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Family questions TPD's use of force in officer-involved shooting

Posted at 6:02 PM, Jul 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-11 22:41:01-04
A Tucson Police officer shot and killed a 30-year-old man Friday north of downtown. His family now says they wants answers as to why officers chose to use deadly force. 
 
Abraham Smith was killed Friday afternoon by an officer with the Tucson Police Department's Mental Health Support Team. 
 
Smith's sister did not want to speak on camera, but did tell 9OYS over the phone that the family had spent hours on Friday trying to figure out the best way to get him out of his trailer unharmed. When Tucson Police arrived, the family says they were instructed to leave the area. Soon after they heard gunshots.
 
According to police, just after 4:30 p.m. officers with the TPD Mental Health Support Team responded to a 9-1-1 call from the Mobile Acute Crisis Team (MAC Team) requesting assistance. 

Assistant Chief Ramon Batista says often times TPD gets called in to assist.

The members of the MAC Team advised that they had a court order to serve a mental health emergency petition on Abraham Smith who lived in a camper trailer at 26 E. Rillito St. 

TPD says two of the officers were wearing plainclothes but were clearly marked as police officers. The third officer was wearing a Tucson Police Department uniform. 

Smith's family tells KGUN9 they specifically asked TPD not to send anyone in a uniform because they knew that Smith did not trust police and they feared how he would react to a uniformed cop. 

Upon arrival, the three officers learned the man was mute but was able to hear and understand conversations. They were advised the man communicated through writing or gestures.

TPD says three officers knocked on the door of the mobile home near Rillito and 7th. When there was no answer, they made announcements for about 15 minutes that officers were there.

The officers did not receive a response from anyone inside the home. They were able to obtain a key to the trailer from a family member and once they opened the door they again announced their presence but again did not receive a response. 

TPD says one MHST officer began to enter home to check the welfare of the man with the two other officers following behind. The officers were in the home for a brief period before the man came from the back of the trailer with what appeared to be two knives in his hands and advanced toward the officers.

During the course of the investigation, detectives learned that Smith had been armed with a broken piece of mirror in one hand and a 10"-12" kitchen knife in the other hand. 

The three officers retreated from the trailer. Two were able to back away from the trailer and the man. The MHST officer was backed into a fence enclosing the front yard just outside the home as the man continued to advance on him with at least one knife in hand. 

TPD says the officer was unable to escape the approaching man and fired his weapon, hitting Smith. Smith's family claims that the officer shot Smith in the head. 

Officers immediately began to render first aid to the man using their Individual First Aid Kits and requested paramedic assistance. 

Tucson Fire responded to the scene a short time later but the man was pronounced dead on scene. 

Assistant Chief Ramon Batista repeatedly said that what happened Friday night was tragic, and the department does everything they can to assist people with mental illnesses. Ultimately their goal is to give people the help they need.

Batista says their mental health team doesn't wear the typical uniforms because they want to seem less intimidating. They are trained in certain deescalation tactics when dealing with these calls.

"This is very important to us. Our mental health response team is hugely important to us as an organization and as a city," Batista said. "We have made incredible strides around the country with the program we have at hand. There are just times I believe, where it doesn't matter what we do if an officer is faced with one of those decisions he has to take action."

Smith's family says he has been struggling with mental illness, and has been mute for a year. They believe he would understand commands, and they were trying to get him help. The family isn't against the cops, but wish something else had been done. Specifically, they want to know why the officer did not use a taser. 

According to TPD's Use of Force Policy, the use of a taser is for situations where deadly force is not justified. That also goes for items like pepper spray.

The policy states that "deadly force may only be used when an officer reasonably perceives an imminent threat of serious physical injury or death to the officer or another person. When feasible, officers will attempt to utilize lesser means of force prior to using deadly force.

When asked why the TPD officer didn't use a taser in this incident, a department spokeswoman said they can not answer specific questions about the case until the board of inquiry is completed. 

The three officers involved are on administrative leave, Batista said, as is standard procedure with these types of cases. The officer from the Mental Health Support Team who discharged his weapon has been identified as Ryder Schrage, a four year veteran of TPD. 

TPD says that detectives from the Violent Crimes Section and the Office of Professional Standards responded to the scene to continue the investigation. 

The Violent Crimes Section is conducting a criminal investigation into the incident while the Office of Professional Standards is conducting a separate and parallel investigation to examine the actions of department personnel in response to the incident.

TPD says this is standard protocol in all officer involved shootings.