Hearing on SPD shooting of Capitol Hill man begins Tuesday

Seattle homicide reenacting the position and view of SWAT sniper Geohagan (Image: SPD)

Seattle homicide reenacting the position and view of SWAT sniper Jeff Geohagan, who fatally shot Joel Reuter. (Image: SPD)

Ten minutes before he would be shot and killed by Seattle Police Department snipers on the morning of July 5th, 2013, Joel Reuter wrapped himself in a rainbow flag while holding a handgun inside his Capitol Hill apartment. Earlier that morning, neighbors had called 911 saying they heard gunshots come from Reuter’s window.

The details surrounding Reuter’s eight hour stand-off with police have been documented in a 900-page SPD inquest, recently obtained by CHS. While the fact-finding investigation chronicles much of what happened on the day of Reuter’s death, police investigators did not make any judgements on the SWAT team’s use of force.

Whether or not officers were justified in killing Reuter will be decided in a three-day hearing starting Tuesday. The inquest and hearing are part of the standard investigations following SPD officer involved shootings.The investigation into Retuer’s death comes amid big shake-ups among SPD top brass who have been criticized for slow-moving efforts to address a 2011 federal investigation into the department’s use of force, particularly in officer involved shootings.

reuter with gun

Investigators found this photograph on a camera in Reuter’s condo (Image: SPD)

Despite the 900-page report, why Reuter lashed out that day remains unclear. Reuter had several run-ins with police in the months leading up to that morning, neighbors in his building had complained of increasingly erratic behavior, and friends at the scene told police Reuter was depressed and bipolar. Three days after his death, Reuter’s father told police that his son, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, may have even been planning to commit “suicide by cop.”

At 10:26 AM police had Retuer’s Bellevue and Denny building surrounded. After a tense eight hour stand-off, negotiations seemed to be going no where.  According to SPD documents, Reuter repeatedly threatened officers on the phone and out loud throughout the morning, saying he would shoot them if provoked. SPD also warned if Reuter came out on his balcony with his gun, they would shoot.

An SPD officer asked two friends of Reuter how he would respond if officers battered in his door or used tear gas. Reuter’s cell phone had died and he refused to pick up the negotiating phone police had lowered outside his window. Both friends agreed Reuter would back down or turn the gun on himself should police become more aggressive.

During this time SWAT officers Jeff Geohagan and Chad Zentner were watching Reuter from sniper posts in two different buildings. Both men had worked late the night before at 4th of July events. Three hours after their shift ended, they were called out to Bellevue and Denny. It was barely 4 AM.

View of SWAT sniper Chad Zenter into Reuter's apartment. (Image: SPD)

View of SWAT sniper Chad Zenter into Reuter’s open apartment window. (Image: SPD)

Armed with a .30 caliber sniper rifle Geohagan took a position atop the Bel Vista apartment building at 1819 Bellevue at 4:45 AM.  Zentner, carrying an M-16 suppressed assault rifle, was able to find a position inside an apartment at 100 Melrose Avenue E with a window that looked out to Reuter.

Negotiating phone with Reuter's bullet hole visible on top. (Image: SPD)

Negotiating phone with Reuter’s bullet hole visible on top. (Image: SPD)

As the SWAT phone hung in front of Reuter’s window, Zentner said he saw Reuter kneel to the ground. He thought Reuter was praying. But then Zentner said he saw Reuter fire shots in Geohagen’s direction. One of those shots struck the negotiating phone just outside Reuter’s apartment. Zenter immediately returned fire, striking Reuter three times.

Geohagen heard Reuter’s shots, too, but didn’t realize they were fired in his direction. Zentner came on the radio, reported what he saw, and said he fired on Reuter. Reuter ran screaming away from his window. When Reuter came back into view, fearing he might shoot again, Geohagan fired one last — fatal — shot.

The robot used to check on Reuter after snipers shot him with Reuter's gun at the top-left. (Image: SPD)

The robot used to check on Reuter after snipers shot him. Reuter’s gun is pictured at the top-left. (Image: SPD)

Use of force at SPD
While SPD has weathered blistering criticism for using unnecessary force, the SPD investigators did not suggest in their report that the Reuter incident fits this pattern. Two years after the Department of Justice found “pattern of practice” of unnecessary force among officers, the federal monitor overseeing police reforms said in a recent report that the department still dragging its feet.

The failure of the SPD to fully and fairly analyze officer-invoved shootings [is] disappointing. Rather than come to grips with the Monitor’s recommendations in its First Semiannual Report, the SPD’s Firearms Review Board continues to conduct reviews that fall well short of a full, fair, and impartial analyses of SPD shootings.

The federal report on SPD’s reforms goes on to criticize the department’s attempts to “improperly coach officer testimony” and to stack the odds against a proceeding that would show an improper use of force. Following the blistering progress report, then-interim Police Chief Jim Pugel demoted two assistant chiefs to captain.

As one of his first decisions as mayor, Ed Murray replaced Pugel with Harry C. Bailey, a former SPD assistant chief who also served as a consultant to help the department reform after the DOJ’s initial investigation.

Of the 29 Seattle homicides in 2013, six were the result of SPD police shootings. Two of those six happened in Capitol Hill. In December, Pugel attributed the number of officer involved shootings to an increase in untreated mental health issues. According to federal investigators there are still measures SPD can take to help bring that number lower.

Reuter’s family, meanwhile, continues to push for changes in mental health laws that they said prevented them from doing more to protect their loved one and force him to get help.

The inquest into the Reuter shooting is set to begin Tuesday morning at the King County Courthouse.

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