Officer escalated fatal encounter

Police officers have one of the toughest — and most dangerous — jobs, and deserve the respect and thanks of the rest of us for taking on the task of keeping us safe. But they are not infallible. They make mistakes. And, because officers carry loaded guns everywhere they go, sometimes people die because of those mistakes.

With all due respect to Eagle Point police officer Daniel Cardenas, it appears clear to us that he could have avoided shooting Matthew Thayer Graves if he had not escalated the situation beyond what the circumstances warranted.

A Jackson County grand jury found the shooting was justified, although the ruling was 5-2.

Graves, who suffered from schizophrenia, died Sept. 19 after Cardenas shot him twice on the floor of the bathroom at a Carl’s Jr. because the officer believed Graves had a gun. In fact, the “gun” was Cardenas’ own Taser stun gun that had fallen to the floor as he scuffled with Graves.

Taken in isolation, if a police officer sees what he thinks is a gun, and believes he hears his fellow officer say there is a gun, he can reasonably be considered to be in fear of his life. In this case, however, the situation should never have gotten to that point — and wouldn’t have, if Cardenas had communicated better with Graves and had not escalated the situation when he did not have to.

The incident began when Cardenas, driving in his patrol vehicle, saw Graves cross Highway 62 against the light. Intending to talk to Graves about the dangers of illegally crossing a busy highway in the dark, Cardenas made a U-turn and approached Graves, but did not explain why he wanted to talk to him.

The footage from Cardenas’ bodycam shows that Graves walked away, entered the Carl’s Jr. and went into the bathroom. Cardenas followed him into the bathroom, swore at him and loudly demanded that he show his hands. Graves can be seen clearly drying his hands with a paper towel, and talking back to the officer, who then demanded that Graves get on the ground. When he refused, Cardenas tased him and prevented him from leaving the bathroom.

It’s hard to see why Cardenas felt it necessary to enter the bathroom and then confront a man who had committed no crime beyond jaywalking and posed no apparent threat to anyone. Cardenas could have backed out of the bathroom and waited for backup to arrive. He could also have been more aware that Graves was exhibiting behavior consistent with mental illness — he at one point said, “You are God” — and treated Graves with more care rather than aggressively shouting commands.

The Eagle Point Police Department says Cardenas will return to duty at an unspecified date. After viewing Cardenas’ temperament and judgment at work in the video, we question why.

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