A Portsmouth police officer shot an armed burglary man in the back in 2017 as the man tried to run away, according to a body cam video obtained by The Virginian-Pilot.
The dramatic footage, recorded by the officer’s department-issued body camera, casts new light on the October 29 shooting that left 18 years old Deontrace Ward injured and police officer Jeremy Durocher on administrative duty.
In interviews, Ward and his mom called for Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales to prosecute Durocher.
Ward said he never pulled his handgun, which was ultimately found in his right pant leg near his ankle. And he said the video proves he was not a threat.
“I was pretty much trying to get away. Showing no aggression,” said Ward, who still has a bullet in his abdomen. “I feel he shot me for no reason.”
Durocher’s attorney, Nicholas Renninger, said the shooting was “absolutely justified, without reservation.” He said Ward was “carrying a weapon that was visible” when he exited the home.
“The suspect was armed, had burglarized a home and was a danger and a threat in that regard,” Renninger said. “I have no qualms whatsoever in saying that my client’s actions in protecting himself and those around him were justified.”
Ward, who suffered back and arm injuries, is set to stand trial May 1 on six felonies, including armed statutory burglary, assault of a police officer and possession of a firearm by a felon. According to court records, Ward was found delinquent of felony theft in September 2016, when he was just 17, in Portsmouth Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.
Court documents say he stole jewelry from the house just before he was shot.
In a statement, Morales said the shooting was investigated by Virginia Police and that her office is reviewing the report and researching the facts.
“Upon completion of our investigation we will apply the law to the facts and determine whether a use of force was justified or not under the law,” she said.
Portsmouth Police Chief Tonya Chapman declined to comment, as did Ward’s defense attorney, Deputy Public Defender Matthew Johnson.
Kenneth Williams, a law professor at the Texas College of Law Houston and a recognized expert on police use of force, viewed the video at the request of The Virginian-Pilot. He questioned how the gun could have gone from Ward’s hand to the bottom of his pant leg so quickly.
“That said, I think a prosecution of the police (officer) would be extremely difficult because the officer’s claim of seeing a gun being waved at him would be hard to refute,” he said in an email, explaining juries “tend to give the police the benefit of the doubt when they claim to have seen a weapon on a suspect.”
For the past several years, police shootings of black men – and the relatively small number of officers prosecuted have drawn international attention and protest. Ward is black, and Durocher is white.
Portsmouth police said little in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. A news release said officers got a call for a burglary in progress afternoon in the 1100 block of Tatem Ave and arrived to find an unspecified number of people leaving the house. One of those people was armed, the release said, and that “resulted in an officer-involved shooting incident.”
A Portsmouth police department spokesman declined to identify Ward that night or comment on the officer’s status with the department. He referred questions to the state police.
Prosecutors released the video to Ward’s defense attorney earlier this month. In turn, it was shown Friday to Ward and his family.
“It was heartbreaking to see my son shot while running away,” his mother, Eboni West, said later. “He didn’t deserve to get shot.”
The video starts with Durocher, who was sworn in as an officer less than six months earlier, still driving to the scene of the burglary. He parks hop a low chain-link fence and take up a position in the backyard of the house.
After a few seconds, he hears a noise to his right and runs around the corner to see a young man in a dark-colored hooded sweatshirt running through the side yard toward a privacy fence.
“Hey! Get on the ground,” he yells before firing two shots.
Durocher watches as the man, later identified as Ward, jumps the fence and lands awkwardly on the other side.
“He has a handgun. He has a gun,” the police officer yells as he runs back the way he came, tracking where he thought the man was heading.
Durocher comes to the end of the privacy fence to see Ward running away from him. He quickly fires two more shots, causing Ward to fall forward near children’s toys in a neighboring backyard.
“Stay down,” the police officer repeatedly yells at Ward as he jumps a low chain-link fence.
Nine seconds elapsed between when Durocher fired his first and last shots. Ward was out of his sight for five seconds.
In the interview at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, Ward said he could understand Durocher shooting him if he had the gun out or he was running towards the officer.
“But if I’m running away, I shouldn’t get shot,” he said.
A moment after Ward collapsed, the video shows, a group of five or six other police officers came around from the opposite side of the neighboring house. Among them was Officer Angelina Baaklini, who was shot and injured eight days later by a 15-year-old runaway she was trying to take home.
With guns drawn, the officers ran up on Ward, then held him down and handcuffed him.
“I can’t breathe,” Ward said at one point.
“You’ll be fine,” Baaklini responded.
“If you’re talking, you can breathe,” added Officer James Clark, according to a transcript of the video filed in the court file.
The video continued for the next several minutes as other officers spoke to Durocher and tried to calm him down.
Durocher, who was breathing heavily and complaining his legs were weak, repeatedly told them to look for the gun.
“He’s got a gun in his waistband,” he said at one point.
The Portsmouth police officers couldn’t immediately locate the weapon, but eventually found a loaded .45-caliber Springfield handgun inside Ward’s right pant leg. In the video, a bulge is visible near Ward’s ankle as he lies on the ground.
Later, Durocher told his fellow officers Ward “waved” the gun at him.
“He came out the window and had a gun pointed at me,” he added near the end of the video.
Sgt. Kim Funkhouser eventually took Durocher’s sidearm, telling him she had to do it. A moment later, however, Portsmouth police officer Joseph Worley walked up and handed Durocher his handgun.
“He’s got to have one,” Worley said as Funkhouser protested, according to the transcript. “I don’t need one.”
As Durocher began to talk again about what happened, Funkhouser cut him off and appeared to turn off her body camera. Seconds later, another officer’s arm is seen near Durocher’s camera, and the video ends.
If the shooting happened three years ago, there would be no video of what transpired. The Portsmouth police didn’t start equipping officers with Taser Axon body cameras until late 2015, a few months after then-Officer Stephen Rankin shot and killed 18-year-old William Chapman II while investigating a shoplifting report.
There was some video of that altercation, recorded by Rankin’s stun gun. The video, however, cuts out during the actual shooting, leaving the public to see only what happened before and after. Still, Morales secured a voluntary manslaughter conviction in 2016 against Rankin. He was sentenced to 2 and half years in prison.
The death of Chapman and subsequent conviction of Rankin drew national and international media attention, including reports in The Guardian and a BBC documentary that first aired in the United Kingdom. Other police shootings across the nation, including many captured on video, have drawn widespread coverage.
That didn’t happen when Ward was shot.
West, Ward’s mother, thinks the body camera video could change that.
“Hopefully, it will now get the attention that it needs,” she said.