PHOENIX — The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office announced Friday that the officer who shot and killed Ryan Whitaker last year will not face any charges in the incident.
Whitaker was shot in the back three times, less than three seconds after he answered the door of his Ahwatukee apartment in May of 2020.
Whitaker answered the door while holding a gun at his side, which his family said was because of recent issues with someone banging on their door at night.
"Mr. Whitaker lawfully owned a firearm. He lawfully answered a knock on his door late at night with that firearm. His decision to come out of his home and the way he did so did not violate any laws," wrote Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel in her charging decision.
Worth noting, police should have never been called in the first place. There was no domestic violence occurring in the home, but a neighbor called 911 twice, and escalated the call's priority by saying, “I can tell they are just at each other’s throats down there."
On his second call, the neighbor said, "It could be physical? I could say, yeah. Would that make anyone hurry up?"
Body camera video, which can be seen here, shows Whitaker immediately move the gun behind his back after seeing the officers. Officers scream “hands” and Whitaker backs up, lifts his left hand in the air, squats down and puts the hand with the gun toward the floor.
At that moment, 2.6 seconds after Whitaker answers the door, an officer fires his gun three times in less than a second. Whitaker falls forward into the walkway.
"Mr. Whitaker is dead and he shouldn’t be," wrote Adel.
Adel though, declining to file charges while acknowledging Whitaker's clear compliance.
"Mr. Whitaker was moving his gun to put it down and put his hands up....It does not appear that Mr. Whitaker was a threat to the officers," she wrote. "Officer Cooke’s conclusion, while inaccurate in hindsight, was not unreasonable in the moment and was, therefore, not a crime."
Officer Jeff Cooke told investigators he fired his weapon because he believed the other officer was "in imminent danger."
An "independent use-of-force expert," who is a retired cop from Nevada, reviewed the case for MCAO and concluded that due to reaction time and the potential threat, Officer Cooke's shots were justified.
Whitaker's relatives do not buy that argument based on the body camera and time elapsed.
"So his word is above the law and visual evidence?" wondered Katie Baeza, Whitaker's sister. "Because it made him feel a certain way, he’s allowed to shoot and kill someone?
The Phoenix City Council voted unanimously in December to approve a $3 million settlement with the family of Whitaker.
"He was at home playing video games and he did nothing wrong. On the contrary, he assumed the position that anybody would, and he still lost his life," said Councilmember Carlos Garcia. "I just wish we had a process to not just throw money at this, but actually change policy. Actually hold the police officers accountable."
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office says that while it was "heart-wrenching," they would not be able to prove that officer Cooke's decision to shoot Whitaker was unreasonable.
Phoenix police tell ABC15 that Officer Cooke is still in a non-enforcement position, and the department hopes to finalize the administrative investigation soon.
County Attorney Adel's conclusion about why she did not file charges:
"When terrible things like this happen, we naturally want to find out who was right and who was wrong. Mr. Whitaker is dead and he shouldn’t be. It is natural to try to find who is at fault; we want to assess blame.
Mr. Whitaker lawfully owned a firearm. He lawfully answered a knock on his door late at night with that firearm. His decision to come out of his home and the way he did so did not violate any laws. Likewise, the officers appropriately responded to a call of an active situation of domestic violence. They knocked at the door and announced who they were.
Following their training and experience, they appropriately positioned themselves for protection should someone inside want to harm them. They assumed those inside knew the police were at the door – they had announced their presence. When Mr. Whitaker came out the door with a gun in his hand, it was reasonable for the officers to conclude that he meant them harm.
Officer Cooke’s conclusion, while inaccurate in hindsight, was not unreasonable in the moment and was, therefore, not a crime. This is precisely why this case is so heart-wrenching: while both Officer Cooke and Mr. Whitaker could have made decisions that would have avoided this terrible result, neither did anything that is prohibited by our criminal laws."