Aug. 15, 2003 – Attorney General Iver Stridiron's decision as to whether a police officer's fatal shooting of a man in Vendors Plaza last March constituted justifiable homicide was: Yes, but …
In his seven-page "prosecutorial decision" dated Aug. 10 but distributed to the news media Friday, Stridiron said Officer D. Callwood was justified in killing Fernando Espina Diaz. But he said the situation that led up to Callwood shooting Diaz, who was armed with a knife, multiple times in an area where numerous bystanders were present could and should have been handled differently.
Had that been the case, he said, "There may have been ample opportunities for the police officers to defuse the situation without resort to deadly force."
Further, Stridiron said, the investigative procedure that followed the death was seriously flawed in that a single individual apparently wrote up the statements of various officers who were on the scene, as well as statements from onlookers.
"If this were a more complicated situation," he wrote, "I fear that justifying a criminal charge or supporting a decision not to institute criminal action would be a difficult and arduous task."
For a news account the day following the shooting, see "Officer fatally shoots man at Vendors Plaza".
Stridiron said that according to the investigation findings, Diaz on the evening of March 8 stabbed a total stranger in the arm and chest, apparently without provocation, in the Garden Street area. Stridiron noted that the officers involved in the encounter with Diaz at Vendors Plaza were not aware of this incident.
Shortly after the stabbing, around 8 p.m., the officers saw Diaz running down Veterans Drive with a "crazed look" and disheveled appearance and saw him collide with a car. Two police officers approached him, saw him holding the bloody knife and ordered him repeatedly — in English and Spanish — to drop the weapon and drop to the ground.
"Suicide by cop"?
At this point in his narrative, Stridiron writes:
"There are also statements that Diaz when first confronted and later while surrounded by seven officers with their weapons drawn stated in Spanish that he would have to be 'killed by police.' This phenomenon, 'suicide by cop,' is one which I earlier noted in another incident on St. Croix, and which has apparently occurred several times on the mainland."
He then recounted witnesses' accounts that Diaz lunged at various officers with the knife; that a marshal tried to knock the knife from the man's hand using a piece of PVC pipe; that an officer struck Diaz from behind with a police baton, causing him to fall to the ground, although he quickly got up again; and that Mace was sprayed at him.
Then, Stridiron said, Diaz "swung the knife more wildly and ran first towards the waterfront and then into the Vendors Plaza where several children and adults were practicing their dance routine for carnival." He related witness accounts of Diaz then "stabbing himself about the face."
Police surrounded him, but he fled toward a group of people, including children, and the seven officers "apparently gave chase and once again surrounded Diaz," then described as "stabbing himself about the neck and face." Diaz lunged at Callwood, who "retreated by running in a backwards motion" and then fired several shots at the man. According to witnesses, Stridiron wrote, "Diaz continued to advance on the officer and the officer continued to fire his weapon until the body of Diaz came to rest on the ground approximately two to three feet from the officer."
Stridiron said his responsibility was to determine, based on investigation, whether self-defense was a viable justification for Callwood's actions and whether the force the officer employed was legally appropriate. His conclusion in both instances was affirmative.
Therefore, he said, "neither Officer Callwood nor any of the other officers and marshal who engaged Mr. Diaz will be prosecuted" for a criminal violation.
Questions and concerns
Nonetheless, Stridiron wrote, the killing "may not have been necessary" and its occurrence may indicate a need "to review V.I. Police policy, training and philosophy." He said that "even a lay person could probably have known that striking Diaz with a thin length of PVC pipe was not likely to dislodge the knife from his hand. In addition, why did the seven police officers not pile onto Diaz when he was struck with a police baton from the rear and knocked to the ground? Further, the officers failed to undertake crowd control and may have endangered the many children who were practicing in the Vendors Plaza."
Last December, Stridiron announced that the V.I. Justice Department would not prosecute any of the police officers involved in a total of five shooting deaths in a little more than three years, including that of a naked, unarmed man killed on a public beach in broad daylight. At that time, however, he recommended disciplinary action against one of the officers because of what Stridiron called negligence and violations of standard police procedures.
(See "No prosecutions in 5 fatal shootings by police".)
In his decision issued Friday, Stridiron took the Police Department as an entity to task for procedures in the investigation.
He said the written statements submitted by the various officers involved in the case appear "to have been prepared, if not authored, by the same individual. The grammar format, tone and articulation are almost identical …" and they were all submitted on the same day. Further, he said, a number of verbal accounts by officers — which were in some cases not taken until several months after the incident — "were reduced to writing by the same individual."
This, Stridiron said, "allows the integrity and credibility of the statements to be strongly questioned." He noted that "many members of the public believe that police officers often will protect one another."
He recommended that all officers henceforth be required to prepare their own statements "without assistance," whether in writing or in the form of an audio recording.
Fortunately, Stridiron said, the police accounts were supported by "many credible civilian accounts which seem consistent, to a large degree, with the officers' accounts." Unfortunately, he added, "it also appears the same person reduced the civilian accounts to writing as well."
He said he trusts that "the commissioner, his supervisors and each police officer" will review his decision and recommendations "and that remedial action will be taken."

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