Officials will weigh threat officer perceived before he fired

BY SCOTT RAYNOR | JULY 28, 2009 7:07 AM

In the ongoing investigation of the Johnson County deputy who shot and killed a homeless man July 24, investigators will determine whether the officer could have perceived a serious threat.

Civil Deputy Terry Stotler, 45, was on duty when he allegedly drove by John Bohnenkamp, a 63-year-old UI electrician, and 28-year-old John Deng fighting. Stotler then got out of his car and identified himself, telling the two to separate, according to his account. He saw blood and observed Deng holding a knife.

Despite Stotler’s orders, Deng allegedly refused to put down the knife and moved toward Bohnerkamp, prompting the officer to shoot Deng.

As a Johnson County civil deputy, Stotler had limited equipment at his disposal. Civil deputies are usually responsible for serving court summons, documents, and eviction notices.

Stotler likely only carried a badge, a gun, and handcuffs, whereas a uniformed officer typically would have access to a “bat belt,” which may include pepper spray, a Taser, or a club.

Iowa City police Sgt. Kelsay said that because of the circumstances, “there is a real potential for some sort of court action.”

However, because Deng’s relatives and emergency contact have yet to be reached, civil action against the officer or department is somewhat less likely, Kelsay said

Another possibility of legal action lies with the state Attorney General’s Office.

Once the investigation is complete — with the inclusion of an autopsy and toxicology report — the updated materials will be sent to that office, where officials will determine whether to file criminal charges against Stotler.

They must conclude whether Stotler could have perceived that he or another person was under the threat of deadly force.

“If you pull the trigger, it is as if you intend to kill someone, even if you fire and miss,” Kelsay said.

This means that in a case of deadly force, it is irrelevant if the aggressor actually posed a significant threat.

The only details that are relevant would be those that could show a “reasonable” officer could have perceived that there was a deadly threat given the information available.

Iowa City police regulations mandate that use of force “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

Explicit guidelines for the use of deadly force don’t exist because of the wide variety of circumstances that can occur during a violent encounter, Kelsay said. But Iowa City has a lethal force “model,” which outlines general requirements and gives definitions.

Deadly force is defined as force used to cause serious injury, force that the aggressor knows will probably cause serious injury, or simply firing in the direction of a person with the knowledge of her or his location.

Before firing a weapon, an Iowa City police officer must determine the aggressor poses a threat.

Police must also give a verbal warning, and warning shots are prohibited.

So far, Kelsay said witness testimonies seem to coincide with the details Stotler gave investigators.

“He made his best call given what he perceived and the little information he had to go off of,” he said. In times of crisis, he said, “you can’t wait to see how it turns out.”

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