A Tacoma police officer shot and critically injured a panhandler along a busy East Side street Saturday, after authorities said the man charged and hit the officer with a metal object.
It happened about 3:15 p.m., when police said a six-year female officer on routine patrol spotted a white man in his 30s begging motorists for money at end of the Exit 134 freeway ramp off Interstate 5.
After the officer got out of her patrol car at East 28th Street and Portland Avenue East to tell the man panhandling was illegal, “he went off on her,” Tacoma police spokesperson Loretta Cool said.
“He looks like he’s crazy, he’s yelling,” Cool recounted the officer’s version of events. “So, she calls for backup and then attempted to Tase him.”
But the Taser didn’t work, Cool said, and the man started running away.
“Then, he stopped and ran back at (the officer), raised his hand and hit her,” Cool said. “That’s when she shot him.”
But at least one witness gave a different account.
“It looked suspect to me,” said Teresa Graham, who watched the shooting unfold while stopped at a nearby traffic light. “I just don’t know why she had to shoot him like that — four times, when he’s trying to run away.”
Medics took the unidentified man to Tacoma General Hospital, where he was undergoing surgery Saturday afternoon and was listed in critical condition, Cool said.
The officer, whom police say was struck with a “small metal pole” that “looked like something from a construction site,” was also being treated at an undisclosed location for a red, swollen wrist and arm, Cool added.
For hours after the shooting, police cordoned off the off-ramp and a stretch of Portland Avenue with yellow tape, snarling traffic along the busy freeway and the East Side Tacoma arterial. Detectives interviewed witnesses, snapped photographs and took measurements while passersby gawked.
Graham, 44, an East Side resident, said she’d been driving her 16-year-old daughter to Home Depot when the shooting happened. The two were stopped at a red light in Graham’s black SUV — about three traffic lanes away — when the cop stopped to confront the panhandler.
Graham had her window down, but couldn’t hear what the officer was saying to the man.
“I don’t know why they were talking,” she said. “Then all of a sudden, (the officer) yelled something and she tried Tasing him, but missed. When the guy started to run away, (the officer) immediately threw the Taser down, pulled her gun out and shot.”
The man seemed to be running in slow motion — possibly drunkenly — as he attempted to flee, Graham said. That’s when the officer fired four shots, several of which appeared to hit the man, she added.
“I didn’t see anything in his hands,” Graham added. “I didn’t see him do anything physical or threatening. I’ve just never seen anything like that before in my life — a person just getting shot like that. It was just heartbreaking.”
Across the street, several other witnesses heard the shooting and then watched its aftermath.
Melissa Satiacum, 34, said she and several family members were selling Puyallup tribal fireworks from a family-run stand when she heard four unmistakable “pops” of gunfire.
“Then we seen this guy on the ground and the lady still had her gun drawn,” Satiacum said.
A State Patrol trooper immediately rushed to the officer “and tried to calm her down,” Satiacum said. “After that, it was a swarm of cops out here.”
As the man lay bleeding on the sidewalk, Satiacum said she could see an object near one of his hands.
“It looked like a small belt of some kind,” she said, “but I never saw him actually holding it.”
Police did not readily know the man’s name at the scene; Cool said he wasn’t carrying identification. As medics rushed him to the hospital, the man left behind a rust-colored BMX bike adorned by a backpack and several plastic bags.
This was the second officer-involved shooting in Tacoma this year, Cool said. During the other incident, in February, a Tacoma officer fired a single round that missed a reportedly armed man after the man reached into his waistband as officers arrived at a McKinley Avenue bar fight.
Last year, two fatal shootings by Tacoma officers were ultimately ruled justifiable.
The officer involved in Saturday’s shooting has been placed on 15-day paid administrative leave, as is standard procedure pending an investigation. Internal Affairs detectives will conduct a full review of the incident, gathering physical evidence, toxicology tests, statements from multiple witnesses and other information, Cool said. Such investigations can take months, she said.
“If there’s any witnesses out there who saw something,” Cool added, “we’d ask them to please call our department” at 253-798-4721.