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Civilian ride-along shot in 2019 ambush files claim against Va. police agency, city

A woman claims police were careless in allowing her to “ride along” as police attempted to capture a homicide suspect

Newport News police investigate

Newport News police investigate a scene at the Cottage Grove Apartments in the aftermath of a shooting on Aug. 17, 2019.

Rob Ostermaier/Daily Press

By Peter Dujardin
The Daily Press

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — A civilian who was shot multiple times when a Newport News Police SUV was ambushed in August 2019 has filed a claim with the city — asserting that police should not have put her in such a dangerous situation.

Attorneys for Macy Raquel Hooper say the police department was careless in allowing her to “ride along” with an officer as police attempted to surround and capture a man who had killed his wife only two hours earlier.

Unlike the police officers on the scene, the notice contends, Hooper was not provided a bullet-resistant vest, and she suffers lifelong injuries as a result.

“As a result of the shooting and negligence of the City of Newport News and the City of Newport News Police Department, Ms. Hooper sustained significant permanent injuries from multiple gunshot wounds,” said the notice of claim that Fairfax attorney Robert Somer sent to City Attorney Collins L. Owens Jr. in February 2020.

A lawsuit has not been filed, and no settlement has been reached.

Somer declined to comment, saying he was notified by email Friday afternoon that the case is being transferred at Hooper’s request to a Washington, D.C., law firm, Kalbian Hagerty LLP.

Newport News Senior Deputy City Attorney Darlene Bradberry also declined to comment Friday.

But one factor that’s likely to work against Hooper’s claim is that she signed what appears to be a comprehensive liability waiver before getting into the police SUV as part of the police department’s civilian ride along program.

“I acknowledge that law enforcement is an inherently dangerous and unpredictable activity, and that the City and its employees and agents, including police officers whom I accompany, are not insurers of my safety,” the waiver reads in part.

“I ... acknowledge and accept the risks of my decision to accompany one or more police officers during their work which may include unexpected events and occurrences, danger and serious risks, including but not limited to: emergency or high speed pursuits, and confrontations with violent and/or armed citizens.”

“With full knowledge of the above,” the waiver adds, “I hereby voluntarily assume all risk of loss, damage, or injury to me and my property, including death, which may be sustained while I am a passenger in any city vehicle.”

Man shoots and kills wife

The incident began at 3:35 p.m. on Aug. 17, 2019, when Chandra Eason Uzzle, 35, was sitting in her Mercedes in a shopping center outside Kiln Creek.

That’s when a man walked up to her car and shot her five times, causing her to crash into some nearby bushes and leaving her dead at the steering wheel.

About 10 minutes later, Hooper — then a 21-year-old James Madison University student from Culpeper County interested in a policing career — was checking in at the Police Department’s South Precinct station on Jefferson Avenue.

Hooper had been previously approved for the ride along program, in which civilians ride with officers during a standard shift to experience the job. She was assigned to ride with Patrol Officer Robert Stewart.

“At no point prior to leaving the station was Ms. Hooper advised about the brutal murder only 30 minutes earlier, nor was she provided with any protective body armor,” the attorney’s letter said.

Meantime, detectives investigating Chandra Uzzle’s slaying near Kiln Creek were viewing surveillance video from a gas nearby gas station. They determined that Chandra’s husband, 34-year-old Jerome Michael Uzzle, shot his wife several times before fleeing in a green Chrysler 300 sedan.

Dispatchers issued a “be on the lookout” for that car.

Another police officer, Stephen McKinley, tracked down Uzzle’s prior address in the 4700 block of Madison Avenue. That’s in the Cottage Grove Apartments, off Jefferson Avenue and south of Briarfield Road. McKinley spotted the car in front of the home just before 5 p.m.

“I was advised not to approach the vehicle and for other responding officers to set up a perimeter around Cottage Grove,” McKinley wrote in a report, saying he parked on a cross street within view of the car.

Stewart — with Hooper in the passenger seat — also showed up, parking his SUV in the 700 block of Peninsula Drive. That’s on an opposite cross street, about 125 yards from Uzzle’s home.

Officer, civilian wounded

But at 5:26 p.m., a gunman walked up behind them.

“Uzzle approached the driver’s side window of Stewart’s marked police vehicle and fired multiple rounds from his 9mm firearm into the vehicle,” Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Valerie Spencer Muth wrote in a June report.

McKinley said he heard up to six shots, with Stewart then coming over the police radio to say that both he and the ride along were both hit.

Though wounded, Stewart “was able to return two shots from his service weapon before it misfired and became inoperable,” Muth’s report says.

Another police officer, Branden Kidder, was parked around the corner and saw the shooting. He drove closer, Muth wrote, and “opened fire on the armed suspect as soon as he exited his police vehicle.”

Uzzle was hit twice as he ran, then fell to the ground. He died a few hours later at Riverside Regional Medical Center.

Stewart and Hooper both “sustained serious injuries,” Muth said. Officers took Hooper out of the SUV and placed her on the ground, “so police could assist her prior to the medics arriving,” the prosecutor wrote in an email Friday.

They were both taken to Riverside. Stewart was released four days later, while Hooper was released about three days after that.

Hooper’s lawyer said she was shot multiple times — in the throat, abdomen, pelvis and arm.

“She will require a great deal of medical care in the future,” Somer wrote. “Ms. Hooper is pursuing a claim for compensatory damage based on these significant injuries.”

During a news conference the day after the shooting, Police Chief Steve Drew spoke of the “ambush style” attack, saying Stewart and the civilian he identified only as “Macy” are “still with us by the grace of God.”

The following week, Drew, along with Mayor McKinley Price and City Manager Cindy Rohlf, visited Stewart and Hooper in the hospital. When they visited Stewart, Drew said, the officer was “joking around” and in good spirits.

But Hooper’s wounds were more serious. When they got to her room, Drew said, she was out of her bed and walking down the hospital hallways. Seeing that, he said, caused him “to get choked up.”

Hooper asked him how Stewart was doing, the chief said. “That speaks of her character, the way she was brought up,” Drew said at the time. “She is progressing, and she is smiling ... and to see her up and moving around, I could not be happier. She is a real fighter.”

Civilian signed waiver

On Friday, Drew declined to comment about Hooper’s claim because of the potential litigation, and he would not talk about changes he’s made to the ride along program to better keep the civilians out of harm’s way.

Hooper’s new attorney, Michelle Douglas of Kalbian Hagerty, said Friday that she’s just getting involved in the case and could not immediately comment.

It wasn’t clear how Hooper’s attorneys plan to get around the liability waiver that Hooper signed not long after she arrived at the Police Department’s South Precinct station at about 3:45 p.m. that day.

On the back of the form — under the “Rules of Conduct” — is a list of all kinds of hazards of policing. Among the listed risks: “Being shot.”

“Duties which involve emergencies or danger will not be avoided because you are present,” the statement said. “While every effort will be made to ensure your safety, the officer’s first responsibility will be to carry out his or her assigned duties. Please be aware that in riding along, you have assumed the risk of becoming injured or even killed.”

A police department policy says the ride along program is designed to give citizens a chance to “see firsthand the day-to-day activities of a Newport News police officer.”

The goal is to give police and residents a chance to get to know each other, to educate the community about police work, and to give those interested in a law enforcement career “an opportunity to examine the job.”

Changes in policy

Under the police department’s ride along policy at the time of the August 2019 shooting, “officers will make every effort to ensure the safety of ride along participants and not expose them to unnecessary serious risks or danger,” with the civilians not allowed to engage or assist in “police activities.”

But the city has now changed some of the language in a bid to improve civilian safety.

In October 2019 — two months after the ambush — the rules were changed to mandate that civilian ride alongs “will be provided with body armor,” and “are required to wear this vest for the period of your ride along.”

Moreover, civilians can ask to get out of the car, and the officer or his chain of command can send another car to pick them up. “Should an emergency or unsafe conditions arise, the Host Officer has the final authority to direct you to stay inside the vehicle or allow you to leave,” the statement says.

Also under the new language, officers with ride along civilians “will not engage in pursuits,” or several other listed police actions.

“Officers should use sound discretion before entering a potentially dangerous situation,” the new language says. “If a question arises as to whether the ride along should continue, the officer should contact their first line supervisor for a determination.”

(c)2021 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)