ELOY — Although police confirmed that Manuel Longoria, the 40-year-old Mesa man fatally shot by a Pinal County Sheriff’s Office deputy Jan. 14, did not have a weapon with him, they continue to say the shooting was justified.
Longoria “suddenly reached into his vehicle” just before the deputy fired, Tim Gaffney, Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said in an email Tuesday.
Longoria was shot twice by a deputy after leading Eloy police officers and Sheriff’s Office deputies on a 45-minute, slow-speed chase through the city.
Gaffney wrote that Longoria “repeatedly said that he had a gun and wouldn’t be taken alive” during the chase.
Eloy Police Sgt. Brian Jerome concurred with that statement.
“There were officers that heard the statements he was yelling from the car, saying he wasn’t going to be taken alive and throwing personal items from the car at the house on the 1100 block of Main Street, where he apparently had family,” Jerome said. “He made hand motions that he had a gun as well.”
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu defended his officers’ actions in the incident.
“We gave every opportunity possible to the subject who was driving a stolen vehicle to surrender,” the sheriff said in an interview with the Eloy Enterprise. “A lot of people criticized us for letting it go on so long. ... We tried to give him every opportunity to surrender without incident.”
Jerome said Longoria kept avoiding the tire deflation devices that officers put on the ground.
And, he said, because of the winding nature of the chase, it was hard for officers to get ahead of Longoria. The absence of a long straightaway for officers to attempt to get him off the road was another factor in the length of the chase, Jerome said.
Once Longoria’s vehicle was finally stopped, officers fired bean bag rounds and used a Taser on him, Gaffney said in the email.
The fact that Longoria was clearly struck by the bean bag rounds and not fazed prompted the sheriff to say, “This is where most reasonable people had to believe he had to be impaired by something.”
The sheriff and Jerome both said it’s possible the Taser didn’t properly work when it was used on Longoria.
“I don’t know if the Taser fully connected,” Jerome said. “I don’t know what caused it not to work, but it clearly didn’t have the desired effect on him.”
Longoria was standing next to the vehicle when he was shot.
Gaffney said the deputy who shot Longoria did so because Longoria reached into the car and the deputy “felt Longoria was reaching for the gun and his life and the lives of the other deputies were in danger so he fired two rounds.”
According to Gaffney’s email, Longoria “was coming out of the vehicle he had reached into” and the deputy decided to shoot “to stop the threat” he believed existed based on Longoria’s prior claims to have a weapon.
“(Longoria) kept one hand behind his back which ... deputies and officers on scene ... thought was on the gun he said he had,” Gaffney wrote.
A video of the shooting, taken by a bystander with a cellphone and released to several media outlets, shows Longoria standing next to the vehicle, with one hand behind his back, moving sideways toward the trunk of the car. He then suddenly turns, reaches into the vehicle quickly and then, with his back to the officers and hands above his head, is shot.
Babeu said anyone who watches that video will see “clearly this is a completely justifiable shooting. Given the circumstances and situation, it’s evident we took every measure to take him into custody without injury, never mind being killed.”
Jerome said Longoria’s actions “were the opposite of surrendering.”
The deputy’s shots were the only live rounds fired during the incident.
An autopsy was ordered for Longoria, also standard procedure, Gaffney said.
Babeu is optimistic that autopsy results will help him and his staff understand why Longoria wasn’t deterred by the Taser or the bean bag rounds. And, reports from the medical examiner and a toxicology report should also shed light on whether Longoria had taken any drugs or had any sort of mental health problems that contributed to his behavior, the sheriff said.
“Most of the time, even an obstinate subject would comply because of the pain. That’s what these less lethal rounds are used for — for compliance,” Babeu said. “Our whole effort was designed around taking him into custody and to have no one injured, certainly no one killed, and these were the circumstances thrust upon us.”
The incident began when an Eloy police officer attempted to pull Longoria over for a traffic violation. Longoria was driving a Toyota Corolla he had stolen in Casa Grande the previous Monday night, police said.
Instead of stopping, Longoria drove away, traversing Main Street several times and meandering down side streets with police officers in tow.
When police set up tire deflation devices to keep Longoria from driving away, he backed up and continued to flee, eventually hitting one Eloy police car and two Sheriff’s Office autos during the final phase of the chase.
The location of the chase — essentially in the middle of the city — was a concern to sheriff’s deputies, Babeu said. At least one school was locked down during the incident and people flocked to the streets to watch the scene.
Bill Richardson, a retired Mesa police officer who has taught advanced officer safety training for that department, said pursuits are inherently dangerous situations for officers.
“Most police departments don’t permit pursuits unless there’s an extreme danger to the community,” Richardson said.
He said more than half of officer deaths occur during pursuits, often due to auto accidents resulting from them.
When it comes to shooting a suspect, Richardson said most law enforcement officers are taught at the police academy what is and isn’t legal.
Officers are required to maintain their skills by target shooting at least once a month, according to the state administrative code that regulates public safety.
Departments may, and usually do, require more shooting practice than that, but due to higher costs of ammunition and range time, officers may be spending less time at the shooting range, Richardson said.
Still, he said additional classroom training on whether to shoot a suspect could be offered.
“You’re in a confrontation,” Richardson said. “You’ve got to be able to think clearly.”
Generally speaking, Richardson said in order for a shooting to be legal, the officer must feel as though his life or the lives of any bystanders are in imminent danger.
That can be fairly straightforward if the suspect has actually fired at the officer or is holding a weapon, Richardson said, but even then it’s never a clear-cut situation.
The officer has to ask himself, “Are you literally justified in using deadly force,” Richardson said.
Richardson said it’s important for people who are pulled over or in a police confrontation to always let the officer see their hands and tell them what they are doing.
Babeu said the use of lethal force “is an awesome responsibility and we are trusting our law enforcement officers with that authority. We do so with the utmost of training to prepare them for these situations.”
In this case, the sheriff said it’s not appropriate to “separate the point of shooting” for examination, but rather it’s necessary to “look at everything leading up to that point.
“Once given the total circumstances, I think it becomes evident to most citizens that this was a bad situation that was forced by the suspect who wanted to be killed, I believe,” Babeu said.
“I wish the suspect would have surrendered and not put himself and our deputies in this position,” Babeu said.
The deputy, Heath Rankin, a 51⁄2-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, was placed on the standard three days of paid administrative leave and has since returned to full duty, Gaffney said in the email.
Babeu said Rankin also followed office protocol in meeting with a therapist or psychologist.
Writers Shelley Ridenour and David Yankus contributed to this report.