An Arizona police chief on Wednesday supported an officer’s decision to drive his car into an armed suspect, saying that although the move could have killed the suspect, deadly force was justified.
Video of the incident, recorded February 19 by the dashboard cameras of two Marana police cars, shows one of the cars running into a suspect with who had a rifle in the city about a half hour from Tucson.
The suspect, 36-year-old Mario Valencia, survived and was hospitalized before being criminally charged. Marana police Chief Terry Rozema was asked Wednesday on CNN’s “New Day” whether police were fortunate that Valencia didn’t die.
“That very well may be … that it’s luck that he is still alive. The fact of the matter remains, though, deadly force was authorized,” Rozema said.
“So if he ends up dying in that situation, (then) he ends up dying, and that’s unfortunate, (but) that’s not the desire of everybody,” the chief added.
The footage has stirred debate about what type of force police should have used.
In one of the dashcam videos, an officer who was tailing a walking Valencia at slow speed reports over the radio that the suspect has fired one round in the air with a rifle he is accused of stealing that morning from a Walmart.
Another patrol car zooms past, runs into the man from behind, then hits a short cinder block wall next to a driveway. Video from Officer Michael Rapiejko’s camera shows Rapiejko’s vehicle running into Valencia, with the windshield smashing as the car hits the wall.
Police in Marana justified Rapiejko’s actions.
“We don’t know that if (Rapiejko) lets him go for another 10 seconds, (Valencia) doesn’t take somebody out in the parking lot,” Rozema said. “And then we’re answering some completely different questions: ‘Why didn’t you act sooner? … This guy had a gun … Why didn’t you stop this guy before he shot my wife, before he shot my husband, before he shot my child?’ ”
The video has stirred debate about what type of force police should have used to detain the man. Valencia’s attorney, Michelle Cohen-Metzger, told CNN on Tuesday that “it is miraculous that my client isn’t dead.”
“Everything in the video seems to point towards an obvious excessive use of force, Cohen-Metzger said.
Timeline of events
Tucson Police Sgt. Pete Dugan told CNN that Valencia was involved in several incidents there the day he was struck.
At 6:45 a.m. on February 19, Valencia allegedly robbed a 7-Eleven in Tucson with a metal object in his hand. Authorities said he was dressed only in his underwear. He was charged with theft.
A little more than an hour later, police said, Valencia set a fire at a church for which he was charged with arson of an occupied structure.
Just after that he entered a home and stole a car, police said.
Authorities said he drove to a Walmart in Marana, where he allegedly stole a .30-30 rifle and ammunition. He fled the store with Walmart employees in pursuit.
Police encountered him in a business park walking down the road. An officer told him several times to drop the rifle, Lt. Tim Brunenkant with Marana police said in an email containing a timeline of events.
Valencia, police said, walked away from the officer, turned a corner and stopped. Valencia pointed the rifle at the officer then walked away again toward a Coca-Cola bottling plant and another business.
“As Mario Valencia briskly walked towards Sargent Controls (local manufacturer), Officer Michael Rapiejko uses his marked police car to stop the dangerous situation Mario Valencia created,” Brunenkant wrote.
Brunenkant also said by phone that before Rapiejko’s encounter with Valencia, the suspect had pointed the rifle at his head multiple times and threatened suicide before fleeing.
Rozema said that Valencia’s firing of the weapon, his refusal to obey the first officer’s commands to drop the gun and the pointing of the gun at the officer were key.
“And so you have another officer who sees and seizes an opportunity to end the threat and put an end to the situation,” the chief said.
Cohen-Metzger criticized the fact that Rapiejko hit Valencia from behind.
“My client’s back was turned and the officer drove right into him,” she said. “It isn’t that dissimilar to a police officer shooting a fleeing suspect in the back.”
CNN affiliate KOLD reported Valencia was in serious condition when he was taken to the hospital and was released into police custody two days later.
Valencia faces 15 charges, including three counts of aggravated assault, three counts of armed robbery and possession of a deadly weapon by a prohibited possessor. Cohen-Metzger said he had a prior record.
His next court appearance is May 18. He is in the Pima County Jail.
Authorities said no charges have been brought against the officer.