner said.
Weidner declined to comment on the lawsuit's implications that race played a role in the officer's use of lethal force or whether Tasi was angry about something prior to the shooting.
Mew, the police chief, and Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler strongly disagreed that Tasi's race had anything to do with the shooting.
"When a person comes at you with a stick, swinging it, I'm not sure you're worried about their color. I think you're worried about doing your job," Wheeler said.
In fact, Mew said, Officer Gionson is of Pacific Islander descent, like Tasi. Gionson also grew up in Mountain View and went to nearby Bartlett High School.
"This doesn't have anything to do with anything except an out-of-control situation and an officer who had to act decisively with a couple seconds' notice. And it's not a matter of race or ethnicity," Mew said.
The city should not have to pay for Tasi's death, because Tasi is the one who created the dangerous situation, not the officer, Wheeler said.
Weidner said he looked forward to taking the suit to a jury but added that he and the family are open to an out-of-court settlement.
Most of all, he said, Tasi's family wants to make sure such shootings do not happen again.
"The widow is now faced with trying to raise four children by herself, and Mr. Tasi was a really good father and husband," Weidner said.