Chief fires officer who shot mentally ill man in the abdomen; case will go to grand jury

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by MATT GOODMAN

WFAA

Posted on October 24, 2013 at 12:55 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 24 at 5:57 PM

DALLAS –– Ofc. Cardan Spencer, the six-year veteran who shot a mentally ill man who was standing still with his arms at his sides, was fired on Thursday.

Police Chief David Brown has also recommended he be charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, but a state district judge refused to sign an arrest warrant for the officer, and said the case needs to be taken to a grand jury for referral.

A post on the Dallas Police Department's Facebook page said detectives are now in the process of preparing a referral to the grand jury.

The results of an internal investigation found that Spencer violated the department’s deadly force policy and the standard operating procedure regarding mentally ill persons. Spencer was told of his punishment during a disciplinary hearing Thursday morning. 

"Officers are not above the law," Brown said during a news conference. "We as a police department are not going to look the other way. We are not going to sweep officer misconduct under the rug. Officer actions must be reasonable and necessary." 

Robert Rogers, Spencer’s attorney, disputes the chief’s claim that his client has been charged. Spencer left Dallas police headquarters after the disciplinary hearing without being arrested, Rogers said. Debbie Denmon, spokeswoman for the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, says her office is investigating independently before deciding whether the police department's recommendation is appropriate. 

Also on Thursday, Brown launched an internal investigation into why Spencer’s partner, Ofc. Christopher Watson, provided inaccurate information when interviewed for a police affidavit. He has been placed on restricted duty. 

“I think Ofc. Spencer gave the chief no other choice,” said George Milner, the Dallas-based attorney representing the victim, Bobby Gerald Bennett. “Chief Brown had to do what that video showed he had to do.” 

On Oct. 14, Spencer and Watson responded to a call reporting that a mentally ill man was angrily pacing the 9700 block of Crimnson Court with a knife. Upon arrival, they found Bennett, who pushed the rolling chair he was sitting in backward as police approached and stood still with his arms at his sides.

A police affidavit says Bennett “took several steps toward them with the knife raised in an aggressive manner.” Surveillance footage shows otherwise –– Bennett never raises his arms or takes a step toward the approaching officers. 

Spencer fired four shots anyway, one of which hit the 53-year-old man in his abdomen. Later, police canvassing the neighborhood would find evidence that one of the bullets hit a neighbor’s window, Brown said. 

Bennett was arrested at the scene and charged with aggravated assault of a public servant. The entire incident lasted 27 seconds from when police arrived in a cruiser.

“There was a great potential that this could’ve been resolved without any force used,” Brown said.

The video shows the opposite of what was inside the sworn affidavit. Watson’s internal investigation centers around a pair of statements he made after the incident for that document. 

During Dallas police internal investigations, an officer who discharges his or her weapon is allowed to retain a lawyer and, if available, view video of the incident before they give a statement, Brown said. Witnessing officers are not allowed either of those. 

During an initial interview the day of the shooting, Watson initially reported that Bennett took two steps toward them and raised a knife in an aggressive manner before Spencer shot. On Thursday, after media began reporting on the surveillance footage, Brown said Watson saw the video and asked to make an addendum to his statement.

Watson returned to headquarters and told an investigating officer he remembered things out of order. He said he actually heard the shot and then thought Bennett took two steps and raised the knife while falling. He claimed he remembered things out of sequence because of “acute stress.” 

However, Brown said a pair of witnesses came forward and said they saw the incident from a parked car. They took still photos that backed up what the surveillance footage showed –– Bennett never walked toward officers nor raised the knife to them. 

“What we need to get to the bottom of, there were no two steps. There was no raising of the knife,” Brown said. “Acute stress, from where I sit at least, doesn’t make you hallucinate.” 

Spencer, who had watched the video before providing his statement, said he saw Bennett clinch the knife inside his fist and felt threatened. 

Neighbor Maurice Bunch provided News 8 with the footage on Oct. 17. That afternoon, Spencer was placed on indefinite administrative leave. All criminal charges against Bennett were dropped on Oct. 18. He is recovering at Baylor Medical Center. 

"What he did is shoot a man in cold blood," Milner said. "It's a miracle he didn't die.  

In a statement, Mayor Mike Rawlings said he stands behind the chief’s decision.

“I support our police force and believe Dallas has one of the best departments in the country. We must keep it pure of any perceptions of wrongdoing, and that’s exactly what Chief Brown has done by handling this investigation thoroughly and expediently.”

Brown also defended how he handled the investigation. He did not comment on specifics of the case while it was in the hands of internal affairs investigators. He said the department was not prodded by political or media pressure to launch an investigation. That happened the day of the shooting and lasted until Wednesday. 

“It has taken great restraint and discipline to not comment during this process,” he said. 

Bennett, meanwhile, has had an incident similar to this before. In 1998, Euless police were called because he had a gun. He pointed it at a Euless officer and then put it to his own head and placed it in his mouth. He asked officers to “hurt him and kill him,” Brown said, which is similar to what the dispatcher told Spencer and Watson on their way to Crimnson Court. 

“He’s been under a lot of medication, he has significant mental problems, but if he did say, ‘Hey, I want you to shoot me,’ does that justify a policeman shooting him?,” Milner asked. 

 

News 8's Rebecca Lopez contributed to this report

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