On a Sunday afternoon in April, Billy and Robin Stewart dodged a bullet.
The San Diego couple were on their way home after celebrating their 44th wedding anniversary on Harbor Island on April 10. They had just turned into North Harbor Drive when shots rang out and a bullet hit the side of their 1997 Ford Expedition. The bullet was lodged in the front passenger door, just below the window.
Billy Stewart was in the front passenger seat. His wife was behind the wheel.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” he recalled in an interview.
It turned out that three dockside officers opened fire on a man armed with a handgun outside the division’s headquarters on North Harbor Drive, across from San Diego International Airport.
The officers fired dozens of times. Two of the officers fired all the bullets in their clips, reloaded them, and one of them fired more shots, according to footage captured by their body-worn cameras.
The suspect, Eric Jesus Medina, 29, was seriously injured. He survived and was charged in San Diego Superior Court with assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon. He has pleaded not guilty.
In the aftermath of the shooting, police did not publicly disclose that a bullet had struck a passing vehicle.
The Stewarts acknowledge that the gunman posed a threat and don’t blame the officers for opening fire, but they believe the number of shots fired by the officers was excessive, taking the couple’s lives – and others. North Harbor Drive – Endangered.
“It’s a miracle we weren’t killed,” said Robin Stewart, 70. “If you have to fire (dozens of) bullets, it’s reckless. You have to be in control, not just a loose cannon with your rifle.”
Port Police Chief Magda Fernandez, a veteran of the department who was promoted nine days after the shooting, said officers learn during their training that when they use force to carry out an arrest or “stop a threat,” they must be mindful. with the threat and what might happen. on the background.
“Officers have to react in a split second in any situation, and nothing is ever perfect in a split second,” Fernandez said.
The chief noted that the San Diego Police Department is investigating the shooting according to protocol. She said she was not aware of the details of the investigation.
‘He has a gun’
The incident happened around 1:30 p.m. after a man, whom police later identified as Medina, drove to the department headquarters, parked, walked to the main entrance and used a pay phone to speak to a dispatcher.
“Hello, I was wondering if you could help me out here outside the door,” says the man, according to the audio of the call, who the police released mid-April along with body-worn camera video.
“Yes, what can we do for you?” asks the operator.
The man does not answer the question. “Thank you,” he says, then walks to his car.
Police say the man stopped at the front door.
Body camera footage shows Officer James Macmaster walking out the front door and waving.
“Hey how are you? Want to talk to a cop?” Macmaster asks the man as he stands by what appears to be the top of the stairs. “What is happening?”
The man pulls out the gun. Police said he aimed the weapon at the officer; the moment is grainy on video.
The officer rushes to take cover behind a nearby concrete pillar and draws his firearm.
“He’s got a gun, he’s got a gun,” the officer announces over his radio. He then tells the man to raise his hands and drop the gun on the floor.
The man raises his hands, grabs the gun with his right hand and then appears to swing it to his left.
Macmaster opens fire. He fires more than a dozen shots before telling the man to drop the gun again.
As Macmaster repeats commands and continues to fire, Sgt. Scott Ferraioli and Lieutenant Victor Banuelos enter the lobby. Banuelos fires through the front lobby window just before Ferraioli walks out the front door to join Macmaster. Ferraioli stands partially behind a concrete pillar and fires. Both Macmaster and Farraioli unload their clips and then reload. Macmaster fires extra rounds.
The body-worn camera video ends as Banuelos takes cover in the lobby.
Police said Macmaster has been with the department for seven years, Ferraioli for 22 and Banuelos for 24.
‘It was a continuous shooting’
Police experts who viewed the body-worn camera video at the request of the Union-Tribune said the incident appeared to be a case of an attempted suicide by a cop, a situation in which someone behaves threateningly with the intent of the police. to be forced to use lethal means. power.
The experts said they believe the gunman posed a threat, adding that the officers’ decision to open fire appeared reasonable. Medina’s lawyer declined to comment.
But the experts questioned whether so many shots were needed and whether officers took the background into account when they opened fire and continued firing.
“It was an ongoing shooting,” said Sid Heal, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Commander. “It seems that no one assessed the situation once it got underway.”
He noted that the gunman did not answer and said the moment the officers reloaded their pistols was an opportunity to reassess the situation.
“At some point, we need to assess the effectiveness of our actions toward the suspect,” Heal said.
David Klinger, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, whose past research topics have included police use of force, said it was difficult to say whether officers fired too many shots without further information. Klinger, a former police officer, said officers will usually fire until they feel there is no threat anymore, but they should consider the suspect’s actions and background when determining how many shots to fire or when to fire. have to stop.
Klinger said the shooter’s actions as officers opened fire and where the bullets landed are important factors for police to look closely at to determine if there are any issues with the officers’ handling of the situation.
‘I have no rest’
The Stewarts said that after the bullet hit their vehicle, they immediately stopped and called police. A port police officer took photos and gathered information from them, but did not ask for their vehicle to be impounded.
Two days later, two San Diego Police Department detectives interviewed the couple at their home as part of the investigation into the shooting. The Stewarts asked police if the bullet would be retrieved and processed as evidence, but the detectives said there was no need, the couple said.
In an interview, the couple wondered why the detectives did not want the evidence as part of their investigation. They asked how the police might determine whether the officers’ actions were appropriate.
In the days following the shooting, Billy Stewart, 86, said he had cold sweats and nightmares in which he heard three gunshots — “pow, pow, pow,” he said — and felt the bullet hit the passenger door of his SUV. In May, he went to see a therapist, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, his family said.
“I’m not resting like I was before this ever happened,” he said. “It’s traumatic.”