Attorney says police shooting ‘unnecessary and preventable’

Posted at 7:41 PM, Aug 29, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-29 19:41:49-04

A Norfolk attorney who has viewed bank surveillance video showing police killing an unarmed check forger in a drive-through says the shooting was "unnecessary and preventable."

John Cooper, of the Cooper Hurley Law Firm, said he got involved only after Norfolk police refused to let the family of Joshua "Omar" Johnson see the video of the young man's encounter with officers in May, 2013. Cooper sued Norfolk to get the tape.

According to Cooper, the bank video does not support the city's claims that an officer was forced to shoot Johnson because Johnson used his car to run down the officer's partner.

Officer Matthew Watson and Officer Matthew Williams were sent to the Wells Fargo on 21st St. after a teller discovered Johnson was trying to cash a stolen check. Watson parked his cruiser to block Johnson's car as Williams on foot circled behind Johnson's gold Mercedes.  Cooper says the tape shows Watson emerge from the cruiser with his gun drawn, pointing it at Johnson's car.

"You can see it sort of dawn on (Johnson) that there is this officer charging at him with a drawn pistol," Cooper said. "At that point, he puts the vehicle in reverse."

Police reports and a prosecutor's investigation describe Johnson escaping  "very quickly," "very fast," or "at a high rate of speed." In the reports Watson said he thought the car would run down his partner. Watson started shooting.

But Cooper says the car doesn't speed backward, as police have suggested.

"It really doesn't," he said. "The officer is able to step and keep pace with the vehicle. Not at a run, but at a quick walk. So, it is essentially walking speed."

The speed of the escape is crucial to the family's excessive-force claim, and to the police contention the shooting is justified. Officer Williams, behind the car, said in reports the Mercedes hit him. He ended up briefly on the trunk, and then under the car. At some point, his partner shot him in the left leg.

Cooper said he hasn't seen any proof that Williams injuries came from the car.

"In fact, (Williams) was never hurt," Cooper said. "That is my understanding, and we are going to get the records. He was not hurt at all by the car.

"If the only harm that came to Williams was from Watson shooting him," he continued, "maybe this was not reasonable conduct."

A federal judge ruled recently that Cooper's lawsuit against the officers can move forward. Norfolk police again declined to talk about this case, or to address the family's claims.