Officers explain how they handled man waving, pointing gun at them

A Springfield Police Academy firearms instructor sat down for a second-by-second review of the 'chilling' video


By Patrick Johnson
masslive.com

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Two Springfield police officers are being lauded for their restraint, training and discipline during a June 20 incident where a suspect, waving a gun and threatening police with multiple bystanders nearby, was taken into custody without anyone being shot.

A closer review of the incident shows multiple times where decisions made in the moment — by the police and by the suspect — brought things perilously close to an entirely different outcome.

Springfield police firearms training officer Michael Dumas points to what he considers the most dangerous part of the June 20 pursuit. Both the suspect and officer are standing less than 50 feet apart, and each have their guns drawn. Dumas said if he were there, he would have opened fire in self defense.
Springfield police firearms training officer Michael Dumas points to what he considers the most dangerous part of the June 20 pursuit. Both the suspect and officer are standing less than 50 feet apart, and each have their guns drawn. Dumas said if he were there, he would have opened fire in self defense. (Springfield police firearms training officer Michael Dumas)

The incident, recorded in a three-minute video and posted on YouTube by Springfield police, shows officers cautiously following Jose Montanez, 43, up the hill on High Street. Montanez appears to taunt them continually while carrying a stolen .40-caliber handgun. There are at least a dozen points in the video where Montanez appears to point the gun at officers Oumar Keita and Ryan DiBernardo.

The officers recognized early on that Montanez’s gun had its slide locked in the rear position, meaning it was either out of bullets or jammed. But Montanez also had a magazine with five rounds in his back pocket, meaning he could have reloaded and fired in seconds.

Montanez eventually was apprehended on State Street after tossing the gun and trying to run, police said. He is facing charges of illegal firearm possession, disturbing the peace and assault with a dangerous weapon. He is being held without the right to bail as he awaits trial.

Capt. David Kane, head of the Springfield Police Academy, said the incident could have gone a thousand different ways, and most of them would have been bad.

Most clearly, Montanez could have been shot. The shooting likely would have been considered justified, he said, but the department still would have been criticized. Bystanders also could have been caught in the crossfire. And the officers themselves could have been injured or killed if Montanez’s gun had been capable of firing.

“It’s through an act of God that we didn’t bury two cops,” Kane said in an interview last week.

The academy’s top firearms instructor, officer David Dumas, said it is impossible to second-guess the decisions made by officers on the ground because video is a poor substitute for actually being there as a participant.

“That’s when you start making your decision process, of what you are perceiving at that time,” he said.

In light of criticism of police nationwide for using deadly force without justification, here was an incident where it likely would have been justified but wasn’t used, Kane said.

[READ: 8 discussions every agency should have about pistol qualification & firearms training]

Mayor Domenic J. Sarno issued a statement praising Keita and DiBernardo for their “tremendous restraint in not firing their weapons.”

“Those officers and residents were put in harm’s way and a very traumatic situation,” Sarno said.

Police Commissioner Cheryl C. Clapprood said the officers showed “incredible and courageous restraint. ... This situation could have changed at any moment and we are fortunate it ended as it did.”

State Rep. Carlos González, D- Springfield said the officers were “shining examples” of when police seek to deescalate situations rather than responding with force.

González is a former chair of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and one of the main drivers of police reform legislation signed into law last year.

“The training they received gave them the skills to recognize that the weapon was not able to be discharged in that moment and to act accordingly in a proportionate manner,” González said. “This type of quality training, which emphasizes quick thinking and responding in a way that is appropriate to each situation, is what we aspire to give all law enforcement across the Commonwealth.”

The incident was covered by Springfield media as well as outlets in Boston and several police publications. It likely would not have generated the same buzz without the video footage.

Kane and Dumas, after a request from The Republican, agreed to sit down for a second-by-second review of the video. With the footage projected on a screen inside an academy classroom, each pointed out moments where Keita and DiBernardo followed their training and exercised restraint when faced with a potential threat.

“The community should be reassured when they see something like this,” Kane said.

The video was recorded by a city surveillance camera atop a utility pole near High and School streets, and it could not have been placed better in a Hollywood production. Members of the police department’s Real-Time Analysis Center were watching it live and relaying information to responding officers.

In the video, the camera is initially pointing west toward Maplewood Commons. Midway through it rotates to the east, following Montanez as he heads up High Street toward the rear entrance of the High School of Commerce.

Police were dispatched to the intersection when the ShotSpotter system recorded five gunshots there. The video begins sometime after the shots were fired, and about 20 seconds before officers arrive.

Key moments in the video:

  • 0:01-0:19: Montanez is seen walking in the intersection of High and School streets waving a gun. The video does not show Montanez firing the gun, but he is clearly carrying it. A shirtless man with a cast on his arm appears to have a verbal confrontation with Montanez. Montanez is holding the gun behind his back.
  • 0:22-0:23: Police arrive. There are multiple bystanders on the street corner. Montanez brings his arms from behind his back and shows the gun. “You can see the slide is back and his fingers are on the trigger,” Dumas said.
  • 0:27-0:33: Montanez turns to run east on High Street. He has two hands on the gun as he turns, and Dumas says he looks as if he is trying to rack the gun. He breaks into a sprint, holding his arms above his head. Between him and the police, there are four people on the sidewalk.
  • 0:34: Montanez runs behind a car stopped in traffic on High Street and points his gun at police for the first time. The officers, approximately 105 feet away, do not open fire. They are not visible onscreen. Dumas said they are likely taking cover and assessing the situation. Officers are trained to take into account bystanders and backgrounds before shooting at a target. Even if they were fired upon here, Dumas said it would be a very difficult decision to return fire. “Because now you are putting bystanders in possible harm,” Dumas said. “The people are standing right there and you have the car that is in traffic right there,” Kane said. Dumas added, “These are the thought processes that the cop has to take into consideration in a matter of seconds — less than that.”
  • 0:39-1:12: Montanez heads up the hill on High Street. A man can be seen standing in his yard. Across the street, three people are walking a dog. Montanez jogs backward while pointing the gun at police. Other times he wheels around and sprints. The officers are off camera, and Dumas surmises they are likely inching their way up the street, using parked cars as cover. Montanez gestures wildly at times. A close-up of his face at 0:52 shows him laughing, looking almost gleeful. Kane and Dumas wonder if he was in his right mind. “Yeah, he definitely has an expression on his face that there’s something unique about his mental state right now,” Dumas said. “You can tell this guy is not acting normal.” Kane wonders if he is daring police to shoot him.
  • 1:12-1:30: Montanez drops his gun at his feet and raises his hands as if to surrender. Three seconds later, he picks it up again and resumes heading back up the hill, sometimes back-pedaling, and sometimes sprinting. The officers are not visible on the screen. It is not clear how close to Montanez they are. Dumas said they likely would have been still in cover behind parked cars, but once he dropped the gun, they likely emerged to move in on Montanez. Once he picked it up, they were dangerously exposed, he said. “At this point right here they are probably past the point of no return,” he said. “Me personally, I would probably start looking for a new place to protect myself.”
  • 1:31-1:59: Keita and DiBernardo appear on camera for the first time since the pursuit began. They are about 20 yards behind Montanez and about 10 yards from each other. Both have their guns drawn, and Keita can be seen talking into his radio. Montanez aims at the two officers. They spread farther apart to where they are now on opposite sides of the street. Dumas said their positioning is a tactic taught at the academy known as triangulation. “You spread your flanks out further so that it’s difficult for someone to aim at two people at one time,” he said.
  • 2:00-2:18: Montanez reaches the top of the hill, and the two officers are seen sprinting to close the gap. Dumas said that in addition to watching Montanez, Keita and DiBernardo are likely checking their surroundings in the event they need to open fire. There are no bystanders visible. The exterior wall of Commerce makes a nice backdrop to catch errant rounds. But Dumas points to the windows. Just because it’s a Sunday night doesn’t mean there isn’t anybody in the school. Another consideration is fatigue. High Street is a very steep hill. Dumas said he is certain the two officers at this point are breathing heavily. “Part of shooting a firearm is controlling your breath and your breathing. Because if you don’t, you don’t know where that bullet is going.”
  • 2:19: The camera closes in on DiBernardo sprinting to reach Montanez. At a distance of less than 50 feet, Montanez wheels around and takes aim at DiBernardo. The officer moves into a defensive position and levels his weapon at Montanez. Seeing it on screen, Dumas winces. “That was a very dangerous point right there,” he said. He added a moment later, “Based on my training (and) experience, I probably would have pulled the trigger at that point.” Maybe DiBernardo can see that the slide is still locked. Maybe he’s seeing or hearing something that caused him to hold his fire. But Dumas said that if he were there, he would have considered the risk too great. “This guy is pointing at me. I’ve got to do what I got to do to go home.”
  • 2:20-3:09: Reinforcements arrive. A police vehicle pulls up just as DiBernardo is leveling his weapon at Montanez. It comes to a halt next to him and its arrival seems to defuse the situation. Four officers take tactical positions behind the cruiser doors. Then another vehicle arrives, and another, and then a fourth. Montanez runs back and forth in front of the school, before departing off camera to run toward State Street, where he was apprehended a short time later. At some point off camera, he tossed the gun. The video ends with a swarm of officers sprinting off screen. Kane said he likely threw the gun by that point, and the officers could act without the same amount of caution.

Kane said the number of police that Springfield had available to respond to the incident also played a part in the outcome.

“If this happened over the river in Agawam or in a small town like that, the officer knows he doesn’t have 10 backup officers on their way to help,” he said.

Dumas said Springfield police are trained according to standards set by the state. New recruits spend hours learning about their firearms, how to use them and when to use them. During the academy each fires a minimum of 1,400 rounds with their service weapons, and another 1,000 rounds with rifles.

They practice drawing their service weapon a minimum of 3,000 times just to ingrain in their muscle memory how the weapon feels and moves and aligns with their eye as they bring it into an aiming position.

“So they have plenty of firearms experience before they go on the street,” Dumas said. “It’s putting it to the test when they come to a real-life situation.”

Officers have to be recertified with firearms each year for the rest of their careers. In both the recruit training and in the yearly recertification, they run through various firearms drills, using paper targets, projected video simulations, and even nonlethal training ammunition known as simunition.

But Dumas said the training can only prepare an officer up to a point, and it is hard to say how an officer will react when their life is in jeopardy.

“We don’t essentially get trained for someone willing to point a gun at us,” he said. “We’re shooting at a piece of paper that doesn’t shoot back.”

The hope during the firearms training and simulations is that what is learned in the drill is applied in real life. The limit to those role-playing drills is that participants know they are going to go home at the end of the day.

The High Street video, he said, “isn’t role play. It’s real life.”

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit masslive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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