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18 killed by Gwinnett County police officers in last five years

Investigations have deemed all fatal uses of force justified

Gwinnett County Crime Scene Investigator Ashley Pizzuto walks under the police tape while responding to a call of a wanted person located at Pass Court in Sugar Hill on May 13, 2013. The wanted person, Rodney Pike, used his SUV as a weapon and died on the scene due to shots fired by the responding officers. (File Photo)

Gwinnett County Crime Scene Investigator Ashley Pizzuto walks under the police tape while responding to a call of a wanted person located at Pass Court in Sugar Hill on May 13, 2013. The wanted person, Rodney Pike, used his SUV as a weapon and died on the scene due to shots fired by the responding officers. (File Photo)

Gwinnett PD fatal officer-involved shootings since July 1, 2009

JULY 1, 2009: Officers Darryl Nelson, David Martinez and Frederick Saldana were assisting the Drug Enforcement Administration in serving a warrant at a home on Cedar Oak Court in Lawrenceville. They entered the home rumored to contain 20 kilograms of cocaine and discovered Aldo Carreno Rodriguez lying on the ground covered in a sheet. Rodriguez reportedly threw off the sheet and pointed a gun directly at them, and the officers fired and killed him. Saldana fired 15 rounds.

JULY 21, 2009: Officer Lyndsey Perry responded to a home on Duluth’s Tracey Drive after 75-year-old Barbara Baker called 911 to report her daughter was on drugs and going to kill herself. The daughter, 51-year-old Penny Schwartz, came downstairs and pointed a gun at Perry. The officer fired five shots, killing both Baker and Schwartz were killed.

APRIL 17, 2010: Officer James Tait responded to the Tanglewood Apartments off Sugarloaf Parkway near Lawrenceville following reports of a “confused and disoriented” male suspect “screaming and beating on the window of a vehicle.” The man, later identified as Gene Bagley, had a knife and reportedly ignored commands to drop it. He eventually took three steps toward Tait, who fired three rounds and killed him.

APRIL 6, 2011: Sgt. James R. West and two other members of the GCPD gang unit were near the intersection of Singleton Road and Sarah Court near Norcross. They came across three men, including Darryl Fuller, who reportedly “stood in the roadway and taunted the officers.” The officers exited their van and Fuller fled while pointing his weapon at them. West fired once and killed him.

SEPT. 20, 2011: Thirty-eight-year-old Alnur Edwards robbed a Bank of America on Old Peachtree Road in Suwanee before leading police on a high-speed chase, causing multiple wrecks, carjacking on person and engaging in a shootout with officers while fleeing on foot. During the melee’s culmination, Sgt. Joseph McMenomy and officers Rhonda Wood and Phillip McMillan shot and killed Edwards.

DEC. 19, 2011: Officers David Genaro and Brian Irvine responded to Windward Gate Lane in Buford following a 911 call regarding Dawntrae Williams, a mentally ill 15-year-old boy. Williams’ grandmother, two younger siblings and a therapist had locked themselves in a bedroom while the teen wielded a machete. When Genaro and Irvine arrived, Williams reportedly ran down the front steps and toward them with the foot-long blade. The officers fired a combined 12 shots and killed him.

JAN. 23, 2012: Cpl. Eric Charron, Sgt. Botsford Finnegan, and officers Thomas Pickens and Justin M. Young reported to Old Tucker Road near Stone Mountain in an attempt to detain Christopher Andrew Kenney, a suspect in several theft and burglary cases who had evaded police on multiple previous occasions. Kenney was discovered sleeping in a pickup truck and, when officers were unable to remove him and a taser was ineffective, he reportedly began ramming squad cars in front and back. All four officers fired shots and Kenney was killed.

APRIL 26, 2012: Cpl. Eric Charron and Officer Michael Croyle responded to Trophy Trail near Lawrenceville after a friend called to report that James Clark was attempting to commit suicide. Clark reportedly exited the home with a rifle. Charron and Croyle spoke with the suspect for 10 to 15 minutes before firing after he “racked a round.”

SEPT. 12, 2012: Officer Joshua J. Smith responded to Southgate Drive near Lilburn after a 911 call reported a possible robbery. The officer found Victor Le near the garage of the home holding what was believed to be a handgun but was later identified as a BB gun. Le reportedly ignored commands to drop the weapon and Smith fired a single fatal shot. A suicide note was later discovered in the garage, and it is believed Le called the police himself.

DEC. 4, 2012: Cpl. Jason Ayers and Officer James Harkins responded to 92 North Alexander St. near Buford following a call reporting a “large group of males outside the building who appear to be smoking marijuana.” They were patting down several suspects when Jose Antonio Hernandez-Gonzalez pulled a .357 revolver from his waistband and put it to his head. Officers Todd Ramsey, Thomas Novak and Candler Horton then arrived on scene. A taser was deployed and Hernandez-Gonzalez reportedly pointed his weapon at officers. All five fired.

APRIL 10, 2013: Many police and SWAT members responded to Walnut Grove Way near Suwanee after Lauren Holman Brown took several Gwinnett firefighters hostage. After several hours of negotiations, Sgt. Jason Teague shot and killed Brown during a SWAT operation inside the home.

APRIL 22, 2013: Officer Michael Prouty responded to a burglary in progress on Tree Trail Parkway near Norcross, where two children were home alone. As the officer circled the exterior of the apartment in question, he reportedly observed 24-year-old Eric Andrews exiting a window with a tire iron in hand. After being ordered multiple times to drop the tire iron, Andrews allegedly approached Prouty and raised his weapon. Prouty fired a single shot and Andrews fled a short distance before collapsing.

MAY 13, 2013: Ian Davidson, Dennis Hornes and several other officers responded to Pass Court in Sugar Hill after being alerted that Rodney Pike, wanted out of nearby Forsyth County, was there. They were alerted by the original 911 caller, Pike’s mother, that he would likely run. Upon seeing officers, Pike reportedly got into his car and, after a taser was unsuccessful in incapacitating him, backed the vehicle up and struck an officer. Davidson and Hornes fired shots at Pike, who was killed.

AUG. 28, 2013: Officer Matthew Williamson and other officers responded to a domestic incident on Old Shadburn Ferry Road near Buford. When Williamson arrived, he witnessed 80-year-old Betty Jo Massengale run out of the house and be shot in the back and killed by 73-year-old James Daniel Guler. The officer then shot and killed Guler.

JAN. 4, 2014: Gwinnett County police officers, whose identities have not been released because the case remains under investigation, originally responded to a stabbing call on Willow Wood Way near Lawrenceville. A burglary call then came in about three blocks away, where two officers encountered 30-year-old suspect Robert Coleman. Both officers fired shots after Coleman reportedly “charged and physically attacked” one of them. Coleman, who was unarmed, was killed.

APRIL 2, 2014: Gwinnett County police officers, whose identities have not been released because the case remains under investigation, responded to the Lake Sweetwater Apartments near Lawrenceville in reference to a suspicious vehicle. Two suspects fled upon their arrival and were pursued. One officer reportedly came around a corner to find suspect Marcus Garner holding a gun and standing over his fellow officer, who was lying unconscious on the ground. The second officer fired “several” shots and Garner died after being taken to the hospital.

JUNE 16, 2014: Gwinnett County police officers, whose identities have not been released because the case remains under investigation, responding to a bank robbery on Lawrenceville Highway near Bethesda Church Road located suspect John Schneider behind a nearby church. Schneider reportedly charged an officer and struck him in the head with an unidentified blunt object. The officer who was attacked pulled his weapon and fired several shots at the suspect, who died at the scene.

On July 21, 2009, two people died on Tracey Drive. Gwinnett County police Officer Lyndsey Perry killed them.

The 911 call that day came in from elderly Barbara Baker, who told the dispatcher that her daughter, 51-year-old Penny Schwartz, was threatening to commit suicide. The latter was almost certainly on drugs and possibly armed, her mother said.

In the line of duty, quick decisions have to be made. Lives hang in the balance.

Evidence suggests that, once Perry was inside the Duluth-area home, Schwartz came around a corner with a silver .38 Special. Perry fired five times.

Schwartz eventually bled to death. Her mother, an unintended target, died after being hit once in the chest.

Perry was unharmed, at least physically.

“I was convinced she was going to shoot me,” Perry later told investigators. “I thought that … was where I was going to die.”

In the five-year stretch that ends Tuesday, a total of 18 people have died after being shot by Gwinnett County Police Department officers. Though three 2014 cases remain under investigation, none of the officers involved — including one responsible for two deaths in a four-month span — have been found guilty of any wrongdoing.

‘Entirely out of the decision chain’

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Officers were dispatched at about 11 p.m. on Sept. 12 to a domestic dispute at Victor Charles Le’s 3850 Southgate Drive residence near Lilburn, located in a neighborhood off Tom Smith Road. Le reportedly ignored commands to drop a weapon, so an officer fired a single fatal shot. (File Photo)

In Gwinnett, as in most large departments, deadly officer-involved shootings are handled like any other homicide.

The same Gwinnett County Police Department detectives who investigate drug murders, fatal domestic disputes and suspicious deaths lead the way on shootings involving their own colleagues. Representatives from the district attorney’s office generally assist or simply advise on possible legal issues within the investigation.

Once the probe is complete, the case file is put on the desk of Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter. He decides if any criminal charges should be taken to a grand jury.

“I don’t make wisdom or judgement decisions,” Porter said. “It’s either a crime or it’s not.”

An officer-involved case has been presented to a grand jury “eight or nine” times in the last 20 years, Porter estimated. Never has said grand jury opted to indict.

An internal affairs investigation is also carried out. It is separate from the criminal process for several reasons, but primarily because officers can be compelled to cooperate under threat of termination, making their statements inadmissible in court.

Based on interviews with those involved, homicide detectives, other investigators and the medical examiner, as well as other evidence, data and radio traffic, the internal investigation determines if the officer’s actions followed policies and procedures and, if not, if any deviations were appropriate given the situation.

The findings of the investigation are then passed up the command chain, with every leader from the officer’s direct supervisor to Chief Charlie Walters signing off separately on a “disposition” (sustained, not sustained, exonerated or unfounded) and an “action recommended” (none, verbal-documented counseling, remedial training, written reprimand, etc.).

“The people who do the investigation are entirely out of the decision chain,” police department spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith said.

Over the last five years, each of the Gwinnett County Police Department’s 17 fatal officer-involved shootings has resulted in a unanimous decision: Exoneration, meaning the “incident occurred but was lawful and proper.” No “actions” have been recommended.

Officers cleared range from Cpl. Eric Charron, who is tied to back-to-back controversial cases on Jan. 23 and April 26 of 2012, to Sgt. Jason Teague, a SWAT team leader who shot and killed a man who took four Gwinnett firefighters hostage.

They also include officers David Genaro and Brian Irvine, who fired a combined 12 rounds at 15-year-old Dawntrae Williams on Dec. 19, 2011. Williams was mentally ill and allegedly wielding a machete when he ran toward the officers outside his home in Buford.

Genaro and Irvine were cleared about 14 months after the incident, but Williams’ grandmother, Anita Harris, has contended that her grandson dropped the blade and the shots fired were unnecessary. Even two and a half years later, she expressed concerns about investigators trying to “protect” their own while examining the case.

“I would like to see the Gwinnett County Police Department investigated in full, not just my child’s case,” Harris said. “Because I’m concerned about other cases where they just feel like they’re getting away with it.”

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Members of the Gwinnett County Police Crime Scene Investigation unit work the scene of an officer-involved shooting at the Woodland Ridge Apartments in Norcross April 22, 2013. (File Photo)

‘Maybe the mother had had a heart attack’

In many ways, Lyndsey Perry’s case was atypical: she was alone, a 911 dispatcher erroneously reported that there were no weapons in the house, and the shooting resulted in the death of a presumably innocent bystander.

The investigation, though, followed the well-established process.

In a 20-minute interview, Perry shared her account of what happened inside the house on Duluth’s Tracey Drive. At one point she said Baker, the 75-year-old mother of the woman threatening suicide, had moved toward her daughter as if she was going to intervene. At another point Perry said Baker never moved after her daughter came downstairs, rounded a corner and raised a gun.

“At that time I fired two shots, um, I looked and something had caught my eye, and it was the mother who had fallen on the floor,” Perry told internal affairs investigators, according to a transcript of her interview. “Um, I didn’t know at that point what had happened, I could tell that I had hit the daughter, um, she still had the gun in her hands, but I could tell that I had hit her. I didn’t know if maybe the mother had had a heart attack or what had just happened, she was (a) pretty elderly looking woman to me.”

Family called the use of force excessive.

“You don’t come to a suicide situation and start mowing people down,” Derrick Schwartz — the son of Penny Schwartz, the armed woman threatening suicide — told the Daily Post at the time of the shooting.

Perry was cleared of any wrongdoing in December 2009, about six months after the shooting.

Baker’s two children, Michael Schwartz and Jody Ahlfinger, filed a civil suit in July 2011, alleging that Perry was negligent and also naming the Gwinnett County Police Department and members of the 911 call center as defendants. A federal judge issued a summary judgement last spring, clearing all of the defendants except for Perry.

The judge did not directly address Perry’s actions because she had declared bankruptcy.

“… in light of how the Court addressed the claims against all of the other Defendants,” attorney G. Kevin Morris said in an email to the Daily Post, “it seems obvious that it did not believe Ofc. Perry’s actions were unreasonable.”

Through their attorneys, Schwartz, Ahlfinger and Perry declined to comment for this story.

‘A lot of people don’t understand that disconnect’

The Gwinnett County Police Department’s deadly force guidelines read as follows, in part:

“An officer may use deadly force only when the officer reasonably believes that the action is in defense of human life, including the officer’s own life, or in defense of any person in immediate danger of serious physical injury, or to prevent the escape of a fleeing felon whom the officer has probable cause to believe will pose a significant threat to human life if escape should occur and all other available means of defense have failed or would be inadequate or dangerous.”

The department has many other restrictions on when firing a weapon is generally prohibited but those actions are “not illegal in the course of the defense of a life,” said Smith, the police spokesman. Some of GCPD’s most controversial cases have come when officers fired at cars driven by fleeing suspects, which is typically against protocol.

Lance LoRusso, a former Cobb County police officer, is an attorney who serves as the general counsel for the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police and frequently represents officers involved in deadly force incidents. His book “When Cops Kill” is a law enforcement-centric look at officer-involved shootings and their aftermath.

“You can have somebody who breaches protocol or violates policy but the shooting in and of itself was lawful,” LoRusso said. “A lot of people don’t understand that disconnect.”

LoRusso balked at characterizations that officer-involved shootings as a whole are on the rise, as well as the public’s questioning of the subsequent investigations being completed in-house. He pointed instead to the number of instances in which officers across the country “would’ve been justified in using deadly force and did not.”

Those numbers, though, are hard to quantify.

In 2010, representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation surveyed 295 police officers attending a specialized training seminar. About 70 percent said they “had been involved in at least one situation where they legally could have discharged their firearm in the performance of their duties but chose not to fire.”

Little, if any, other data is available.

When a Gwinnett County police officer kills someone, they are generally put on paid leave for three days — long enough for investigators to gather the basic details of the shooting and for the shooter to be evaluated mentally and “re-qualify” to carry a firearm. Sometimes they return immediately to active duty, and sometimes they are temporarily reassigned to administrative work.

Never has one been demoted, suspended or fired.

“After reviewing this case,” each internal affairs report from the last five years says, “no violations of the department’s policies or procedures have been identified.”

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Members of Gwinnett's Deadly Force Investigation Team and crime scene techs collect evidence at Bethesda United Methodist Church outside Lawrenceville, after a bank robbery suspect was shot and killed by a Gwinnett Police Officer on June 16, 2014. (File Photo)

‘A complete different direction’

A 1996 study by the FBI found that as many as 70 percent of police officers involved in deadly use of force incidents leave the profession within five years.

Lyndsey Perry waited only 18 months.

Perry left the Gwinnett County Police Department in January 2011. Her LinkedIn profile lists forays into photography and marketing in the three-plus years since.

“I have had a creative mind all my life,” her profile says. “… (I) majored in art in high school and again in college before making a career direction change that led me in a complete different direction and away from art for many years.”

Perry also describes herself as a public speaker and advocate. She takes part, she said, in forums on post-traumatic stress in law enforcement, focusing on “the effects that the illness has on the individual, family and career.”

Those effects can be “tremendous,” LoRusso said.

“I was involved in more than one in which it came very close to me having to shoot someone, and even that took a toll,” he said. “I can’t imagine what officers go through when they actually have to take a life.”

Perry’s LinkedIn page goes into great detail about her career as a Gwinnett County police officer. It says she responded to “calls of all types” and served as a liaison with local homeowners associations, and that she collected and analyzed crime data and served as a training instructor.

It then claims that she “designed, created and implemented a training program for Officer Involved Shootings (OIS) and after effects for all recruits and sworn officers.”

The last part would’ve been the perfect coda to a career in law enforcement, Perry’s final effort to make something positive out of something tragic.

But Smith, the department spokesman, said it never happened.

“That’s not something we’ve ever used,” he said.