‘Bad to worse to tragic:’ Crucial questions remain in LEO's mistaken shooting of off-duty cop

Authorities say it may take weeks to understand how Officer Donald Sahota was mistakenly shot by a responding deputy


By Maxine Bernstein
oregonlive.com

CLARK COUNTY, Ore. — Clark County’s emergency radio recordings reveal the confusion that continued after a blast of rifle shots left an off-duty Vancouver police officer dead on the front porch of his home from bullets fired by a uniformed county sheriff’s deputy who mistook him for an armed robbery suspect.

“County has subject detained,” a dispatcher reported on the channel at 9:07 p.m. Saturday.

Then in the next sentence: “Subject was injured during a shooting. No law enforcement injured.”

Only after other sheriff’s deputies approached “the subject” at the front door of the home did they realize it was Officer Donald Sahota — not the robbery suspect who had been chased to the neighborhood after a mini-mart holdup miles away.

It likely will take weeks before a team of detectives sorts out key questions about what happened that night at Sahota’s rural home near the end of a private gravel road on the outskirts of Battle Ground:

What did the deputy who mistakenly killed the off-duty officer know when he arrived at the scene? Did he yell any commands before firing? If so, did Sahota respond? Did dispatchers get a physical description of Sahota and what he was wearing and did they communicate any of that information to the deputies responding?

The questions are familiar to police trainers and law enforcement advisers who have studied the relatively rare instances of deadly police-on-police encounters across the country.

More than a decade ago, they recommended a set of national standards to reduce fatal outcomes, but none are in place and most states, including Washington and Oregon, don’t provide the recommended focused training.

Perhaps that’s not altogether surprising, even the experts say, given that the shootings occur infrequently and have unique and often complicated sequences of events.

But enough similarities do exist – no clear markings that identify off-duty officers as police, guns in their hands and split-second reactions of the shooters — that confronting the issue could help prevent the next tragedy, said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina who has researched high-risk police activities for more than three decades.

With officers from many different agencies working in one area and sometimes carrying guns off-duty, the potential for a mistaken-identity confrontation is enormous, Alpert and other specialists said. Training for officers on both sides of the equation holds promise to reduce these risky encounters, they said.

Alpert assisted a New York State task force in 2009 that examined fatal police-on-police shootings nationwide and produced what remains the most comprehensive study of its kind with nine recommendations.

Beyond calling for national or state standards on when and how to take police action off duty, it also urged police agencies to provide dedicated, scenario-based training throughout an officer’s career, with on-duty officers going through shoot/don’t shoot encounters where they confront off-duty officers.

In Sahota’s shooting by Clark County sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Feller, so much remains unknown.

It’s possible, Alpert said, that “the cop coming to the scene, all he sees is a man running with a gun toward the house, and probably is thinking, ‘If this guy is the bad guy running toward the house and you let him get in, what’s he going to do? I can’t let that happen.’”

And Sahota may have been singularly focused on trying to save the life of his wife in the house, said Keith Taylor, a retired New York police officer who did undercover narcotics work and is now an adjunct assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

“It’s certainly a really awful set of circumstances where bad goes to worse goes to tragic,” Taylor said.

He also stressed: “We don’t know what the officers saw right before, what this individual perceived upon arriving on scene.”

“It’s going to be really important,” Taylor said, “to find out the rest of the story.”

SCENCE UNFOLDED QUICKLY

Deputies at the scene that night and investigators afterward have described the mayhem at the officer’s home in court documents and public statements this week.

About 45 minutes earlier Saturday, a man later identified as Julio Cesar Segura, 20, allegedly pointed a gun at a clerk working in a Chevron Food Mart in Orchards, a suburb of Vancouver, making off with $583, the clerk said. The robbery occurred around 8:15 p.m.

Segura took off in a dark blue Mercedes-Benz. Clark County deputies chased the stolen car north on I-205. They flattened the car’s tires with spike strips as it exited Interstate 5 north toward Battle Ground. The suspect ditched the car and ran through the neighborhood.

Segura showed up at Sahota’s doorstep, claiming he had crashed his car and needed help, investigators said. Sahota’s wife, Dawnese, called 911.

The 911 call taker told her that deputies were looking for an armed robbery suspect in the area and that based on her location, “the presumption was the man at their door was probably the suspect,” according to Capt. Rich Fletcher, a spokesman for the Lower Columbia Major Crimes Team, which is investigating the shooting.

Sahota’s wife stayed on the 911 call and reported that her husband was an off-duty Vancouver police officer and had the suspect at gunpoint outside, according to an affidavit filed in court in support of Segura’s arrest.

It appears a dispatcher had at some point relayed those details to deputies on a radio channel because one who responded to the scene wrote in another affidavit: “Further information was that a resident of the location was a law enforcement officer, and he was holding the subject at gunpoint.”

But Sahota and Segura quickly began to fight in the driveway. A Portland police plane overhead and deputies operating an unmanned drone to track the suspect captured the scuffle on their video equipment, according to the affidavits. Deputies with aerial views radioed to their colleagues that the resident and suspect were fighting. A later review of the aerial videos showed a pistol fell to the ground during the struggle outside.

Segura stabbed the officer several times during the fight and ran into the home when he heard sirens, according to the court documents. Sahota stood up, grabbed his dropped pistol and ran after Segura, the aerial videos showed.

That’s when Feller, a Clark County deputy since 2018, arrived and “within seconds” fired his rifle, investigators said. They did not say where he was standing, whether he issued any commands or how many shots he fired. It’s not clear if he saw the fight. Another deputy who responded reported hearing two gunshots.

Other deputies ran up and challenged “the subject on the front porch,” according to the court filings. They believed that the downed man was the armed robbery suspect, investigators said.

Sahota’s wife had remained on the phone with 911. She had tried to lock the front door to stop Segura from getting inside, but he forced the door open, still armed with a knife, one of the affidavits noted. The door struck Dawnese Sahota in the forehead and knocked her to the ground. She was later treated at a hospital for her injuries.

As deputies moved closer to the front porch, Segura stuck his hands out the front door and came out, according to the court documents. He left a knife on a couch inside the house.

It was only then, as deputies arrested Segura and handcuffed him, that “law enforcement personnel realized the homeowner, an off-duty police officer, was the person who was shot,” an affidavit said.

Moments later, Segura told a Clark County sheriff’s deputy in a recorded statement that he had stolen a Mercedes from a dealer in Yakima, robbed a Chevron, crashed the car and ended up at the Battle Ground house. He said he had an airsoft pistol that fell out of his pocket when he ran from the crash.

He was wearing the same clothes he had on when he robbed the Chevron, Segura told deputies.

An alert sent over the sheriff’s radio channel had described the armed suspect as a white male with a dark complexion, wearing a white long-sleeved shirt, a black undershirt and a white baseball hat with black bill, an affidavit said.

But Deputy James Lawrence, who was interviewing Segura, noted Segura wasn’t wearing the hat when arrested.

Investigators haven’t said what Sahota was wearing, if he left his house wearing a bulletproof vest or if dispatchers ever got his description and shared it with deputies.

Segura knew Sahota was a police officer, he told deputies. It’s not clear when or how he learned that.

SHOOTINGS STEM FROM ‘ACCUMULATION OF MISTAKES’

Police training academies in Washington and Oregon don’t specifically train recruits or veteran officers how to handle encounters with off-duty officers. It’s typically folded into overall use-of-force or threat assessment training. The Clark County Sheriff’s Office also doesn’t provide any specific training on how to avoid friendly fire.

That might be because the number of police gunned down by fellow officers is so small, Alpert said.

The FBI keeps track of law enforcement officers killed or assaulted in the line of duty but doesn’t identify mistaken-identity, police-on-police shooting deaths within a broader category of accidental deaths. From 2015-2019, nine police officers nationwide died in accidental gun-related incidents, according to the FBI.

Last year, 129 officers were killed — 73 in what the FBI calls “felonious deaths” and 56 in accidents. The accidents mostly stemmed from motor vehicle crashes or officers struck outside patrol cars. None of the accidental deaths were classified as gun-related, the FBI data says.

The New York state task force studied police-on-police shootings in the aftermath of two off-duty officers in the state killed by other police in 2008 and 2009.

The group examined 26 fatal friendly fire shootings that occurred across the country from 1981 through 2009 and found that 10 involved the killing of an off-duty officer. All of them had a gun out at the time, the study found.

“Our review of these incidents suggests that they are often the result of an accumulation of mistakes and misjudgments,” the report said. “Police recruits and veteran police officers alike can be trained to anticipate such confrontations and learn the appropriate responses for both the challenging and the confronted officers.”

The training mantra is: Officers shouldn’t shoot unless they know who they’re shooting unless there’s a threat of imminent injury or death, even if they believe an armed suspect is running toward an occupied house. The responding uniformed officer should shout commands, such as “Stop,” “Drop the gun!” or “‘Put your hands up!” before firing.

It’s also critical for dispatchers to share the most accurate information with officers responding to a crime or chasing an armed suspect, according to William Geller, a former associate director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a police research nonprofit in Washington, D.C. Geller also helped advise the New York task force.

He suggested 911 operators have checklists to collect and convey the best physical descriptions possible of off-duty, plainclothes or undercover officers, as well as similarly accurate descriptions of criminal suspects.

OFFICERS FIND IT HARD TO STAND BACK

Many of the training recommendations focus on what off-duty officers should and shouldn’t do to avoid the encounters in the first place.

Officers are encouraged not to take enforcement action if they’re out of uniform, unless someone’s life or personal safety is at stake. They’re urged to call 911 and instead serve as a good witness.

Yet that’s particularly challenging for any officer.

“Police officers, as a general rule, get involved,” the task force report said. “The training to serve as a witness rather than a hero when off‐duty or in plainclothes is difficult to follow in practice. ... It is one thing to train a confronted officer to obey the commands of the challenging officer, but it is another thing altogether for the confronted officer to follow that training in the heat of the moment.”

Police agencies have become more resistant over the years to having off-duty officers intervene “for the very reasons we see in this case,” said Chuck Wexler, current executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

“At the end of the day, this is all about communication and identification,” Wexler said, adding, “but that’s not always easy.”

The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, which provides training on guns, driving, tactics and investigations, uses a three-word phrase to help off-duty officers remember what they need to do: “Prevent, Identify, Comply.”

But if off-duty officers do take action, they or someone with them should call 911 or use a radio to alert local police and provide a physical description of what they look like, what they’re wearing and note if they have a gun or other weapon. Dispatchers should share that information immediately with responding officers.

Off-duty officers should display their badge around their neck or on their waist but also should identify themselves with something that can be seen from all sides, such as a bright vest or jacket with distinct markings, the federal training center recommends. They should also identify themselves as police in a clear, confident manner, the center says.

They should follow all commands from uniformed officers and assume the commands are directed at them, the New York task force recommended. They must avoid doing a “reflexive spin” toward responding officers because that can be seen as a threat, particularly if they have a gun.

The task force found that many friendly shootings by police are exacerbated by racial biases. In the 15 years leading up to 2009, 10 of the 14 officers killed in mistaken‐identity, police‐on‐police shootings were people of color.

In the Clark County case, there’s no indication that race played a role in the shooting at this point.

Even the best training can’t anticipate the variables of an unexpected and dangerous threat, policing experts said.

When Sahota was suddenly confronted at his home at night by a suspect reported to have a gun, he might not have had time to look around to grab the right gear before heading out of his home, said Taylor, the retired New York police officer.

After he was stabbed three times in the torso, Sahota may have become disoriented, Taylor said.

“It’s quite possible he was unaware police had arrived,” he said. “We don’t know if he was in an altered state of mind because of his injuries, feeling a lot of pain and anxiety about a bad guy possibly going into the house. He likely was focused on protecting his wife from harm.”

The Vancouver Police Department considers Sahota’s death a line-of-duty casualty because he was using his authority as an officer when he was shot and killed. It’s the first line-of-duty death in the department’s 138-year history.

Sahota started his police career in 1998 as a patrol officer for Gresham police. He also worked for the Port of Portland Police Department before joining Vancouver police in 2014. He worked as an armorer and most recently was assigned to the training unit.

A public funeral is planned Tuesday.

Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain wiped away tears at a news conference this week and said the Clark County sheriff and deputies “are also hurting” from the circumstances of Sahota’s death.

The chief read a note from Sahota’s wife and children, who blamed only Segura for Sahota’s death. Segura faces allegations of first-degree attempted murder and robbery.

“While police officers are heroes, they’re also human,” the family statement said. “We hold no ill feelings toward the Clark County Sheriff’s Office or the deputy involved in this tragedy and hope others can show them grace as well.”

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