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Family of Anchorage man police killed sues city, seeking $1 million-plus in damages

Suzanna Caldwell,Jerzy Shedlock
A memorial for Shane Tasi went up in Mountain View shortly after he was shot and killed by an Anchorage police officer. Suzanna Caldwell photo

It’s been nearly two years since Shane Tasi’s family went to Anchorage police headquarters wearing black T-shirts, demanding justice for the death of a 26-year-old man and father of five who was shot by police in a June 2012 confrontation.

Now Tasi's family is suing the city for upwards of $1 million to pay for emotional and financial distress. Attorney Phillip Weidner, who represents Tasi’s family, served a notice of the lawsuit to the Anchorage Police Department on Thursday. He said the hefty sum is the minimum the family is seeking.

“The case is worth multiples of that,” Weidner said. “They were in extreme agony when he was shot. I think that it’s a reasonable amount.”

According to an affidavit filed by the attorney, Officer Boaz Gionson fired unwarranted additional shots at Tasi, unlawfully detained the family following the shooting and deprived Tasi's wife and kids from a final moment with the man. It also says officers weren’t properly trained, and as a result, the hostile situation ended tragically when it shouldn’t have.

Tasi emerged from his apartment on a June evening carrying a 39-inch broomstick. Numerous 911 calls prior to the shooting reported a man hitting cars and attacking a dog in the area.

Shortly after Officer Gionson arrived, Tasi emerged carrying the large stick, slamming it on the ground repeatedly. Gionson asked Tasi to drop the weapon numerous times before firing three shots.

Events transpired quickly. Gionson was the first officer on the scene. Only six seconds passed between Tasi leaving his apartment and being shot.

A toxicology report revealed that Tasi had alcohol, metabolites of marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids -- also known as Spice or K2 -- in his system when he was shot.

Arguments take shape

Weidner lays out the civil case like this: First, the officer did not appropriately try to find out what the situation was or “talk appropriately to Mr. Tasi.” Second, after the officer fired his first shot, Tasi was struggling or on the ground when Gionson “without justification may have pumped two more bullets into Mr. Tasi.”

Then, Tasi’s wife Jean Taualo-Tasi and her children were “herded” back into their Mountain View apartment building and not permitted to leave its laundry room. The family was “deprived of the opportunity to comfort their husband and father as he lay dying with the knowledge that he would never see his unborn child ... and never see all five of his children grow up.”

The family has suffered and will continue to suffer great emotional distress, the affidavit continued.

The argument is that responding officers, and by extension the police department, did something wrong during the incident. The city disagrees with that characterization, said Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler.

“No matter how the plaintiffs want to describe the facts in their favor, the real issue is what the city expects of police officers in difficult situations,” Wheeler said. Gionson was eventually cleared by the state Office of Special Prosecutions, which concluded he was justified in his use of force.

Wheeler said all Alaskans have a responsibility to act in manners safe to themselves and others. Tasi made bad choices, and it’s understood the family is suffering, but the public is not financially responsible for the situation, he said.

Nothing has changed for the APD, said Police Chief Mark Mew. There are no new facts that have prompted the department to change its position on the shooting, he said.

“We certainly looked at the conduct of our officers” during the department’s own internal investigation, Mew said, “but we can’t overlook the conduct of Mr. Tasi.”

Tasi was high on marijuana and spice. He was the subject of multiple 911 calls and had trashed his own apartment. “He was in a wild state,” Mew said.

The fatal shooting is regrettable, but it’s not a difficult case in the cold light of legal and police analysis, Mew said.

Community healing

Weidner presents other arguments in the affidavit’s 10 counts, too. Among the claims: Neighbors pounding on Tasi’s door scared the man and his family, and the officer who pulled the trigger was more inclined to do so because of Tasi’s race.

Prior to the shooting, three individuals were shouting and apparently trying to gain entrance to the apartment by beating on the window and door, the affidavit says. This alarmed Tasi and his family, and he left his apartment to investigate the threats. None of the three individuals or the officer were in any danger that would justify the use of lethal force, the affidavit says.

The count doesn’t mention the disarray of Tasi’s apartment. Weidner said he does not believe the trashed dwelling is relevant with how things turned out. The wife and children were not threatened, and they had no injuries, he said.

Weidner wrote in the affidavit the color of Tasi's skin may have led more quickly to the shooting, although the attorney declined to elaborate on that claim.

The shooting prompted outrage within Anchorage's Polynesian community, specifically over the use of force. Gionson was not armed with a Taser, which some suggested might have been a more appropriate use of force since Tasi was not brandishing a gun.

Lucy Hansen, president of the Polynesian Association of Alaska and the Anchorage Polynesian Lions Club, said Thursday that the claims made in the lawsuit are between the family and the city, but she added that since the shooting, the Polynesian community has learned a lot. Numerous groups have hosted meetings and seminars in an effort to inform people of their rights and how to respond to police officers.

Hansen still thinks Tasi's shooting was unfair, but that when the community banded together in the aftermath, many were hurting. Now the community is moving forward.

“We are forgiveness people,” she said. “Our culture is a loving culture and we'll move on.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @suzannacaldwell

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms