02/16/2012

Ariz. cop who shot man holding child investigated

James Peters is a 12-year veteran of the police force who has served on its SWAT team

By Bob Christie
Associated Press

PHOENIX — Authorities are investigating an Arizona officer's decision to shoot a man holding a baby, as officials point out that the same policeman had been involved in six previous shootings since 2002, five of them fatal.

James Peters was one of several Scottsdale officers called to a home in the Phoenix suburb on Tuesday night after neighbors reported a man holding a baby was threatening them with a handgun, Chief Alan Rodbell said.

James Loxas, 50, was shot and killed, but the infant he was holding was not harmed, he said.

Peters is a 12-year veteran of the police force who has served on its SWAT team. In three of his previous six shootings, other officers also fired at suspects.

A list compiled by The Arizona Republic shows Peters' first shooting was in 2002, when he was one of three SWAT officers who shot and wounded a domestic violence suspect after a standoff. Between 2003 and 2010, he was involved in five fatal shootings.

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office investigated his previous shootings and ruled them justifiable, Rodbell said. In one instance, he received the department's medal of valor for killing a suspect who was holding a store employee hostage after hijacking a doughnut truck driver.

Not everyone agrees that Peters always acts appropriately.

Jason Leonard, a lawyer in Fort Myers, Fla., who represented the family of a man killed in 2006 by Peters and another officer, said he is concerned the city seems to support Peters even when his actions are questionable.

"My concern is that he seems to shoot first and ask questions later and has been supported in this policy," Leonard said. "I don't think he's going after innocent citizens, however, if you find yourself in a precarious situation, he seems to err on the side of escalating the violence."

Kevin Hutchings had gotten into a fight with a close friend in August 2006 and then left and drove to his house in Mesa, about 10 miles to the south. Officers had the friend call Hutchings at his house, and Scottsdale police went there, Leonard said.

While he was talking on the phone, police cut the power to flush him out, Hutchings came outside with a gun to investigate, and was fatally shot. Leonard said officers never announced their presence. The family accepted a $75,000 settlement from the city.

Police department spokesman Sgt. Mark Clark said investigators were looking into Peters' decision to shoot Loxas on Tuesday and why officers felt threatened or believed he was a threat to the child.

"There were at least three officers that were in a position to engage the suspect," Clark said. "At least one of the officers thought he saw something in the suspect's hand. So at this point in the investigation we want to make sure we have all of the officers' statements down."

Rodbell said the investigation will likely take weeks to complete. Afterward, the findings will be turned over to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

Police said Loxas went back in his house after allegedly threatening the neighbors, then opened the door with the 9-month-old grandson in his arms but wouldn't come out.

Several officers called for him to come outside, but Loxas refused, Rodbell said. Peters shot Loxas in the head with a scope-equipped rifle from about 15 yards away when he leaned over and reached inside the house.

Loxas died instantly, and fell with the baby in his arms, police spokesman Sgt. Mark Clark said. The baby was unhurt.

Police said a loaded handgun was tucked into the side of a chair a few feet inside the door, and a shotgun was also found nearby.

Rodbell promised a complete investigation into the shooting.

"A police officer's primary duty is to protect life. It is difficult for everyone when we are forced to take a life," Rodbell said.

Mike Rains, a suburban San Francisco lawyer who represented officers involved in hundreds of shootings in the past 30 years, said one with so many shootings deserves extra scrutiny from his department and the public.

"Seven shootings is a hell of a lot," Rains said, noting that Peters is either very aggressive in taking calls that end up requiring him to shoot or he is quicker on the trigger than he should be.

In this case, the actions Loxas took in threatening his neighbors with a gun and refusing to come outside while holding a baby led to a legitimate concern by the officers, he said. He speculated that Loxas may have wanted police to shoot him in a so-called "suicide by cop."

Regardless, a more critical look at the officer and the shootings is important, Rains said.

"We can only hope that they have sufficient training and sufficient good judgment and common sense and reasoning to make good decisions," Rains said. "Because sometimes they don't and when they don't, people get injured and killed who don't deserve it."

Associated Press Writer Mark Carlson contributed to this report.

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