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“Fluid situation” cited in case of knife-carrying man in Schenectady
Paul Nelson Staff write, Times Union
Updated 10:31 pm, Thursday, July 7, 2011
SCHENECTADY — Two years after a knife-wielding man lunged at a city cop who then fatally shot him, a long-awaited report issued by Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney has absolved the officer of any wrongdoing.
In the aftermath of the Aug. 1, 2009 shooting of James Tomlin by Officer Edward Ritz, Carney had raised the possibility of presenting the case to a grand jury.
“There really aren’t any open questions that would make it appropriate for citizens to decide what happened,” Carney said Wednesday.
Police said Tomlin, 25, described by his family members as schizophrenic, held a large butcher knife to a woman’s throat as he demanded a cigarette, and later attempted to break into two parked cars at the Cumberland Farms on State Street.
The nine-page report indicates Carney’s office reviewed evidence consisting of statements from police and eyewitnesses, photographs and measurements from the scene, 911 recordings and surveillance footage from a nearby business, passing CDTA bus and from the dash cameras of two patrol cars.
“It is simply unnecessary to devote the time and resources to a grand jury presentation here,” the document, dated July 1 concludes.
Police Chief Mark Chaires said after the department’s Office of Professional Standards looked into the matter, it was clear to them that Ritz’s actions were justifiable.
“It was unfortunate but reasonable in this case,” said Chaires, adding the department plans to offer more advanced training for officers in dealing with people suffering from mental illness.
The report indicates the officers were dealing with a “fluid situation” in trying to get Tomlin to surrender while protecting themselves and others, including pedestrians, neighbors, and motorists. At one point the officers discussed the direction the wind was blowing as they contemplated pepper-spraying Tomlin and even bumping Tomlin with a police car to stop him. In the end, they decided against the pepper spray and never had a chance to bump him with the cruiser. By then, Tomlin, the document states, had a knife in each hand and the officers said he appeared to be agitated, cursing, making obscene gestures, and at times swung the weapon at them.
The incident comes to a deadly end when Ritz, at the corner of State and Elbert Streets near Doug’s Tailgate Tavern, fires two shots at the rapidly approaching Tomlin, who State Police later determined had come within eight feet of Ritz.
“This distance is far too close to maintain a position of safety for an officer confronting a knife-wielding suspect,” the document contends, adding that Tomlin was “one or two lunging steps away” from Ritz.
Once he discharged his weapon, Ritz immediately “jumped one or two steps backward,” indicating “he perceived the imminent danger presented by Mr. Tomlin’s sudden advance.”
In all five people witnessed the pursuit and shooting and “no one contradicts the police version of events,” the report states.
An autopsy showed the fatal shot struck Tomlin the lower abdomen. The second shot missed.
The document also mentions that Tasers, which the department didn’t have back then but were recently issued to patrol officers, might have defused the standoff early on.
Tomlin’s mother told the DA that her son was not on his medication at the time of the incident, according to the report.
“We cannot know with certainty what Mr. Tomlin intended that day, whether his conduct was calculated to end his own life as another instance of suicide by cop or whether he was acting as a result of his own distorted perception of reality due to a mental disease or defect,” Carney said. “His unfortunate death was a direct result of his own conduct and no criminal liability can attach to any of the police officers whose job it was to apprehend him that day.”
Ritz, who has been on he force since September 1998 and is now a detective, is currently out but is expected to soon return to work, now that the report has been issued.
Reach Nelson at 454-5347 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.