The Napa police officer who shot a 26-year-old man after a nighttime foot pursuit last May in east Napa acted in “lawful self-defense” while fearing for his own life, the Napa County District Attorney’s Office has concluded.
After reviewing investigations by the Napa Police Department, the Napa County Sheriff’s Office and his own department, District Attorney Gary Lieberstein said criminal charges against the officer, Thomas Keener, were “neither warranted nor supported by the evidence.”
Keener shot Luis Contreras, also known as Luis Alejandre, in the face on May 13 in a backyard in the 2100 block of Parrish Road following a foot chase across four backyards and over fences, according to the district attorney’s report issued Friday.
Moments before the shot was fired, an exhausted Keener had fallen on his back and Contreras was grabbing for the officer’s flashlight and his gun, according to the district attorney’s report.
“He believed that Contreras intended to take his gun away and kill him with it,” the report states. Keener also believed that Contreras was about to hit him with his flashlight, the report said.
Subsequent lab tests, made available in December and January, revealed non-blood DNA from Contreras on Keener’s revolver. Tests also showed that Contreras had methamphetamine in his system.
Contreras survived the shooting and subsequently filed a civil suit against the city and Keener, alleging that the officer used excessive force and violated his civil rights.
Keener was found with blood on his uniform and face, while Contreras was lying face-down and suspended on an overturned metal patio chair in an apartment backyard, according to the report.
Events began playing out that night when Keener cruised by the 7-Eleven on East Imola Avenue and observed Contreras standing on the corner, according to the district attorney’s summary of police investigations.
A surveillance tape made prior to the chase showed Contreras in front of the store for 10 minutes with a cellphone in his ear, according to the report.
According to Contreras’ estranged wife, her husband had likely gone to the area that evening “to sell drugs,” according to the district attorney’s report.
Keener told an investigator that the neighborhood was a “high-crime” area where he had made narcotics arrests. When Keener first spotted Contreras, he was wearing a hoodie, would not look at him and did not respond to “Hey, what’s up, man?,” according to the report. Contreras then “moved his hand from his sweatshirt to his pants pocket,” the officer said.
“Believing that he was dumping narcotics and/or contraband, (Keener) parked his patrol car and intended to briefly detain Contreras to speak to him. (Contreras) ran and Officer Keener yelled, ‘Police, stop’ and initiated a foot pursuit. (Contreras) continued to run and ignored the command. He jumped the fence,” the report said.
According to the officer’s account, Keener chased Contreras over fences and through four backyards before the man hid in a laundry room. Keener said he drew his gun and kicked in the door. When Contreras came out with his hands raised, Keener said he ordered him to the ground but Contreras “sidestepped and jumped the fence.”
When Keener caught up with him in the next yard, he tried to pull him off a fence, but Contreras “took a fighting stance,” the officer told investigators.
Keener admitted hitting the man four times with his flashlight, but it had little effect, he said. When Contreras tried to jump the fence again, Keener said he pulled him down again and tried a carotid restraint to no effect.
When he issued more verbal commands, Keener said Contreras took a fighting stance, so he hit him three more times on the head.
Contreras finally relented by pleading “Stop, please, no more,” Keener told investigators. Thinking he was bluffing, Keener said he issued another verbal command and hit Contreras again on the head. When the suspect started to get up, Keener hit him in the mid-section twice with the flashlight, but Contreras continued to get up, he said.
Keener then lost his balance and fell on his back, according to his account.
“Instead of taking the opportunity to flee, Contreras approached the officer who was still on his back,” the district attorney’s report said. Contreras grabbed the flashlight with two hands, but Keener said he was able to retain it.
Keener said when he began to pull his gun out, Contreras grabbed the side of his gun, according to the report.
Keener said he was able to reholster his gun, but Contreras pulled the flashlight out of his hands and raised it as if to strike him.
“Officer Keener pulled out his gun and shot Contreras in the left temple. He believed that Contreras was preparing to hit him with the flashlight,” the report stated.
The sequence of events leading up to the shooting lasted less than four minutes, according to the district attorney’s report. Keener reported the foot pursuit to dispatch at 10:59 p.m. At 11:03 p.m., he shouted, “Shots fired, suspect down,” according to the report. Other patrol officers heard a single “pop” sound, the report stated.
Interviewed on June 20, some five weeks after the shooting, Contreras told Sheriff’s Detective Todd Hancock and a bilingual district attorney’s investigator, Alicia Jamarillo, that he was walking home that night when he saw a patrol car, according to the report.
Fearing he would be arrested and deported, Contreras said he fled over fences and hid in a room, according to his account.
Contreras said “he heard the officer order him to come out, so he came out and jumped another fence,” according to the district attorney’s report.
Contreras said he was running out of steam when Officer Keener hit him on the head with a flashlight, the report stated.
Contreras, who was unarmed, said he protested, saying “‘Please, no more,’” but the officer “hit him a lot of times with the flashlight,” the document said.
In the moment before he was shot, Contreras said he was covered in blood and could not see when he grabbed the flashlight — or possibly the officer’s hand — so he would not be hit anymore, the report said.
The bullet went through his face, fracturing his jaw and damaging his sinuses, the report stated. Contreras did not suffer brain damage but has bullet fragments near his right eye, according to the report.
District Attorney Lieberstein, whose office evaluated solely whether or not the shooting was a crime, said his office will not file criminal charges against Contreras as police had requested.
Charges of attempting to take an officer’s weapon and equipment and obstructing a peace officer, as well as trespassing, would be “legally justified,” Lieberstein said, but will not be filed “based on the totality of circumstances and the interests of justice.”
Keener remains an officer with the Napa Police Department, according to Napa Police Capt. Jeff Troendly.
In September, Contreras, using the surname Alejandre, filed a federal civil rights case in San Francisco against the city and Keener for unspecified damages. The case does not yet have a court date.
In an amended complaint filed in January, Contreras’ attorney, William C. Johnson of Oakland, alleged Keener used excessive and unnecessary force and shot Contreras without justification or probable cause.
The allegations in the complaint include violations of the plaintiff’s civil rights by the city and Keener, assault and battery by Keener, and negligence.
Troendly said the city will respond to the amended complaint in the “near future.”
“The city intends to defend the case aggressively,” Troendly said in an email.
So far, the city has spent $6,800 in legal costs associated with the case, according to Troendly. The next hearing is March 29.