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'Creative' or Excessive? Footage of Cop Ramming Gunman Sparks Debate

Marana Police Chief Terry Rozema defends an officer who used a patrol car to intentionally run over a suspect who posed "a real threat to the community," saying it was "outside-of-the-box, kind-of thinking."
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/ Source: NBC News

When criminologist Tod Burke first saw the remarkable dash-cam footage of a police car plowing into an armed robbery suspect in Marana, Arizona, he was sure it was yet another case of excessive force.

"Wow, this officer went rogue," Burke, a former Maryland police officer who teaches criminal justice at Radford University, recalled thinking. "Wasn't there another way to handle this situation?"

Then he watched the Feb. 19 encounter a few more times. And he learned that the suspect, Mario Valencia, had been mowed down while in the middle of an alleged crime spree that included the robbery of a 7-Eleven, an arson at a church, the burglary of a home, and the theft of a car and a rifle. And he learned that the suspect had allegedly shot into the air as officers approached him in a residential neighborhood.

The footage — recorded on two police cruisers' dashboard-mounted cameras and released publicly this week — shows one of the officers, Michael Rapiejko, steer directly into Valencia, tossing him into the air like a rag doll. Valencia was hospitalized for two days, police said. Rapiejko was apparently unhurt amid the chaos.

Knowing that, Burke decided the ramming was a legitimate move.

"Was it excessive force? I would say, under the circumstances: No," Burke said. "It was an appropriate use of force. There could have been other ways of handling the situation, but given this person's past and the way he was reacting, or not reacting, to police officers' commands, the officer felt this was the best way to deal with the situation."

Valencia's lawyer, Michelle Metzger, said the ramming was "clearly excessive police force." Her client was obviously suicidal, she said. Metzger also noted that another officer can be heard warning his colleagues to back off.

But criminologists and use-of-force experts told NBC News that they believed Rapiejko's move was justified.

While running over a suspect cannot be found in any training manual or on a list of police best practices, the tactic appears to be justifiable in this case, they said.

"An argument can be made that this was a reckless use of force with a good result, but I don't know if I'd characterize it as reckless," said Tom Nolan, a Merrimack College criminology professor and former Boston police officer. "Sure, it was aggressive ingenuity on the part of the officer. Fortunately, no one got killed. So perhaps this can be condoned."

It appear that is the case: The local prosecutors' office has cleared Rapiejko of wrongdoing. An administrative review is underway, though.

Marana Police Chief Terry Rozema defended Rapiejko in an interview with NBC News' Miguel Almaguer.

The chief said he was initially shocked by the footage — and its potential to inflame a national debate on police use of force. But he eventually decided it wasn't a problem.

"The officer took a very bold action, I’m not denying that," Rozema said. "Using the vehicle I think was a very creative, outside-of-the-box kind of thinking, and the officer seized the opportunity, and I think in the end, when all the dust settles, and everything clears, all of our officers walk away, all of the citizens walk away, and this guy spends two days in the hospital and is now going to stand trial for his crimes."

Jim Bueermann, president of the non-profit Police Foundation, said the ramming was "one of the most insane things I've seen a cop do."

But he said the confrontation could have turned out much worse, with Valencia, or an officer, or even a citizen, shot.

It should now be used as a lesson, Bueermann added.

"All across the country, police departments in roll call and other settings are showing officers what happened and having discussions about why you don't want to do this, but also why this guy felt he had to do this," Bueermann said.

These discussions are inevitably going to become more frequent, as uses of force are caught on dash-cams, officer-worn body cameras and even on citizens' cell phones.

"This stuff is never good to watch. It's always disturbing. But we want to have a discussion about what's causing this."