Police Shooting of Mentally Ill Teen Raises Questions

By | February 12, 2014

As a former law-enforcement officer for 12 years, I had extensive experience in dealing with situations very similar to the one Detective Byron Vassey was faced with last month. I served not only as a deputy Sheriff but also as a homicide detective that investigated officer involved shootings. As well as a sergeant overseeing the use of force within my assigned area. In addition, I served as an Academy instructor and a scenario evaluator determining cadet’s fitness for duty. These scenarios were structured so that cadets were evaluated on how they tactically handled situations including a scenario very similar to this one. They were evaluated for their officer safety tactics, how they interacted with the subject, as well as their attempts to use the least amount of force necessary in gaining compliance from the suspect.  I feel this is a topic I can speak on knowledgeably as I have both training and experience.

The shooting death of Keith Vidal by any account is tragic. He was a 90-pound, 18-year-old young man who had a history of mental health issues. On the day he was shot, Vidal’s family was attempting to get him to go in for a psychiatric evaluation. They believed he was having a schizophrenic episode. Vidal became agitated and armed himself with a small screwdriver causing the family to call law enforcement for assistance.

The first two officers arrived and spoke Vidal for several minutes and appeared to be making progress in getting him to comply. The third officer Detective Byron Vassey a nine-year veteran of the Southport Police Department North Carolina arrived. Within two minutes of Vassey’s arrival he tazed Vidal. After Vidal fell to the ground the first two responding officers attempted to gain control of Vidal. According to family members who witnessed the incident, Vassey then said “we don’t have time for this” drew his weapon and reach over one officer between the two officers and shot Vidal in the chest killing him.

As someone who has been to the scene of multiple officer involved shootings I am very well aware of the fact that witnesses tend to get key facts wrong. Not because they are lying but because of various perception issues that they have regarding the situation tends to implant false memories. In addition, the same thing tends to happen to officers involved in high stress situations such as shootings.

So when I first read the family’s account I initially believed that it was nothing more then their belief that their loved one was not an actual threat to law-enforcement and they didn’t perceive the same dangers. However, my assessment quickly changed.

The first two responding officers were quickly cleared by there to respective departments internal affairs divisions of any wrongdoing. The third officer, Vassey was placed on administrative leave. Shortly after Vassey was placed on administrative leave an attorney representing Vassey, James Payne spoke publicly about the situation. Payne stated in an interview with CNN that Vassey shot Vidal because Vidal was not compliant and officers did not have control of him after he was tazed. Payne said Vidal was trying to stab one of the officers in the abdomen area.  According to Payne, the officer did not perceive the stabbing attempt because the officer had on a bulletproof vest. Vassey then shot Vidal in an attempt to defend the life of his fellow officer.

There are several issues with this version of events.

The first issue is understanding how a Taser works and what it does. When a Taser is shot two probes stick into the subjects clothing or skin. An electrical impulse is then sent from the Taser through wires connecting the probes to the suspect. The electrical impulses cause the subject to lose control of their body. Because the probes remain connected to the Taser controlled by the officer via the wires, additional charges can be given to the suspect if they are noncompliant. This can be done multiple times if necessary. This allows the officer to stay a safe distance away from any armed, combative subjects until they gain compliance. So there would be no need for officers to run in and grab Vidal if he was still armed. In doing so they essentially created the circumstances that would then justify shooting Vidal.

In addition, because you lose control of your motor functions when the Taser is charged, it may not have been possible for Vidal to release the screwdriver when the officers ran in. Further, the charge from the Taser can cause muscle spasms as a result of the electrical impulse being applied, giving the appearance of a stabbing motion.  This despite the fact the subject has no ability to control their own movements.

Further, I find it difficult to believe the two trained police officers could not restrain a 90-pound team on the ground. While this is no easy task with a combative person, the fact that they knew he was armed with a screwdriver and somehow made no attempt to gain control of the hand he was holding the weapon, is very difficult to believe. If the officers did go in while he was still armed, the first and only part of the body they should have been concerned with was gaining control of the hand holding the weapon. So how  Vidal was able to stab the officer without them realizing it is something that is very difficult to believe.

Further the radio logs provided by Vassey’s agency show that Vassey stated he shot Vidal in defense of himself. This contradicts with what his attorney said that he shot him in defense of another officer. This is a minor issue as it is very common for officers to try to simplify radio traffic for dispatchers in addition to the high stress situation it is common for them to misspeak.

Further what I believe based on my training experience occurred was the first two officers, one of whom the family had stated responded to the home on previous occasions and was familiar Vidal, did not perceive him as a threat. Whether Vassey was unfamiliar with the subject or simply impatient, he attempted to take control of the scene despite being the last one to arrive. As the last person to a scene, you differ to the officer in charge unless absolutely necessary.  Unless something occurred to create an immediate danger, the decision to Taze Vidal should have been left up to the first on scene.  He was in a position to best make the determination of whether negotiations were getting anywhere as well as the level of threat posed by Vidal.

But Vassey tazed  Vidal and thus far there is no indication he was directed to do so by anyone else on scene.  The first responding officers made a decision to take a calculated risk in an attempt to restrain Vidal despite the fact that he was still armed. While any armed the subject does pose a danger to law enforcement, based on the information that is known to us, it appears that these two officers felt that the danger to themselves did not outweigh the danger Vidal posed to himself. The officers attempted to restrain Vidal and the success of that restraint is not clear at this time. However at no point did they feel threatened to the point that they needed to backup from the situation or shoot to defend themselves. But Vassey had enough time to draw his weapon step up to the altercation, reach over and between the two officers, and fire a shot before either one of the officers who were allegedly in danger could react.

While I hate being critical of an officer’s actions before all the facts are known, based on the actions of the departments in clearing the first two officers, the indictment for charges of manslaughter, as well as the comments made by Vessey’s own attorney it seems that this was a situation where Vassey saw an opportunity to justify getting a “notch” in his belt. This is common within certain subsets of the law enforcement community of officers that are constantly looking for legally justified ways to shoot people so they can have bragging rights of the number of officer involved shootings they’ve been in.

This is a very unfortunate and tragic situation no matter what the final outcome is of Vassey’s actions. However, it seems to me based on the information that I have and my prior experience this is a clear-cut situation of manslaughter by Detective Vassey.

Please feel free to share your comments or thoughts on this.

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