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Some in Anchorage critical of police 'shoot to stop' policy

Suzanna Caldwell

How are Anchorage Police Department policies enforced? Should officers working in the city’s Mountain View neighborhood have more training? Are negotiations an option? Was the killing necessary?

Those were some of the questions concerned members of the community posed to city leaders Thursday about the fatal shooting by an APD officer on June 9 of a 26-year-old Mountain View Polynesian man.

About 25 people showed up to the meeting in Anchorage Assembly chambers to ask questions or else just better understand how and why Shane Tasi was fatally shot.

Members of Anchorage’s Polynesian community said the meeting helped begin a dialogue with police and the greater community, but that there’s still much to be done.

“I feel there should be a question in people's minds: Should there be a change to the law? Should there be a policy change in the (police) protocol?” said Lucy Hansen, president of the Polynesian Association of Alaska. “I think there should be, and it took taking the life of a young man for us all to come together to speak.”

Both Hansen and Polynesian Community Center executive director Miriama Aumavae said they won't stop rallying until police policies are changed regarding the use of lethal force.

Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew said department policies are reviewed and changed annually, depending on situations. He used the term “policy” loosely, saying a change in policy doesn't just apply to one specific incident. It could mean a change in technology, training or overall philosophy.

What won’t change? Mew said APD officers will not be hamstrung from shooting suspects, by aiming toward extremities, in order to disarm them.

After the meeting, Mew told Alaska Dispatch that he’d been prepared for an emotional meeting but was surprised that discourse focused on questions he thought the department had already addressed, instead of solutions.

“Questions like, 'Why are you shooting to kill?' I was hoping some of that we had gotten past, but apparently we haven't,” he said. “I hoped there would be more discussion on where we can go from here.”

Of that, there was little. Rev. Dr. William Greene, chair of the Anchorage Community Police Relations Task Force, only emphasized that more community members should attend monthly task force meetings to have concerns addressed.

The officer involved in the shooting, Boaz Gionson, was cleared of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting by state investigators who concluded that use of deadly force was justified.

Anchorage Police Department is still conducting its own review of internal policies.

Tasi, a father of three, emerged from his apartment that Saturday evening carrying a 39-inch broomstick. Numerous 911 calls prior to the shooting reported a man hitting cars and attacking a dog in the area. A third 911 call helped police pinpoint Tasi’s whereabouts, in an apartment building on North Bunn Street where witnesses reported screaming and windows breaking.

Shortly after Officer Gionson arrived, Tasi emerged carrying the large stick, slamming it on the ground repeatedly. Gionson asked Tasi to drop the weapon repeatedly before firing three shots.

Events transpired quickly. Gionson was the first officer on the scene. Only six seconds passed between Tasi exiting his apartment and his shooting.

A toxicology report released Monday revealed that Tasi had alcohol, metabolites of marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids – also known as Spice or K2 – in his system when he was shot.

Present at the meeting were Greene, Mayor Dan. Sullivan, U.S. Attorney for Alaska Karen Loeffler, representatives from the FBI, Alaska State Troopers and Anchorage attorney general's office.

But it was Police Chief Mew who did most of the talking, answering many questions regarding the use of force, specifically the idea that officers “shoot to kill.”

The department has said repeatedly it does not have such a policy, instead phrasing it as “shoot to stop.” When lethal force is applied, officers aim for the center of mass; they do not aim toward extremities or fire “warning shots,” he said. Any other approach is outside the realm of possibility.

“If we changed to shoot for extremities, we would be the only police force in the nation to do so,” Mew said.

Mew did acknowledge that even though the intended outcome is not to kill, a shot to the center of mass is usually not “survivable.”

Fia Fitiausi, pastor of the Pentecostal Holiness Church, was among several religious leaders to speak. He had harsh words for officials, going as far as to call the shooting a murder.

“There was no control, there was no training,” he told them, “We need justice.”

Some, including a representative from Tasi's family, wondered why Gionson was alone and why didn't he wait for backup?

“He did wait for backup,” Mew said. “Mr. Tasi came to him.”

Mew said if you change the hypotheticals, there could be a 100 different ways the situation could have been different. In a more typical situation, Gionson would have waited for more officers to show up, would have talked to multiple witnesses and then would have approached the front door of the apartment with several officers.

None of that was possible that night.

“We have to remember this was unusual, this was not the normal call,” he said. “We have to evaluate the officer's conduct based on what he knew, not based on what we know now.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com