A review by the state Office of Special Prosecutions concluded that Juneau Police Sgt. Christopher Gifford was justified in taking a shot at a man who crawled into the back of an SUV and threatened officers and others last month with what they believed was a rifle. The man turned out to be unarmed.
Juneau Police Chief Bryce Johnson discussed the review at a news conference Friday and said Gifford feared for his life and the lives of others on Dec. 3 when he fired a single round from his department-issued AR-15 assault rifle at 38-year-old Jeremie Shaun Tinney of Juneau. Tinney suffered "superficial injuries" caused by flying debris and survived the shooting.
It was later discovered that Tinney was holding an axle rod, not a weapon, Johnson said. But, he added, Gifford and the other officer on scene, Darin Schultz, thought that they were looking down the barrel of a gun that night.
"They fully believed that a rifle was being pointed at them and that they were about to be shot," Johnson said.
Assistant Attorney General June Stein wrote in her nine-page review of the shooting that Gifford acted within the law when he shot at Tinney. Stein said she would not pursue criminal charges against Gifford. Schultz did not fire his gun.
"It is clear from the investigation that Tinney threatened the sergeant and others at the scene, and Sgt. Gifford fired his weapon, reasonably believing that he was acting in self-defense and defense of others," said the review dated Thursday.
Johnson said both Gifford and Schultz "acted heroically" that night.
The incident began around 4 a.m. with a 911 call reporting a car wreck west of town. At Friday's press conference, Johnson laid out the events leading up to the fired shot, using audio and video clips from that night as well as photographs and a digital re-creation of the scene.
He said Tinney was in a silver SUV with an unnamed passenger when the vehicle went off the road and into a ditch. The passenger called his wife about the accident and the wife called 911 at 3:55 a.m., but she didn't know where the car had crashed.
Someone who lived near the crash site called police at 4:05 a.m. and reported that the wreck occurred on Ocean View Drive. Gifford and Schultz were sent there, along with Juneau fire and rescue, Johnson said.
Johnson said the SUV had slid down a steep ditch on the "rainy, wet, sloppy evening." The same vehicle had eluded police earlier in the night.
Schultz told a dispatcher that he believed the driver was Tinney, who the dispatcher said had threatened to shoot police in 2012, said the review by Stein. Tinney was also the subject of numerous police investigations. Between 2009 and Dec. 3, Juneau police investigated 26 cases in which Tinney "was associated with guns, suicide, threats, and/or domestic violence," it said.
On Dec. 3, Tinney was "draped over the steering wheel," said the review by Stein. He was not responsive and appeared unconscious, the review said.
Johnson said Gifford called for an ambulance at 4:18 a.m. When Gifford touched Tinney's elbow, Tinney "immediately started to move," Johnson said.
"Sgt. Gifford said (Tinney) moved quickly and deliberately and reached into that center console in a manner that he thought the only thing he could be reaching for was a weapon," he said.
As Gifford moved back to the road, Tinney made a gun-shape with his fingers and "implied he was shooting Sgt. Gifford," Johnson said.
Johnson said the officers requested at 4:27 a.m. that a firetruck with floodlights move closer to the scene to provide better light. He said Tinney then moved to the middle seat of the SUV and then into the back of the car, which had darkly tinted windows. The officers reported that Tinney was "barricading himself in the vehicle."
The officers retrieved their rifles and positioned themselves behind a patrol car, the review said.
Johnson said the officers saw Tinney pick up an object, and both officers thought it was the barrel of a rifle, Johnson said. He pointed it at Schulz and swept it back and forth between the officers and a medic standing nearby, he said.
"The sergeant (Gifford) thought that the way he was going to find out that this was a rifle was by taking a bullet in the head," said the review by Stein. "He was in fear for his life and for the others who were present. He thought that he was going to get shot right between the eyes."
The officers yelled for Tinney to put down the weapon, Johnson said. Tinney moved the barrel to point at Gifford and Gifford fired once, Johnson said.
Johnson said the police bullet went through the car window, a rear headrest and was found in Tinney's shirt. He said the bullet did not penetrate Tinney's skin and his injuries came from flying glass and other material.
Tinney began banging on the car windows and later walked from the SUV and up to the road, where he was treated by medics. He had "multiple small wounds to the left side of his head with limited, controlled bleeding and one small wound to his chest near his left nipple," said the review by Stein. His blood alcohol level was over three times the legal limit for driving, it said.
Tinney was flown to a hospital in Seattle and was cleared the same day, the review said.
While waiting to return to Alaska, Tinney was interviewed by Seattle police, it said. He told police that he remembered leaving the Viking Bar in Juneau and then remembered nothing else until the shooting.
"After being shot, 'he kind of blacked out,' " the report said. "He explained that he did not remember what happened because 'it was a traumatic situation and he lost some blood … not because he was intoxicated.' "
Johnson said Tinney could still face charges in the Juneau incident, which would be forwarded to the district attorney's office. He declined to provide specific details Friday, saying it was still an open investigation.
With the conclusion of the review, Johnson said Gifford would start back on full duty in the next few days. He said that Schultz returned to full duty shortly after the Dec. 3 shooting.