July 29, 2021

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Most officers never fire their guns. But some kill multiple people — and are still on the job. – NBC News

17 min read

The video is brief but disturbing: Moments after two Seattle police officers kick down an apartment’s front door, a shirtless man appears on camera, lumbering slowly toward them with a 4-inch switchblade in his hand.

Inside a nearby bathroom was the man’s barricaded girlfriend, who had dialed 911 after she said he threatened her life and his own. Within 6 seconds, the officers opened fire. Ryan Smith, a Black and Latino 31-year-old, was killed in a burst of 10 shots on May 8, 2019, according to police records.

The officer who pulled the trigger first — and fired eight of the bullets that killed Smith — was Christopher Myers, 54, who has earned an array of commendations in his three decades at the Seattle Police Department, including officer of the year and a medal of honor. He was once heralded as an officer with an “unbelievable degree of patience” who cared deeply about the people on his beat.

Christopher Myers, an officer with the Seattle Police Department, fired his gun in four separate incidents in the last 11 years.Courtesy of Christopher Myers

Myers, who is white, also belongs to a rare but significant class of American law enforcement officers: He’s used deadly force multiple times in his career, firing his gun in four separate incidents in the last 11 years. Three people were killed in the shootings and one was seriously injured. All but one were people of color.

The Seattle Police Department declined to say whether Myers acted appropriately in each encounter, though officials gave him an award in at least one case. And according to the independent unit within the department that investigates allegations of wrongdoing, the Office of Police Accountability, only Smith’s killing was referred for review, and there was no finding of misconduct.

In an interview with NBC News, Myers attributed his repeated use of deadly force to a combination of factors, including threats posed by armed suspects, a willingness to rush toward danger and a confidence honed through years of experience and tactical training. He denied any racial bias in the shootings.

“I don’t expect any of my calls to escalate into shootings,” he said, adding: “Unfortunately, some people don’t yield and sometimes force the situation.”

Ryan Smith, 31, was killed by police in 2019.Family Photo

But his conduct has been questioned by judges, lawyers, officials and relatives of the people who died at his hands. For Smith’s mother, Rose Johnson, Myers appeared far too ready to pull the trigger. And the killing of her son — who she said was having a mental health crisis — left her struggling with an unresolved question: “How many people can a police officer kill before they’re held accountable?”

As cities grapple with high-profile killings by police and protesters fill the streets to demand justice, this is a question some police reform advocates are beginning to ask — particularly in places like Vallejo, California, where at least 14 officers were accused of bending the tips of their badges to mark each of their fatal shootings. (Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams called the alleged badge-bending “very troubling” and called for an outside investigation into the practice. The department’s deputy chief said the probe is ongoing and declined to comment.)

Policing experts said that officers with multiple shootings may work in high-risk units like SWAT, where they could face violent, unpredictable situations. But because police shootings are so rare, some say that any officer who has amassed a string of shootings should be investigated to assure the public that trigger-happy officers will not be tolerated.

Police accountability advocates point to examples of officers, like Myers, who have faced no consequences for multiple shootings despite allegations of potential misconduct. Authorities need clearer policies to identify repeat shooters and potentially remove or decertify them, they say — before the officers kill or injure again.

Andre Taylor, an activist who founded the nonprofit Not This Time! after his brother was killed by a Seattle police officer in 2016, said he believes officers who pull the trigger in multiple shootings should be assessed by outside medical professionals. These experts should determine whether the officers’ behavior is “problematic” and whether they should keep their jobs, he said.

Instead, Taylor said, the “culture of policing” rewards officers like Myers who may be quick to fire their weapons in what they see as dangerous scenarios. “Therein lies the problem,” he said.

“When you consistently see officers from around the U.S. use deadly force and there are no consequences,” Taylor added, “it emboldens you to have power without restraint — especially if you’re policing communities of color.”

Is Myers an outlier?

Most officers never fire their weapons. In 2019, the research-focused nonprofit National Police Foundation released a study of 1,006 police shootings at 47 departments over two years that found that 4 out of 5 officers who fired in those shootings had never discharged their guns before. But experts know little about the ones who fire more than once.

In some cases, officers have killed multiple people before facing consequences. A patrolman in the Seattle suburb of Auburn fatally shot two people in 2011 and 2017, but reportedly faced no discipline until last year, when he was charged with second-degree murder after his third on-duty killing. (A lawyer for the officer has said he acted in self-defense.) In Wisconsin, an officer who fatally shot three people in five years resigned from his police department in November after being suspended for the third shooting, of a 17-year-old boy — though he was not criminally charged and was later hired as a local sheriff’s deputy.

And in Minneapolis, former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of second-degree murder and other crimes in the 2020 killing of George Floyd, had previously shot a man in 2008. Chauvin said the man, Ira Toles, had tried reaching for his service weapon. Toles disputed this account to a local news outlet, saying that Chauvin was beating him and he was just trying to ward off the blows, but Chauvin was cleared of misconduct in the shooting. And Chauvin’s lawyers have argued that his use of force in restraining Floyd was justified.

April 20, 202101:35

But aside from the cases that make headlines, researchers have had little data to answer key questions, like why some officers use deadly force more often or how many of them there even are. The FBI only launched its national use-of-force collection system in 2019, and the largest database that tracks police shootings and other deadly encounters doesn’t routinely identify officers.

NBC News requested a decade of records from a dozen law enforcement agencies across the United States with higher than average rates of police killings, according to Mapping Police Violence, an analysis project based on public databases, obituaries and other sources. Records obtained from eight of these departments through public record requests and official databases show more than 150 officers who fired weapons in two or more intentional shootings across eight cities: Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Mesa, Arizona; Oklahoma City; Orlando, Florida; Seattle; Spokane, Washington; and Stockton, California.

The data show that in three cities — Mesa, Stockton and Spokane — these officers were linked to more than half of the police shootings from 2008 to 2018. In Mesa, just five officers fired their guns in 23 incidents over that period. In Columbus, officers with multiple shootings fired in 74 encounters during the same period — the most of the eight cities. In Seattle, officers who fired more than once were involved in nearly a third of police shootings from 2014 to 2021.

The shootings left more than 100 people dead across the eight cities.

It isn’t clear from the data how often the police fired at people who were armed. The National Police Foundation found that people shot by police had a weapon in 96 percent of the shootings reviewed in its 2019 study; 63 percent of the time, that weapon was a gun.

Philip Stinson, a former police officer and an expert on law enforcement misconduct at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said it was “troubling” that there were departments with so many officers who fired weapons in so many shootings in such a short period of time. Though researchers need more data to better understand the factors behind these numbers, Stinson said, the “mere counting of officers in multiple jurisdictions who have been involved in multiple shootings” needs to “be added to the discussion about police reforms — about what’s wrong with policing and what’s right with policing.”

James Burch, policy director of the California-based Anti Police-Terror Project, which advocates for victims of law enforcement violence, said the data showed that other cities appeared to be allowing the same kind of “out-of-control” deadly force that he said his group has seen in Vallejo.

“This will be eye-opening for the public,” he said. “You’re able to contextualize this violence so people know it’s not isolated to Vallejo. It’s a nationwide issue.”

But David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri St. Louis and the author of “Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force,” cautioned that any attempt to understand repeat shooters “shouldn’t start with the sense that this is necessarily a problem. We look to see if, shooting by shooting, it’s an appropriate use of force.”

“Some police officers simply find themselves in more than one situation during their careers where suspects try to kill them or another innocent,” he said.

Klinger interviewed 36 officers who discharged weapons in multiple shootings for “Into the Kill Zone” and found that they tended to work in specialized units like SWAT or fugitive apprehension, or they were patrol officers whose beats were in high-crime areas, he said.

Across the eight cities, NBC News could identify only four shootings linked to these officers that resulted in criminal charges: In Dallas, one officer was given probation and another was acquitted; an officer in Oklahoma City was convicted of murder; and in Orlando, an officer was indicted but later cleared after a prosecutor declined to charge him.

In Columbus, an officer was suspended for 16 hours and ordered to undergo training after his second shooting in two years, according to disciplinary records obtained by NBC News. The officer had fired at a man who he said reached into his waistband during a foot chase. The shot missed, and the man turned out to be unarmed, according to the records.

It’s unclear if officers in the other cities faced similar measures after firing in multiple shootings. A spokeswoman for Oklahoma City’s police department said officials approach the issue on a case by case basis, while authorities in Orlando pointed to an “early intervention program” launched in 2015 for officers who use deadly force more often because of job stress and other issues. The department declined to discuss the program’s details or say how many officers have participated. A police spokeswoman in Dallas said that the department takes each use of deadly force “very seriously.”

Police officials in Seattle, Mesa and Columbus did not respond to requests for comment about the number of shootings attributed to these officers, while a spokesman for the Stockton Police Department declined to comment. In Spokane, a police spokeswoman said the officers may have duty assignments like K-9 or SWAT that place them in violent, higher-risk situations more often.

A study published three years ago in the Journal of Public Health added another potential factor to the mix: Researchers studying police shootings in Dallas found that military veterans who had been deployed and later became police officers were three times more likely than other officers to shoot. The researchers weren’t sure why.

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Klinger said one police agency, which he declined to identify, asked him how many times officers should be able to shoot before they were removed from their assignments. A former officer himself, Klinger said he advised against such measures.

“The argument I made was, as long as the shootings are ‘good,’ and the officer is doing OK — killing people is not an easy thing — there shouldn’t be any policy that says, ‘we need to take this person out.’”

Stinson, though, said the determination of whether these shootings are justified has often been more of a rubber stamp than a thorough probe. That began to change in the last decade, with more departments opting for what he called a best practice — a shooting investigation conducted by an outside agency. Still, the 2019 study of 1,006 police shootings found that less than half of the departments surveyed followed this practice.

In Seattle, probes of deadly force are conducted internally by the police department’s professional standards bureau. If investigators uncover what appears to be a serious policy violation, the case is sent to the Office of Police Accountability. The independent unit investigates complaints from anyone, and its director can recommend discipline, training or systemic policy fixes. Possible criminal conduct is referred to other authorities.

‘I believe I can do more good than harm’

Myers had been with the Seattle Police Department for 20 years before he pulled the trigger for the first time a little over a decade ago.

He attributed this trajectory to training and experience: He didn’t have much of it when he was a “baby cop,” he said, but after working undercover and learning other tactical skills — as well as becoming a firearms instructor and the Seattle Police Department’s Taser coordinator — he developed the confidence to “analyze situations where I believe I can do more good than harm.”

Though Myers’ father was a police officer, he hadn’t planned on following him into law enforcement. He attended a liberal arts university in Olympia and had planned to become an art teacher. Then, on a lark, he applied in 1989 and started as a patrol officer the following year. It was an assignment he’d pursue for much of his career, often working in or around downtown Seattle.

It was there, at a bus stop on the night Dec. 7, 2010, that he shot and nearly killed Jose Cardenas-Muralta.

In the moments before Myers opened fire, he said, Cardenas-Muralta, then 37, appeared to be handling a gun under his hoodie while not complying with orders to get on the ground, according to court records. The gun turned out to be unloaded, and neither Myers’ partner nor video of the incident corroborated Myers’ account of Cardenas-Muralta’s allegedly suspicious behavior, a panel of appellate judges ruled in 2014. The judges reversed a firearms conviction that resulted from Cardenas-Muralta’s arrest, saying that police weren’t even justified in stopping him.

One of Cardenas-Muralta’s lawyers at the time, Susan Wilk, called the shooting an “outrage” and said her client underwent multiple surgeries after Myers shot him in the chest. Cardenas-Muralta was in deportation proceedings for being in the country illegally when the conviction was reversed, Wilk said, and she wasn’t sure if, seven years later, he was still in the United States. Efforts to reach Cardenas-Muralta were unsuccessful.

Myers defended the stop, saying the judges ignored gun-related municipal codes. He also defended the shooting. “They think I’m trying to make up a story to justify my actions,” he said. “I really don’t have to. Whether he was convicted or not, he’s off the street. The gun is off the street. That’s the best I can hope for.” Asked if he had been disciplined after the 2014 decision, Myers said the ruling “has so little to do with the real world, why would anyone discipline me?”

The director of Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability said it had not been asked to probe the shooting or the judges’ allegations.

While Myers felt that he’d “won” a lethal force encounter, he still felt remorse for having nearly killed someone. He said the shooting left him “wrecked” by guilt, stress and sensory distortions, like memories returning in the wrong order. He sought therapy and later developed techniques — like breathing quickly — to “off gas” adrenaline and help manage stress in future confrontations.

Myers’ next shooting, on Aug. 30, 2014, was fatal. A 56-year-old man, Stephen Johnston, had opened fire on police from his home with what one officer described as a rifle that sounded like an AK-47, according to documents from a coroner’s inquest, a public fact-finding investigation administered by King County for all fatal police encounters that doesn’t include criminal or civil penalties.

One officer at the scene fired a single bullet at Johnston. Myers, who had his own rifle, fired 10 times, likely killing Johnston, the documents say. (Through a lawyer, Johnston’s family declined to comment.)

What Myers experienced during and after this second use of deadly force was different than what he’d felt a few years before. He said he’d been “tactically engaged” for more than an hour while trying to protect other officers. Afterward, he was better equipped to deal with the sensory distortions that followed, he said.

“I wasn’t doubting myself anymore,” he said.

Still, what Myers described as the closest thing to negative feedback that he’s received over a shooting came after Johnston’s killing. An official from the U.S. Department of Justice, which has been monitoring the Seattle police department since a 2011 investigation found officers often used excessive force, told him that he hadn’t used a strong enough ballistics shield during the encounter, Myers said. He wasn’t disciplined over the matter, he added, and the Office of Police Accountability said it was not asked to investigate the shooting.

On April 20, 2017, Myers fired his gun in another lethal encounter — the fatal shooting of Damarius Butts, a Black 19-year-old forklift operator, father and community college student. With his sister, Butts had stolen some doughnuts, a 12-pack of beer and a few other items from a 7-Eleven, then flashed a revolver at the store clerk, court documents say. The clerk called 911.

Damarius Butts, 19, was killed during an “exchange of gunfire” with police in 2017.Family Photo

Amid a scuffle between Butts’ sister and a responding officer, Butts fled to the loading dock of Seattle’s federal building, authorities said. There, an “exchange of gunfire” between Butts and several officers left him dead and three officers injured, one of them critically, according to police records. Myers was shot in the hand. (It’s unclear which of the officers killed Butts.)

Lawyers representing Butts’ family have asked that the coroner’s inquest in his death examine several of the police department’s policies and training procedures, including how officers are supposed to handle cornered suspects.

Butts’ mother, Stephanie Butts, said in a statement through a lawyer that if the department had“responded more humanely and less like a military force, my son might still be alive.”

Stephanie Butts and her family want to see a “full investigation” of her son’s death, she said, though it’s unclear when the process will continue. A legal battle over the future of the county’s inquest process has halted all six cases scheduled to be probed. Stephanie Butts also sued the department last year alleging excessive force; the suit is ongoing.

In a court filing, the officers said they shot Butts in self-defense. Myers called the lawsuit “fiction” and said that he’d been ready to offer Butts first aid when he shot at police. “What are we supposed to do with that?” he said. “If they think tactics and training look like a military force, when you have an armed person shooting at you what tactics are you supposed to use?”

In a ceremony the following May, state officials awarded Myers and six other officers its medal of honor for the shooting. In a letter to Myers, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the officer’s “courage and selflessness” set a powerful example of “service with honor.”

After the Butts shooting, Myers said he asked to be taken off the street. He was approaching retirement, and tired of the legal and administrative “hoops” that can come with a deadly encounter.

“They treat you like a suspect,” he said. “You’re a cop in a shooting. You’ve done wrong ’til you’ve proven otherwise.”

Myers said he asked to be transferred to the department’s harbor patrol unit. But before that could happen, he responded to a 911 call on May 8, 2019: A man was threatening to kill his girlfriend and take his own life.

‘Blood everywhere’

Myers shot Ryan Smith just 6 seconds after he and another officer kicked Smith’s apartment door down. His mother, Rose Johnson, learned of the killing the next day, and in the minutes and hours that followed, she was overwhelmed.

Johnson, 53, flashed through images of her son’s life — as a toddler, as a 6-year-old, as an introverted adult with a talent for music. Johnson had been worried about her son, who she said had struggled for years with severe depression, anxiety and alcoholism. Now, she was trying to figure out the logistics of bringing his body home to Burbank, California. “I couldn’t really grieve,” she said. “I would cry in between phone calls.”

Rose Johnson and her son, Ryan Smith, in 1994.Family Photo

That grief turned to frustration as she tried piecing together the last moments of his life.

Johnson, who is Latino, wondered if race had played a role in the killing of her son, whose father is Black. She also began digging through investigative documents that she obtained through a public records request from the Seattle Police Department and shared with NBC News.

She learned, for instance, Myers’ reason for shooting her son so quickly: He told investigators that he believed Smith might have critically wounded his girlfriend, and that she might be “bleeding out,” according to the documents.

Yet the documents show that the girlfriend was on the phone with a 911 operator before — and during — Smith’s shooting. And although she told the operator that she could hear Smith ominously saying there was “blood everywhere” — and that he was “scraping” at the door — a log of the 911 call doesn’t show her saying she’d been stabbed.

After the shooting, the girlfriend, who asked not to be identified by NBC News to protect her privacy, told officers that they didn’t need to kill Smith. He “just had a knife and that was it,” she said, according to the documents.

The Seattle Community Police Commission, a civilian oversight board that advocates for reform, said in a statement that Smith was just one of several people in Seattle who “needed help” but were killed by police in recent years. “Because they had knives, they were met with deadly force,” the commission said. The board pointed to a Police Executive Research Forum training guide for officers who respond to similar calls and said the Seattle Police Department should ensure its officers follow best practices like “creating space” and other de-escalation techniques.

In an interview, Myers said the information he’d gotten about the initial 911 call was fragmented. He heard from a radio dispatcher that a man had a knife, a woman believed the man was trying to kill her and there was “blood everywhere.”

Then, Myers flipped on his siren and lights and floored the gas. Once officers arrived at Smith’s apartment, Myers said he had “dark tunnel vision” and “no idea what race” Smith was.

In an email to NBC News, the director of Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability, Andrew Myerberg, said that the police department’s training for mental health crises is virtually identical to the measures detailed in the research forum’s training guide. He said he found the officers’ response that night to be “reasonable, necessary and proportional under the totality of the circumstances.”

Myerberg acknowledged that the dispatcher, who has not been publicly identified, “misinterpreted” and conveyed “inaccurate” information about what was happening inside Smith’s apartment. But that didn’t amount to misconduct because it didn’t cause “the response and ultimate result of the call,” he said. Still, a separate use-of-force review board within the department took up the bungled communication as a “systemic issue,” he said.

Asked about this inaccurate information, Myers said that “it’s nice to Monday morning quarterback…I wish I was Superman. I’m doing the best I can to try and protect victims.” And he said he understood why Johnson and others were “looking to assign blame to protect the memories of their loved ones.”

“That’s a normal human reaction,” he said. “But none of them were there.”

Johnson, meanwhile, said she felt bad for Myers and other officers “who, for whatever reason, shoot their weapons within seconds and can tell themselves the story, ‘I did my job.’”

“I have no doubt that if Myers hadn’t gone to my son’s call, he would be alive,” she added. “The wrong cop showed up.”

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