Crime

‘Tactics are not good.’ Experts say police put themselves in danger in June shooting

The officers involved in the June shooting of an armed man on East Berry Street used questionable tactics that put themselves in danger in the moments leading up to the shooting, according to policing experts.

JaQuavion Slaton, 20, hid in the cab of a flatbed truck as at least six officers canvassed the surrounding blocks searching for him. Slaton, who had several warrants, was carrying a handgun.

In six body camera videos released by the Fort Worth Police Department, several officers are seen walking by the truck — one stood next to it for at least two minutes before an officer realized that Slaton was hiding on the floorboard.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram asked experts in the field of policing and the use of force to review the police actions seen in the videos. Four reviewed the footage of the June 9 shooting, and all questioned the tactics used by the department.

“Overall, I didn’t see anything wrong in terms of unconstitutional or unprofessional behavior, but some of the officer safety questions are curious,” said Melissa Hamilton, a criminal law professor from the University of Texas School of Law and former Florida police officer.

‘I think he’s hiding in the truck’

Based on the footage the police department released, Slaton was hidden from officers for at least five minutes.

In that time, officers scoured through trees, climbed over fences, talked to neighbors and searched under vehicles. One of those vehicles was the flatbed truck in which Slaton sat. At least one officer got onto the ground and looked under the truck with his flashlight. He later suggested that Slaton probably ran home.

He reminded other officers to maintain their perimeter as he walked around the vehicle. A few officers stood outside of the truck for several minutes to talk.

Another officer — called Officer 4 on the video — moved closely to the door and peered inside, his face just inches from the glass. He noticed a pair of Adidas shoes on the floor, legs and a pair of shorts.

“Come to this truck, come to this truck, come to this truck,” he said into his radio and he backed away from the vehicle to stand on the side of the nearby structure.

“I think he’s hiding in the truck,” he told backup, explaining that the driver’s side door was locked.

The six responding officers quickly positioned themselves around the truck, just feet away from touching it. Two stood just outside of Slaton’s door. At least three stood directly in front of the windshield. Another officer moved toward the passenger door but was yelled at by a second officer, warning him of potential crossfire.

Several officers began to yell at Slaton to put his hands up. Two officers broke the driver’s side window with the butt of their guns. One of the officers pounded on the window with his baton.

Then, a slew of shots rang out. Police said they saw Slaton with a gun, and he raised it.

Slaton, 20, suffered seven gunshot wounds, six of which were fired by three officers, and another that Slaton fired himself into the right side of his head, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office has said.

‘The tactics are not great’

The experts who spoke with the Star-Telegram didn’t talk about the shooting itself. Slaton isn’t visible in the videos — the window tint is too dark — so they wouldn’t comment on whether they believed the shooting was justified.

Professor Jessica Henry of Montclair State University in New Jersey was concerned that officers — who believed Slaton was armed and dangerous — didn’t warn residents who were standing outside that their safety was compromised.

“In at least one of the videos, there’s an interaction between the officer and a family and he says to them, ‘Have you seen these two guys?’ and describes them, but he doesn’t say ‘Get in the house,’” she said. “I thought that was interesting that he didn’t affirmatively clear the area, particularly when there were young kids around — that was alarming.”

Three other experts questioned the lack of officer safety and awareness leading up to the shooting.

“The tactics are not great,” said Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer with 10 years of experience.

Stoughton and Jeff Noble, a retired deputy chief from California with 28 years of policing experience, both independently pointed out that none of the officers sought cover, kept a safe distance or formed a small perimeter around the truck, which wasn’t running.

Stoughton also questioned why the officer with a rifle stood right next to the passenger side door.

“A rifle is designed for longer distance encounters — I’m a former officer who carried a patrol rifle. What I would expect is the officer with the rifle to be staging much farther away than he was, potentially across the street or behind another car, the corner of the house,” he said. “The rifle can provide pretty accurate lethal cover from distances that you wouldn’t necessarily trust a handgun to.”

Stoughton pointed out that it’s hard to apply textbook concepts to real-world situations. However, he said, “In this case, it looks like the officers have some time to do that. “

“They’re communicating and they’re staging, but they’re not staging the way that I would expect,” he said. “If you think the subject in the car has a gun, you really don’t want to be standing right in front of the car where the subject can very easily lift the gun, point it and shoot.”

Interim Police Chief Ed Kraus briefly spoke about the officers’ tactics during a June news conference.

“You can see several pedestrians walking around,” he said. “The officers made a tactical decision to first go behind the vehicle and then they realized the crossfire could put other people in danger. They moved to the front of the vehicle as a shielding mechanism”

‘Creating time’

The videos show how fast the situation unfolded.

One minute and 11 seconds passed from the time Officer 4 spotted Slaton to the time shots were fired.

Stoughton and Noble said they would have expected officers to “create time” by standing back.

“Officers need time to assess a situation and respond to it,” Stoughton said. “When you’re in a high-pressure, dangerous situation, you don’t have that time. So police do something that they call creating time. It’s positioning themselves in a way that maximizes the amount of time they have to assess and respond. They do that by using distance, standing at a relatively safe distance from a potential threat and using cover.”

That’s not what the Fort Worth officers did, he said.

Henry said she noticed some escalation in the seconds before the shooting.

“They are banging on the engine and making noise and someone takes something to break the glass window, I don’t know why they did that,” she said. “That in and of itself creates lots more trauma for (everyone involved). You can imagine if things had been calmer, in theory, they could have maybe diffused the situation. But the flip side, (Slaton) ran away so he obviously did not want to be arrested, he had a gun, he was wanted for assault with a weapon, so I understand why they were on alert and it all happened so quickly. I don’t know if they could have done anything better or different.”

But Hamilton said she didn’t see any issues with how the officers behaved.

“I commend their professionalism, even the shooting didn’t seem to freak anyone out,” she said. “They’re trained to be able to handle the situation. I respected that after, some of the higher-ups were checking to make sure the officers were all OK and they were taking seriously who fired their weapon and how many times they did. ... They were getting the scene ready for further investigation, it’s accountability and transparency.”

The findings of the investigation will be presented to a Tarrant County grand jury. The three officers who fired their weapons have been temporarily reassigned to administrative duties.

The Star-Telegram sent the Fort Worth Police Department a list of seven questions, most based on the expert’s observations.

Noble said he was curious why several officers shouted commands at Slaton at one time, because it’s not normal protocol to do so.

Fort Worth police Lt. Brandon O’Neil wrote in an email, “There is not a distinct protocol per se for all circumstances.”

He said during times when officers are using a loud speaker, only one would talk.

“But that is one of the few examples I can readily cite,” he said, adding that it’s important the message being shouted by officers is consistent.

The message from the officers was “hands up.”

The bulk of the questions the newspaper asked centered on officer safety.

Did the department believe officers should have taken appropriate cover before engaging with Slaton? Are the tactics they used a concern for police leaders? Is there room for training?

O’Neil said: “The Critical Police Incident Tactics Review Board is tasked with this responsibility and will review actions taken to seek process improvements for all parties involved.”

He referred to information released by Kraus in the days following the shooting. During a news conference, Kraus said de-escalation techniques don’t always work.

“It doesn’t always work with a handgun,” he said, explaining that Slaton was known to be dangerous. “They don’t necessarily have the option to de-escalate and they don’t have the requirement to do so.”

Body cameras don’t tell full story

Since 2014, there has been a push for police departments nationwide to release videos of police shootings to the public as soon as possible.

While she was pleased that the department released the number of videos it did, Henry said she was disappointed that the videos weren’t released sooner. The department initially released a video on June 13 — four days after the shooting. Several activists showed up to City Hall on the Tuesday following the shooting to demand the release.

The Star-Telegram received more videos on June 27 after the newspaper filed an open records request.

“The video recordings not only provide an opportunity for the public to see what happened and to understand what happened on the ground, it also provides the police department and the institution of police in general an opportunity to review their procedures, and that can only benefit all of us in the long run,” Henry said.

Stoughton said the general public should view the footage with the understanding that it doesn’t show the entire picture.

“I’m generally in favor of body cameras, but you have to remember that body cameras and the videos are tools, and to be effective tools, tools have to be used appropriately,” he said. “People can misinterpret body camera videos. We tend to believe that video is a more comprehensive and accurate and a more objective form of evidence than any other form of evidence, and that’s not necessarily the case.”

The videos in this case don’t show key elements of what happened that day, he said.

“You can’t see what exactly (Slaton) was doing inside the truck,” he said. “What you see on the video is not always an accurate reflection of what the officers saw at the time. They might have been able to see through the glass of the truck more clearly than the video shows. Body cameras are very valuable sources of information, but it’s a mistake to assume that they are perfect.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why did we report this story?

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram received eight unedited videos from the Fort Worth Police Department regarding the shooting of JaQuavion Slaton in June through an open records request.

The newspaper wanted to see what experts said about how police handled the situation, so reporter Nichole Manna contacted former police officers, a former police chief and law professors across the U.S. She sent 14 experts all eight unedited videos to view.

Four agreed to speak with Manna.

Then, Manna sent the Fort Worth Police Department a list of seven questions, most based on the expert’s observations. The bulk of the questions the newspaper asked centered on officer safety.

Did the department believe officers should have taken appropriate cover being engaging with Slaton? Are the tactics they used a concern for police leaders? Is there room for training?

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Nichole Manna is an investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she covered crime and breaking news in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She is a 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and grew up in Florida.
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