Report: Washoe DA Says Fatal Officer-Involved Shooting Of Miciah Lee Justified

Jul 1, 2020

As a warning, some of the content in this story may be considered disturbing and unsuitable for some readers.

Washoe County District Attorney Christopher Hicks determined that a Sparks Police officer-involved shooting on Jan. 5, 2020, which killed a young Black man named Miciah Lee, was justified under Nevada law.

The investigation included interviewing witnesses, including Lee’s family members and Sparks Police officers at the scene, collecting and forensically testing evidence, photographing the scene of the shooting, along with obtaining video evidence, the 9-1-1 dispatch call and Lee’s medical records.

The Reno Police Department (RPD), Washoe County Sheriff’s Office and Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Forensic Science Division conducted the initial investigation. The Washoe County District Attorney’s Office was available to provide legal assistance during the investigation.

RPD did not recommend any criminal charges be filed against the officers involved in the shooting.

The investigation was submitted to the Washoe County District Attorney’s office on May 11, 2020. After evaluating about 1,000 pages of documents, photographs, audio recordings, and an examination of the scene of the shooting, Hicks determined that the shooting was justified.

Hicks’ announcement came Monday, along with a 50-page officer-involved shooting report. On Monday, Sparks Police shared on YouTube a produced, narrated video with clips of bodycam footage from the officers involved and a Sparks Police patrol vehicle’s dashboard camera, along with the 9-1-1 call from Miciah Lee’s mom. Sparks Police published nearly 20 minutes of bodycam footage from officers involved in the shooting on their YouTube page as well.

Events Leading Up To Lee’s Death

The following excerpt from the DA’s investigation summary explains what Sparks Police officers learned about Miciah Lee from his mother’s 9-1-1 call and other initial information:

On January 5, 2020, at 5:48 p.m., a 911 call was received by Sparks Police Emergency dispatch from Susan Clopp (hereinafter “Clopp”), informing them that her son, Miciah Lee (hereinafter “Lee”), was suicidal and located in front of Chuck’s Boulevard Pizza, a popular restaurant on Rock Boulevard in Sparks, Nevada. Clopp added that Lee was armed with a handgun and was threatening to kill himself or “die by cop.” She further informed the dispatcher [that] she and her two other sons were attempting to block Lee’s car with their bodies so he could not leave, but felt Lee may run her or her sons over with his vehicle. Clopp also stated that Lee was mentally unstable and had a history of drug use. The information provided by Clopp, about Lee’s location, his mental state, his suicidal ideation, and the fact that he was armed with a handgun was then broadcast to Sparks Police Department (hereinafter “SPD”) Officers who responded quickly to the emergency.
 

Lee had already fled in his vehicle when the first officers arrived, with Clopp and her sons attempting to follow the vehicle on foot. Responding officers initially located and met with Clopp on 15th Street near Sparks High School and received additional information directly from her that Lee was in a silver Pontiac, that he had a gun, and that he had bipolar disorder and other mental health issues. Clopp was in obvious distress, adding that Lee had threatened to “die by cop” or commit suicide.

"Suicide by cop" is when a person verbally declares that they desire to be killed by law enforcement or the person acts in an aggressive behavior to encourage getting killed by law enforcement.

Out of the average 1,000 fatal officer-involved shootings in the United States each year, about 100 of those are, “suicide by cop,” and law enforcement departments rarely have training on how to respond to those situations, according to the Washington Post.

After a few minutes of searching, Officer Patterson located Lee who began traveling down 15th Street, where Clopp was located. Patterson turned on his lights and sirens to stop Lee, but Lee increased his speed to approximately 48 miles per hour in a 25-miles-per-hour residential area, and then crashed into the back of a blue sedan. The following excerpt is of the events that unfolded at this first crash.

At the intersection of 15th Street and Rock Boulevard, Lee struck the rear end of an occupied blue sedan that was waiting at the stop sign. Seeing this, Officer Patterson pushed his patrol vehicle against the rear of Lee’s vehicle in order to block him in and to secure Lee, thereby preventing him from causing further danger. Officer Patterson and other responding officers exited their patrol vehicles and began shouting multiple verbal commands at Lee to shut off his vehicle, to exit his vehicle, and to show his hands.
 

However, Lee disregarded these commands and for a period of approximately 1 minute, revved his engine and repeatedly hit the occupied vehicle in front of him, in an apparent effort to physically push it out of the way. Due to the position of the blue sedan, this would have caused the vehicle to be pushed into oncoming Rock Boulevard traffic. As Lee continued to thrust into the back of the blue sedan, his own vehicle’s tires began to spin and squeal as he began to create an avenue for escape.
 

Hoping to get a way into Lee’s vehicle and gain control of him before he broke free of the vehicle block, an SPD officer fired a 40mm less-lethal foam round through the driver’s side window in an attempt to shatter it and be able to physically remove Lee. However, it did not shatter, ostensibly because of the tinting on the window. Lee continued to ignore officer commands and attempt to flee. Also during this time, SPD officers began looking for a way to safely remove the driver of the blue sedan to get him out of harm’s way. By the time the foam round had penetrated the window, Lee had created enough space to maneuver his vehicle from the vehicle block and sped away northbound on Rock Boulevard into a residential neighborhood. For approximately three-quarters of a mile, Lee drove in excess of 70 miles per hour through what is a densely populated area, with a posted 25 mile per hour speed limit. At the intersection of Rock Boulevard and North McCarran Boulevard, Lee attempted to make a left-hand turn onto North McCarran Boulevard where numerous vehicles were traveling in both directions.

The following excerpt from the DA’s officer-involved shooting report describes what happened after Lee left the scene of the first crash, and details how Lee was killed in a matter of minutes.

Lee was traveling at an excessive speed and was unable to negotiate the turn. He crashed into a brick retaining wall located along North McCarran Boulevard before his vehicle careened back across two lanes of travel where it stopped crossways on the center median of North McCarran Boulevard between both the east and west travel lanes.
 

Multiple officers who had been pursuing Lee arrived at the crash site and again blocked Lee’s potential for travel by hitting the front and rear driver’s side of Lee’s vehicle. The officers quickly exited their vehicles, drew their firearms and approached Lee’s vehicle, shouting numerous verbal commands at Lee to show his hands. The commands were again disregarded. Officer James Hammerstone (hereinafter “Officer Hammerstone”) and Officer Patterson approached Lee’s vehicle from the driver’s side door. Officer Patterson directed Officer Hammerstone to open Lee’s door, which he was able to do, thereby exposing Lee.
 

Now able to see Lee, both officers continued to give Lee verbal commands to exit the car and show them his hands. However, Lee remained in the driver’s seat, with only his right hand visible resting on the upper part of his left leg. Lee made no attempt to show his hands, exit the vehicle or respond to the officers. Instead, his left hand remained concealed near his lap area as officers continued instructing Lee to show his hands.
 

In response to Lee’s failure to follow commands, and the potential for him being armed, Officer Patterson made the decision to release his police dog, “Cabo” (hereinafter “K9 Cabo”) to help gain compliance and remove Lee from the vehicle. As trained, K9 Cabo bit Lee’s left forearm. Officer Patterson then leaned into the vehicle and attempted to physically remove Lee from the driver’s seat. While struggling to remove Lee, Officer Patterson saw a handgun tucked between Lee’s legs. Rather than break contact, Officer Patterson, who was extremely close to Lee, made the decision to attempt to grab the gun to secure it for his and Lee’s safety. As he did so, Officer Patterson saw Lee immediately slouch forward and reach for the gun.
 

Fearing for his life, Officer Patterson abandoned his attempt to secure the handgun, pushed off and away from Lee and drew his own firearm. As he did this, Officer Patterson yelled, “He’s got a gun! He’s got a gun!” and discharged five shots at Lee, striking him multiple times.

Patterson’s bodycam footage shows him shouting commands at Lee at both crashes. At the scene of the second crash, Patterson can be heard saying multiple times, “Let me see your fucking hands right now!”

While this was occurring, another Sparks Police officer also shot Lee. The following excerpt describes the other officer’s actions.

Simultaneously to what was occurring with Officers Hammerstone and Patterson, Officer Eric DeJesus (hereinafter “Officer DeJesus”) had approached Lee’s vehicle on the passenger side and had unsuccessfully tried to open it. Officer DeJesus watched as Officer Patterson engaged in the struggle with Lee before hearing Officer Patterson yell “gun” followed shortly by gunfire. Hearing this and believing that Lee had fired at Officer Patterson, Officer DeJesus discharged two rounds from his firearm, also striking Lee. Immediately following the shooting, SPD officers requested medical assistance for Lee. However, Lee was subsequently pronounced dead at the scene.

After the shooting, Patterson can be heard from his body cam shouting, “Fuck!,” multiple times, and then he begins to cry.

Lee was pierced by six gunshot wounds to his head and much of his body, killing him at 6:09 p.m.. His cause of death is due to multiple gunshot wounds and his death was determined to be homicide by Washoe County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Laura Knight.

Ultimately, the handgun and magazine Lee had were empty.

DA Rules Shooting Justified

Homicide is defined as killing another human being. There are unlawful acts of homicide, including murder and manslaughter, but there are justified acts too. Hicks cited several Nevada statutes in his analysis to back up his justification of this officer-involved shooting, including NRS 200.120 and NRS 200.160.

In his report, DA Hicks took language from NRS 200.160:

Homicide is also justifiable when committed… in the lawful defense of the slayer… or any other person in his or her presence or company, when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design on the part of the person slain to commit a felony or to do some great personal injury to the slayer or to any such person, and there is imminent danger of such design being accomplished.

On Jan. 5, Lee’s gun was not loaded, but Hicks stated that the officers had no way of knowing that. The officer-involved shooting report stated homicide is still justified even if it is determined afterwards that the responsible person was mistaken about the extent of the danger, according to Runion v. State, 116 Nev. 1041 (2000):

Actual danger is not necessary to justify a killing in self-defense. A person has a right to defend from apparent danger to the same extent as he would from actual danger. The person killing is justified if:

  1. He is confronted by the appearance of imminent danger which arouses in his mind an honest belief and fear that he is about to be killed or suffer great bodily injury; and
  2. He acts solely upon these appearances and his fear and actual beliefs; and
  3. A reasonable person in a similar situation would believe himself to be in like danger.

Hicks also cited Nevada statutes that justify homicide committed by law enforcement, including NRS 171.1455 and NRS 200.140.

In his report, DA Hicks included this specific language from NRS 200.140:

Homicide is justifiable when committed by a public officer… when necessary to overcome actual resistance to the execution of the legal process, mandate or order of a court or officer, or in the discharge of a legal duty [...] When necessary… in attempting, by lawful ways or means, to apprehend or arrest a person [...and/or] in protecting against an imminent threat to the life of a person.

In Hicks’ conclusion of the investigation report, he stated that based off Lee’s actions leading up to the shooting, the officers’ responses were justified:

Officer Patterson reasonably believed that there was an imminent danger that he could be killed or suffer great bodily injury. In a matter of minutes leading up to that moment, Officer Patterson had witnessed significant public risk unfold due to Lee that demonstrated his willingness to act dangerously. Lee consistently ignored Officers’ commands to exit his vehicle and show his hands. Lee repeatedly thrust his vehicle into another occupied by a citizen, attempting to push it into another roadway. Lee then drove recklessly through a densely populated residential neighborhood, ultimately resulting in a serious crash on a busy street. Officer Patterson bore witness to all this, while also knowing that Lee was armed and mentally unstable.
 

These circumstances leading up to the shooting were sufficient to excite the fears of a reasonable person in a similar situation. As such, Officer Patterson reasonably believed that it was absolutely necessary for him to use deadly force for self-defense.

Hicks also recognized that Lee’s weapon was not loaded.

Although Lee’s firearm was ultimately determined to be unloaded, Officers Patterson and DeJesus had no way of knowing this fact at the time they fired their weapons. A person has a right to defend from apparent danger to the same extent as he would from actual danger.

When the District Attorney’s Office released the officer-involved shooting report, Hicks also provided a written statement in a press release to explain his decision-making process.

“Mr. Lee’s death was a tragic end to a young man’s life and this community should be saddened by it,” Hicks said in his statement, “As District Attorney, my ethical and professional responsibility is to justly uphold the law and apply it equally and objectively in all situations.”

Community Members Demand Funding From Law Enforcement Reallocated To Mental Health Services

Recent Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, by a White police officer, have brought police violence to the forefront of community members’ minds.

Locally, Black Lives Matter protests have pushed for the release of the DA’s investigation into the fatal shooting of Miciah Lee by Sparks Police officers.

Just last week, community members laid on the streets next to Miciah Lee’s mother with posters shaped like tombstones with the names of people who have died in the hands of law enforcement, including Miciah Lee, in front of the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office, demanding that Hicks release the investigation details and bodycam footage.

This Is Reno reported that demonstrators criticized the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office for taking several years to publish other officer-involved shooting reports. The last report on the DA’s website is from a Sparks Police Department officer-involved shooting of 57-year-old Rolando Brizuela, on July 17, 2018. That officer-involved shooting report was published on June 16, 2020.

The Reno-Sparks NAACP told the Reno-Gazette Journal that they want to see policy and procedural reform after Hicks published the officer-involved shooting report, but did not specify what kind of changes exactly. The NAACP also noted that the bodycam footage should have been released in January or early February.

Additionally, community members have been demanding change in law enforcement, including redistributing funding from law enforcement into mental health services, and a more immediate release of bodycam footage.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.