In the June 22 letter (PDF) to APD detective Mark Huelskoetter on 26-year-old Shane Tasi’s death, assistant attorney general Greggory M. Olson with the Office of Special Prosections and Appeals explained his decision not to charge Officer Boaz Gionson. Its release comes a day after that of a similar letter explaining why OSPA didn’t charge officers in the July 1 death of Harry Smith during a standoff with police in South Anchorage.
Earlier this summer, Anchorage police released autopsy information showing that Tasi was under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time of the shooting, with a blood-alcohol content twice the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle.
According to Olson, Gionson said he responded at 9:25 p.m. on June 9 to reports of a Samoan male causing a disturbance in Mountain View, Gionson’s assigned area. When Gionson arrived during officers’ search for Tasi, he was flagged down by three men on the 700 block of Bunn St.
“(Gionson) stopped, got out of his vehicle, and talked to the individuals,” Olson wrote. “He was told by the three individuals that there was a guy with a stick in one of the apartments and that he was bloody. The officer described these three individuals as frantic. At this point he brought his handgun to guard.”
Seconds later, Tasi stepped out of a nearby apartment carrying a yellow broomstick handle.
“Gionson immediately told him to drop the stick,” Olson wrote. “Officer Gionson said that Tasi made eye contact with him and did not comply with his order to drop the stick; rather, Tasi kept walking quickly towards him in an ‘aggressive’ manner. Officer Gionson told Tasi at least one additional time to drop the stick. Tasi got within 6 to 8 feet of Officer Gionson.”
According to Olson, Gionson believed that Tasi was within striking distance of him, and that he might be hit with the broomstick if he didn’t shoot.
“Officer Gionson believed that if he was hit by the stick it could cause head trauma, could knock him out and Tasi could get his gun and harm him or others in the area, or could impale him with the broom handle,” Olson wrote. “Officer Gionson stated that he fired his handgun two to three times.”
Upon being hit, Tasi dropped the stick and collapsed. Gionson covered Tasi until other officers arrived, then retrieved a trauma bag from his patrol car; another officer took the bag and told Gionson to remain at his car.
Olson says six other people, including one APD officer, witnessed the shooting. Their accounts corroborated Gionson’s description of the incident, including his telling Tasi to drop the stick, while estimates of the distance between the two men ranged from three to eight feet.
A surveillance video of the incident also showed Tasi rapidly approaching Gionson and the three men with whom he spoke, then raising the broomstick above his head and being shot. Examination of the video determined the distance between Gionson and Tasi at the time of the shooting to be seven feet, with Tasi still closing the distance.
“The medical examiner, Dr. Merideth Lann, stated that measurements of Tasi’s arm were not taken but that the average length of a male arm is 29 to 32 inches,” Olson wrote. “Given a grip on the broom handle, striking distance from Tasi’s body to the end of the broom handle was approximately 5 feet 6 inches.”
Olson concluded his letter with an analysis of whether Gionson was justified in using deadly force to stop Tasi, noting that Tasi was committing third-degree assault as he approached Gionson and the men.
“Assault in the third degree is committed if a person recklessly places another person in fear of imminent serious physical injury by (means) of a dangerous instrument,” Olson wrote. “A dangerous instrument is defined as ‘any deadly weapon or anything that, under the circumstances in which it is used, attempted to be used, or threatened to be used, is capable of causing death or serious physical injury.”
Olson also wrote that state law allows anyone -- not just law-enforcement officers -- to use deadly force in self-defense “when and to the extent the person reasonably believes the use of deadly force is necessary for self-defense against” death or serious injury. In addition, officers acting within the scope and authority of their employment are not required to retreat.
“Here, Officer Johnson was acting within the scope and authority of his employment,” Olson wrote. “Based upon his belief that Tasi heard his command to drop the broom handle, his observation that Tasi kept coming in his direction in a threatening manner, and his belief that if he didn’t take immediate defensive action Tasi would strike him with the stick which could result in Officer Gionson’s serious physical injury or death, his use of deadly force was reasonable,” Olson wrote.
Phillip Weidner, an attorney for the Tasi family, was in Boston Friday and hadn’t read the letter, but told Channel 2 he believes Tasi’s shooting merits an independent investigation by disinterested parties. He also said the family’s investigators are conducting a more detailed analysis of videotape and witness testimony from the incident.
“We’re confident that a more detailed analysis will prove that Mr. Tasi’s actions were not a danger, and in no way justified the officer’s shooting down a husband and father in front of his own apartment,” Weidner said.
Editor's note: This story and its attached audio files have been edited at OSPA's request to remove references to witnesses' names.