A police officer was charged with voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of a man reported to have been hanging on or jumping on moving cars near a Pennsylvania amusement park, a prosecutor announced Tuesday.
Officer Jonathan Roselle of the South Whitehall Township police department had an "unreasonable" belief that his safety was endangered when he shot Joseph Santos on July 28, said Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin.
Roselle, 33, of Parryville, was directing traffic near Dorney Park when a "frantic" woman stopped and said someone had tried to enter her vehicle. Police say Santos was damaging cars and interfering with traffic in South Whitehall Township near Dorney Park before the officer confronted him. Witness videos show Santos hanging onto a moving white car, reports CBS Philadelphia.
When the officer arrived Santos climbed on the hood of his vehicle and pounded on his windshield and side windows. He then walked away but wheeled around and approached, ignoring the officer's commands to stop and get down on the ground, and the officer fired five times.
CBS Philadelphia obtained cell video from an eyewitness that showed the fatal encounter. Santos wasn't armed at the time of his death.
Martin said Santos, 44, of Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey had been engaging in "somewhat bizarre" behavior and at the time of the shooting was walking toward the officer. But he said Santos wasn't running or rushing toward him, had no visible weapon and didn't present any threatening posture, and there was no evidence that he had attempted any forceful felony. Martin said the officer, who he called "relatively inexperienced," also had a flexible baton, stun gun and pepper spray, and made several remarks following the shooting indicating that he believed he had made a mistake.
Martin said he had approved a voluntary manslaughter charge rather than a third-degree murder charge because no malice was involved. To those who believed police brutality or racism was involved, he said the investigation "has disclosed no facts which would support those contentions."
"In my opinion, this was the act of a relatively inexperienced officer who held a subjective fear for his own safety but made a decision which objectively was unreasonable in light of the facts as they existed and appeared at the time he discharged his weapon and killed Mr. Santos."
Roselle, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and is currently a major in the National Guard, graduated from the academy in December 2017 and had 13 weeks of field training but had been on patrol by himself for less than five months, Martin said.
The Allentown chapter of the NAACP had called for the officer, who is on paid leave, to be fired and for Martin to step aside, citing the district attorney's earlier remark that the officer "had to discharge his weapon."
Martin called that a "very poor choice of phrasing" but said it didn't indicate bias, and he had clearly reached a different conclusion with more facts including audio and video recordings.
The district attorney said Santos said "Don't do it" as he neared the officer, and there were reports that he had been asking for help in earlier encounters with others, but that any such remarks couldn't be confirmed because dash cam and body cam audio wasn't audible.
Defense attorneys said in a statement that "while the loss of a life is always unfortunate, it is not always unjustified" and Roselle believes his actions were "justified and appropriate" given the circumstances.
"Police officers face challenges every shift that may require split second decisions. Those decisions are then calmly reviewed, with 20/20 hindsight, by the criminal justice system, those in political office, the media and the public," the statement from attorney Gavin Holihan said.
"He believes that when all of the evidence is presented publicly, any fair citizen will reach the same conclusion he reached: that the deadly force used on July 28 was justified and appropriate," the statement said.
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