Over a six-day span, Seattle police Officers Chris Myers and Suzanne Parton fired gunshots at armed suspects who, by official accounts, posed an immediate danger to police and the public.
Myers, along with another officer, shot at a Queen Anne man who was killed by police gunfire Aug. 30 after he emerged from his house shooting at officers.
Parton fired a single shot Sept. 4 that missed a knife-wielding man who was later apprehended in the University District.
Myers and Parton are married to each other. In addition to that connection, the two veteran officers have each signed onto a pending lawsuit in which more than 100 officers seek to block new policies aimed at curbing excessive use of force cited by the U.S. Department of Justice.
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The officers, in the suit, allege the use-of-force policies have tied their hands, asserting that the “intended effect of the new UF Policy is to delay and greatly limit officers’ resort to a full range of force tools and techniques and to eliminate their discretion.”
The federal suit also maintains that decision-making under the policy is “sufficiently proscribed so that police officers cannot act decisively in the moment, based on an assessment of the threat, to bring situations under control in order to protect themselves and others from harm.”
But in the two recent incidents, Myers and Parton appeared to make decisive, split-second decisions they viewed as reasonable during rapidly unfolding events. Based on police accounts of the incidents, the new policies did not appear to hinder or impede the officers’ decisions to resort to lethal force.
Moreover, despite the lawsuit’s contention that officers face second-guessing, no one has questioned the actions of Myers and Parton, although official reviews remain to be concluded.
“They’re both force responses to behavior,” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a department spokesman, describing the incidents.
The Queen Anne man, 56-year-old Stephen P. Johnston, had menaced his neighborhood with reported gunfire. When officers arrived, they heard shots and saw a man brandishing a weapon, police said.
Johnston retreated into his house but came back out and fired at officers.
Myers and Officer James Moran, both rifle-equipped and trained, returned fire. Johnston died of a gunshot wound to the face.
Parton was among a number of officers who pursued 23-year-old Joshua Ryan Cannon as he ran through the University District, after Cannon allegedly refused to drop two butcher knives he was using to strike utility poles and street signs.
In the course of the chase, police initially used pepper spray that had little effect on Cannon, then Taser darts that he was able to remove, according to court documents.
When Cannon, still armed, took a “sudden deliberate step” toward Parton, a trained hostage negotiator who had been trying to defuse the situation, she fired a shot from her handgun that missed.
Parton feared for her life and the lives and safety of the officers near her, according to the court documents.
Cannon ran and tried to hide behind a dumpster. Police fired less-lethal projectiles at him before he surrendered.
The varying responses to Cannon illustrated de-escalation and escalation practices officers are supposed to consider under the new policy, which went into effect Jan. 1.
The officers’ lawsuit alleges the court-ordered policy infringes on their legal right to take reasonable actions, as well as respond with reasonable force “from the moment they arrive on the scene.”
The policy “explicitly overrides officer discretion” by limiting their right to use certain levels and types of force “even in immediately threatening situations” unless a variety of factors are, or are not, present, the suit says.
Although the policy attempts to qualify “rigid preconditions” to make them seem reasonable, de-escalation is required when ‘“safe and feasible,”’ the suit contends.
“This requires superhuman skills in any situation, but clearly is impossible under the potentially dangerous, rapidly unfolding circumstances facing officers,” the suit says.
In response to questions, Athan Tramountanas, a Seattle attorney who is representing Officers Robert Mahoney and Sjon Stevens, two of the lead plaintiffs in the suit, said the policy should have allowed officers to engage Cannon at the outset of the incident and use reasonable force if required.
Instead, Cannon was allowed to endanger officers and the public as the pursuit continued over many blocks as officers sought to evaluate his motivations, mental health and their de-escalation options, Tramountanas said.
The outcome wasn’t dictated by the new policies but by Cannon’s decision to surrender in the face of the force that was ultimately used, Tramountanas said.
Overall, Tramountanas said, there was “paralysis by analysis.”
The suit was filed as a “last option,” when complaints were ignored, he said.
City attorneys have defended the policy, saying in court papers it recognizes “law enforcement is dynamic and that no policy can cover every conceivable circumstance.”
Myers declined a request for comment made to him and his wife, citing a department restriction on talking to the news media. He and Parton are representing themselves in the suit.
Myers, 47, a former officer of the year who has been an instructor and consultant on less-lethal force, and Parton, 49, are widely viewed as outstanding officers.
Ron Smith, the president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which has opposed the lawsuit, said the incident in the University District in particular showed the new use-of-force policies allowed discretion.
But Smith noted that Myers and Parton each have more than 20 years of experience that came into play in both instances.
Younger or newer officers might get “mired down in this policy,” said Smith, who believes the policy is cumbersome and poorly written.
But the department is undergoing a coordinated effort to identify problems with the policy, Smith said.
“I think they both did a good job on this,” Smith said of the officers’ actions during the incidents. “I just think it’s unfortunate we have this lawsuit to talk about.”