Texas teen's death in chase with off-duty cop draws fire

The officer said he used deadly force after the teen fired a shotgun at him

By Eva Ruth Moravec
San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Even when off the clock, San Antonio police officers have a responsibility to take action if they witness a crime.

But how much action - and to what degree - is being debated after a local teen was killed in a crash involving an off-duty patrolman who chased the teen and his brother, ramming his SUV into their truck.

The officer, a two-year member of the department, said he used deadly force only after the teen in the bed of the truck fired a shotgun at him, according to a police report.

"This defensive action by the officer was in response to the suspect's threat of deadly force," said Sgt. Chris Benavides, a spokesman for the San Antonio Police Department.

Benavides said a civilian also would have been justified in defending himself against such a threat.

The officer, Alonzio Hardin, 41, has been placed on administrative duty while the Police Department's shooting team investigates the incident in which Ethan Owen died. Owen, 18, suffered fatal injuries when he was ejected from the bed of the truck after it crashed. His older brother, Eric, was driving the vehicle, police said. The 23-year-old was charged with aggravated robbery.

Criminologist Brian Withrow from Texas State University said the investigation should focus on whether Hardin's use of deadly force was appropriate.

"He's in the legal right to do that, but whether or not he used proper judgment is a different question altogether," Withrow said.

Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina, said the issue becomes muddied because the younger sibling fired the shotgun.

"If you were just a good Samaritan following this person, I don't think you'd be indicted," he said. "I think the shotgun trumps everything."

But Norman Owen, a former Bexar County deputy and the father of the teen killed, said the officer overreacted.

"I can't understand why an off-duty police officer would chase those kids in a private vehicle," the father said. "You're trained to use a cell phone and call in, maybe, but not to do something that stupid."

Police acknowledge that Hardin, even though in possession of a cell phone, never called dispatchers to report the fleeing suspects or that he was following them.

Authorities said Hardin began following the truck after he saw Ethan Owen get out of the pickup at a Walmart in the 2100 block of Southeast Loop 410, yank a woman's purse from her arm and jump into the back of the pickup.

Benavides, the police spokesman, said Hardin, who was in plain clothes, never had a chance to identify himself as a police officer and wasn't able to access his cell phone during the four-mile chase.

He said Hardin was following the vehicle so he could read the license plate. Police have not said how fast the vehicles were going.

"When the off-duty officer was close enough to see the license plate, he was confronted with the threat on his life," Benavides said in an e-mail. "He saw the suspect was pointing a shotgun at him, then heard a boom."

Police said neither Hardin nor his SUV were hit, but they did find a spent shell casing in the shotgun's barrel.

It was after the boom that Eric Owen lost control of the truck, crashing into a retaining wall.

"It just all sounds kinda odd," said Norman Owen, who retired from the Bexar County Sheriff's Office about 15 years ago.

Preliminarily, Benavides said, it appears Hardin acted appropriately.

Mike Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, agrees.

"He witnessed a robbery, and if that officer had not continued to follow him, he certainly would have escaped," Helle said.

The San Antonio Police Department's general manual addresses pursuits when officers are on duty, but actions of off-duty officers are not mentioned other than in a section called "duty to take action."

Even while off-duty, police officers are charged with the responsibility to "protect lives and property," the manual states, and must take action if they see a felony occur. "The officer reacted to the situation," said Chief William McManus, who did not discuss the incident further, citing the open investigation.

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