Don’t let the headline fool you — a cop fatally shooting an unarmed, mentally ill immigrant isn’t as bad as it sounds. OK, yeah it is — but, according to a grand jury, he may not have had any other choice, the Rockland County District Attorney’s Office announced today.
This means no charges will be filed against Spring Valley police Officer John Roper in the December 2011, fatal shooting of Herve Gilles, a Haitian immigrant who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. The grand jury, the Rockland County D.A. says, found that Roper was justified in using deadly force against Gilles as Gilles was beating Roper with a nightstick he’d wrestled away from the officer.
We’ve read the 29-page report provided by the D.A.’s Office (which you can read in its entirety below), and asked the same question you’re probably asking: why didn’t the officer just use his “non-deadly” Taser to subdue Gilles? Well, there appears to be a reason (according to the D.A., anyway), which we’ll get to below.
The fatal shooting happened about 3:20 a.m. on December 14, of last year, after Roper responded to a call that Gilles, 48, was throwing rocks at the El Buen Gusto Bar at 11 East Furman Place in Spring Valley. The call was the second time that morning Roper had been called to the bar to deal with Gilles, who had been at the bar screaming unintelligibly about an hour earlier.
Spring Valley police and Gilles go way back — Gilles has been arrested for criminal offenses 33 times since 1990, including eight felonies, four of which were violent. However, as the D.A. notes in the report, when Gilles wasn’t drunk, off his meds, or high on marijuana, he was a great guy who did a lot of volunteer work with his church. When he’d been drinking, though, Gilles became — as Gilles himself puts it — “a demon.”
According to the report, on the morning of December 14, Gilles apparently was in “demon” mode. After police were called to deal with him the first time, he left the bar and started walking away from the scene. Roper tracked him down, though, and — having dealt with him several times in the past — recognized him.
“Herve,” Roper yelled to him from his police cruiser, in an attempt to get him to stop and chat. Gilles refused, yelling unintelligibly at the officer.
Again, Roper yelled to Gilles to see if he would stop and talk with him. Again, Gilles refused.
Rather than continue bothering an agitated man who was no longer disturbing anyone, Roper told Gilles to get some sleep and called his dispatcher to let him know Gilles was the suspect, but was no longer a problem. Roper let him go on his way and returned to regular patrol duties.
About an hour later, Roper again received a call that Gilles was causing a disturbance at the bar — this time throwing rocks at the building.
Roper again headed to the bar but Gilles was gone. Roper tracked him down again, this time in a dark parking lot near the bar.
Because he’d dealt with Gilles in the past, Roper claims he knew he could be violent, so he took out his nightstick as he approached the incoherent suspect.
Gilles was belligerent, so Roper’s plan was to get him in handcuffs to keep him from causing him — or himself — any harm. As Gilles approached Roper, though, he did so “aggressively,” the report states, which prompted Roper to hit him in the leg with the nightstick in an attempt to stun him. The nightstick had no impact, and Gilles then lunged on Roper, knocking him to the pavement.
The two men then fought over the nightstick — at one point, Gilles bit Roper’s leg. Gilles — who prosecutors describe as having “great strength” — ultimately came away with the baton and used it to beat the officer. During the beating, Roper’s left arm went numb after a blow from the nightstick.
As Gilles continuously hit Roper while he was on the ground, the officer claims he realized that if Gilles hit him in the head it could kill him, or leave him unconscious and defenseless. With his Taser on his left side, and his pistol on his right, Roper went for the pistol because — as he claims in the report — of the injury to his left arm. He fired one round, hitting Gilles in the neck.
Gilles, however, was unfazed, and continued to beat the officer. At that point, Roper fired another round, hitting Gilles in the head, killing him.
Of the 12 witnesses interviewed by police, only one claimed to have seen what happened — a cab driver who was at the scene and happens to be a longtime friend of Gilles. He claims another officer was present at the time of the shooting and that he heard her yell to Roper “don’t shoot him, he’s sick; don’t kill him, he’s a sick man.”
None of the responding officers corroborated the witness’ story, and the only female officer present that night says she never said anything of the sort. She also says she doesn’t really know Gilles, and wouldn’t be able to comment on his mental condition.
That, of course, is the D.A.’s side of the story. Attempts to reach Gilles’ family were unsuccessful this afternoon.
The D.A.’s Office concludes from the shooting that Rockland County needs a Mental Health Court — similar to one in Westchester County. D.A. Thomas Zugibe says that given Gilles’ history, a Mental Health Court could have made sure that his mental illness was treated before it escalated “out of control.” Unfortunately, he says, Rockland County has been given no funding to create such a court.
Read the D.A.’s full report below.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 8, 2012