TUCSON, Ariz. — Dramatic dash-cam videos of an arrest in Arizona put the public in the driver's seat as an officer plows his cruiser into a rifle-toting robbery suspect at high speed. Policing experts on Wednesday called the officer's tactics unconventional and even outrageous, but justified, given the circumstances.
The images police released Tuesday provoked intense responses among tens of thousands of people after they were posted on the Internet, providing a new angle to the national debate over policing.
Some expressed outrage, accusing the officer of improperly using deadly force. Others said he deserves a medal for managing to quickly and safely end a standoff with a dangerous gunman.
The suspect's defense lawyer called it excessive and unjustified.
"In watching the video, I think it was clear that it was not the appropriate action and that my client was not threatening to anybody except for himself," attorney Michelle Cohen Metzger said Wednesday.
Prosecutors cleared Marana Police Officer Michael Rapiejko of any wrongdoing after he swerved around another officer who had been cautiously tailing the robbery suspect, then accelerated and rammed into the man's back on Feb. 19.
The videos show Mario Valencia, 36, cart-wheeling through the air in the instant before the cruiser breaks through a retaining wall, shattering its windshield. Rapiejko, 34, and other officers then jump out from all over, guns drawn, to make sure Valencia stays down.
The maneuver abruptly resolved what police called a violent crime spree by Valencia, who allegedly threatened officers with a stolen hunting rifle and fired a shot moments before the crash. Valencia allegedly stole the .30-.30 rifle from a Wal-Mart after police said he tried to set a church on fire, invaded a home and stole a car.
Experts in police training and tactics say the video illustrates the split-second decisions officers must make in life-or-death situations, and appeared to be completely justified, considering that an erratic suspect was firing a long-range weapon.
Still, they call it anything but a textbook maneuver — and one that police chiefs everywhere should tell their officers not to repeat.
"It is an outrageous video without a doubt, and anybody watching that is going to have that reaction," said Jim Bueermann, a former police chief who leads the Police Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving policing.
"The problem," Bueermann said, "is that it is not as simple as a police officer doing a crazy thing. It is an excellent example of how difficult policing can be."
Valencia survived the crash, apparently without suffering serious injury.
So did the officer, who returned to regular duty after a standard three-day leave and was cleared by the Pima County Attorney's office. Rapiejko joined the department last year after about nine years as an officer in Tucson and New York, and doesn't have any disciplinary or use of force history in Marana, Sgt. Chris Warren said.
Warren said Rapiejko had only seconds to react before entered the parking lot of a business, where bystanders could have been at risk.
"It's not something you see every day, definitely, but the officer was thinking outside the box and made a good tactical decision," Warren said.
Valencia now faces several felony charges, including assault on an officer. His defense attorney, Michelle Cohen Metzger, said police used excessive force and the officer was not justified in his actions.
"In watching the video, I think it was clear that it was not the appropriate action and that my client was not threatening to anybody except for himself," she said.
Using a car as a weapon is considered an "unconventional tactic" and is not part of any standard training, said Lou Salseda, a retired sergeant with the Los Angeles Police who taught tactics at the department's academy.
Standard procedure calls for isolating and containing a gunman, but in this case, because of the rifle's range, the perimeter would have had to extend for hundreds of yards, requiring vast reinforcements and logistics. In the meantime, an active shooter could have taken hostages or posed additional threats to responding officers, experts say.
Because the suspect was walking around with a weapon that could easily penetrate building walls, cars and bulletproof vests, the officer was justified in effectively turning his cruiser into a "3,000-pound bullet," said Ken Cooper, a New York-based use-of-force and firearms trainer.
"This officer acted assertively, not aggressively, deciding that citizens and fellow officers were in imminent danger," Cooper said. "While officers are not trained to use vehicles as bullets, his quick 'out of the box' actions absolutely saved the lives of others."
Police did not release the entire videos. The segments made public show Valencia walking with a rifle down a busy business corridor. At one point, Valencia points the rifle at himself and threatens to kill himself. At another, Valencia shoots the rifle into the sky.
One of the dash-cam videos was recorded from the cruiser of an officer driving slowly, about a half-block behind Valencia.
"Be prepared," that officer tells colleagues approaching in other cars. "Stand off, stand off, the gun is loaded!"
Moments later, Rapiejko accelerated past the first cruiser and rammed into Valencia's back, shocking his colleague.
"Oh, Jesus Christ, man down!" the first officer shouts as police swarm the scene, guns drawn.
Abdollah reported from Los Angeles.