When a Cop is Just Wrong…
Early last Thanksgiving morning, a longtime troublemaker tore out of a bar parking lot in Paradise, California. His headlights were off and he almost hit several bar patrons as he sped away. The troublemaker was, not surprisingly, drunk. Paradise police officer Patrick Feaster was parked near the bar, saw the drunk flee the parking lot, turned on his overheads and tried to stop him. Not surprisingly, the drunk, Andrew Thomas, didn’t stop. Instead, he rolled his SUV. His wife was ejected and died. Officer Feaster pulled up to the accident seconds later.
None of this is unusual. Drunks drive stupid, run from police, and kill innocent people every day in America. But what happened next was completely out of the ordinary: the officer, for no apparent reason, shot the driver. And he wasn’t charged for it.
I’ve been a cop for two decades, have written about why the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri was justified, and have spent many frustrating hours trying to explain to police critics that the real world is nothing like the TV shows they think are real. I’m extremely jaded about criticism of police tactics from people who know literally nothing about real-world lethal force encounters. When I first saw Facebook posts about the Paradise shooting, after the DA announced the officer wouldn’t be charged, I figured the posts were routine “guys who know nothing about police work making stupid comments” nonsense.
Then I watched the video.
I watched as, after the accident, Officer Feaster reported the rollover to dispatch. I watched him get out of his patrol vehicle and seem to casually walk toward the wrecked SUV, which had come to rest on its driver’s side. I watched Andrew Thomas begin to climb out of the SUV’s window. Both his hands were visible, and there was no obvious indication of a weapon. I watched Officer Feaster casually draw his weapon, casually point it at Thomas, casually fire one shot, stop walking briefly as Thomas falls back into the SUV, and casually reholster. I watched him saunter to the SUV, look into the window toward Thomas, and report on the radio that “I’ve got an unresponsive female, I’ve got a male in the car refusing to get out.”
I watched backup arrive. Feaster doesn’t mention he had shot the driver. I saw more backup arrive. Feaster still doesn’t say anything. As other officers check on the ejected woman and Thomas, I watched Feaster search the area he had been when he fired the shot (most likely looking for his spent shell).
The video ended before EMS arrived, but reports I read said Feaster still didn’t say he had shot Thomas. It wasn’t until EMS pulled Thomas out and saw the gunshot wound that Feaster finally admitted he “might have” shot him. And Feaster didn’t actually say anything until his supervisor told an officer to go back to the bar and find out if Thomas had been shot there.
Eleven minutes passed between the moment Feaster shot Thomas and the moment he finally told someone about it. Eleven minutes Thomas could have bled out. And Feaster didn’t say a word, to anyone, until he basically got caught.
Feaster claimed the shooting was accidental. Thomas was paralyzed from the waist down. Feaster was immediately suspended, and the incident was referred to a grand jury. On December 10th, the District Attorney announced Feaster wouldn’t face criminal charges for the shooting.
As I watched the video, after I read that Feaster wouldn’t be charged, I had a “What the f**k?” moment. Don’t get me wrong; I understood why Officer Feaster drew his weapon, and I understand why he pointed it. Thomas was a felon who had just fled an officer, and drawing your weapon is normal during a felony stop. It’s also normal to point your weapon at a felon to force compliance. It’s not normal to put your finger on the trigger if you don’t see an immediate lethal threat, and it’s not normal to shoot an apparently unarmed man who presents no threat. From the video, I saw no reason the officer should have fired. It just didn’t make sense, and Feaster appeared to have done it intentionally.
But Feaster said it was an accident. The DA believed that, based on two very flimsy pieces of “evidence”:
- Feaster fired in mid-stride, jerked his head sideways and “stutter-stepped” after firing, which the DA believes indicated surprise; and
- Feaster fired only one shot, but officers are trained to fire at least twice.
The DA’s statement to the Paradise PD Chief says, “The dashcam video also shows Officer Feaster was not prepared for and was surprised by the gun’ s firing. The pistol discharges in mid stride and the officer both flinches his head to the right and does a ‘stutter step’ indicative of an officer not prepared for nor intentionally firing his pistol. Additionally officers normally train to fire a minimum of two shots when they intentionally fire their sidearms at training.”
I don’t get the DA’s reasoning, and I can refute his points:
- In the academy, officers don’t typically train to fire while walking. But many private instructors offer advanced training, including pretty basic “shooting while walking” drills. Some officers train together on their own, and incorporate advanced training they’ve received from various instructors. At the very least, the DA should investigate whether Feaster had ever been trained to shoot while walking;
- Feaster’s head movement and stutter-step could indicate surprise, or could have been Feaster simply assessing his shot before deciding whether to fire again (by the way, I didn’t see a stutter-step, I just saw Feaster stop walking long enough to fire); and
- Officers were historically trained to fire two shots and assess, but we also train to fire until the threat ceases. We’ve moved away from the brainless “two shots no matter what” training that has probably gotten officers killed. I know an officer who got shot at, drew and fired twice, reholstered, and then realized the suspect was still shooting at him. To avoid training officers to make that mistake we don’t teach a two-shot minimum, and we don’t teach officers to fire after the threat has been neutralized. There have been many recent, justified police shootings where the officer fired only one shot. And if Feaster was planning on shooting twice, he carrying a .45 which has significant recoil. It’s not unreasonable to ask whether Featser didn’t shoot twice because Thomas dropped out of sight too quickly for Feaster to get back on his sights for a second shot.
On that video, I don’t see the obvious indicators of an accidental discharge that DA Ramsey sees. And according to DA Ramsey, shooting someone accidentally but not killing them isn’t illegal in California.
“In examining Officer Feaster’s criminal liability, we note first that this, thankfully, is not a homicide case and we therefore only examine those Penal Code sections dealing with the discharge of a firearm. All of those sections, be it Penal Code section 245 (Assault with a Firearm), 246 (Discharge of Firearm at an Occupied Vehicle) or 246.3 (Discharge of a Firearm in a Grossly Negligent Manner), all require proof the trigger of the firearm was pulled ‘willfully’ or under circumstances in which the display of the gun was unreasonable. As noted in Penal Code section7, the word ‘willfully’ when ‘applied to the intent with which an act is done, implies simply a purpose or willingness to commit the act (i.e. pull the trigger)’. An unintentional or accidental pulling of the trigger, as long as the firearm was originally displayed in a legal and reasonable manner – i.e. an officer in the reasonable performance of his duty of making a felony vehicle stop – does not, under the law, allow for criminal charges.”
Again, I get why Feaster drew and pointed his weapon. I’m also all for using as much force as necessary, as soon as it’s necessary. I’ve been in plenty of confusing, dangerous situations where I came close to shooting people I later found out weren’t a threat, and I’m more than willing to give a cop the benefit of the doubt. I understand that good guys can make good-faith mistakes under stress, and I don’t want any cop trying to do his best punished for it. I also understand that we cops live in a grey area, where neat lines and classroom theory get beaten senseless by ugly reality. I can defend a good guy who made a bad call. But I’m not willing to stand up for an officer who blatantly shot someone for no reason, then didn’t even bother to tell other officers or paramedics.
In this job, we need the public’s trust. We don’t necessarily need the public’s approval; as in the Mike Brown case, there will be times an officer is completely justified and the public just won’t accept it. But in cases where the shooting is obviously not justified, the officer even admits it’s not justified, the DA says it’s not justified, and someone who’s a jerk but didn’t deserve to get shot gets shot and paralyzed anyway, the officer should be charged. In Texas, if I shot someone the way Feaster did, I’d at least be charged with felony Deadly Conduct. And I’d deserve it.
I don’t like criticizing another officer, and I don’t like calling for a cop to be charged. I can maybe accept that Feaster was so ill-suited to police work, so inept, that he accidentally fired but wasn’t sure he fired, and spent eleven critical minutes trying to convince himself he hadn’t fired. Maybe Feaster didn’t intend to shoot anyone, and was just a horrible cop. I think it’s more likely he intended to shoot, and realized immediately he had screwed up.
Either way, if we cops expect the public to view us as the good guys, we should call for Feaster’s prosecution.
P.S. Andrew Thomas died after DA Ramsey’s announcement of no charges. I’m waiting to see if he charges Feaster now that his actions did in fact result in Thomas’ death.
Chris Hernandez is a 20 year police officer, former Marine and currently serving National Guard soldier with over 25 years of military service. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and also served 18 months as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo. He writes for BreachBangClear.com and Iron Mike magazine and has published two military fiction novels, Proof of Our Resolve and Line in the Valley, through Tactical16 Publishing. He can be reached at email@example.com or on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ProofofOurResolve).
Filed under: Cops, Uncategorized | 37 Comments
Tags: Officer Feaster, Paradise California, police shootings, veteran writers