Cottonwood Police Department patrol officers do not shoot to kill, they shoot to stop, Cottonwood City Manager Doug Bartosh said.
The death of a 62-year-old woman at the hands of police in April was tragic, but the officers on scene carried out their duties properly.
“It was a textbook case,” Bartosh said. “The officers did exactly what they were supposed to do.”
An internal affairs investigation released June 27 concluded officer Steve Phoenix did not use excessive force when he shot Betty Shanafelt of Cottonwood. Shanafelt threatened police with a pistol April 2 as dozens of spectators from a nearby ball field and trailer park looked on.
Shanafelt died of wounds received when Phoenix shot her three times after she told police she planned a “suicide by cop” and raised her pistol as if to shoot, the report stated.
Shanafelt was shot twice in the chest and once in the right elbow, not in the head as erroneously reported in the Cottonwood Journal Extra on July 6. The crime scene photo showed a deceased Shanafelt lying on her back with a bloody cloth covering her face and neck and another bloody cloth covering the wound on her arm. Entrance wounds in the center of her chest appeared as small, black marks. Any blood associated with the bullet wounds was not visible.
“The best way to stop someone is to aim for the center mass area and that means the body,” Bartosh said.
A career law enforcement officer who served as chief of police for both the Cottonwood and Scottsdale police departments before being appointed city manager, Bartosh said officers tried to calm Shanafelt down by talking to her, then twice attempted to use lesser force, but the Taser weapons failed to hit the target.
“It’s not a precise science,” Bartosh said. “It depends on where they’re hit as to whether those prongs make contact.”
The Tasers misfired both times they were deployed. At least one fell short of the target, according to Cottonwood Police Department spokesman Sgt. Gareth Braxton.
Police officers are not experts in assessing the mental health of any person, but do receive some training on how to determine whether a person is a harm to themselves or others, Braxton said.
Police officers responded to Shanafelt’s trailer home in March, responding to a report that she was threatening suicide. An officer spent time talking with her during the incident in March and left the home believing Shanafelt was no longer a danger to herself. Despite the officer’s counseling, Shanafelt refused to seek help from social service organizations because they would not permit her to wear her gun, according to a supplemental statement composed by a Cottonwood police officer that was included in the Internal Affairs Investigation report at page 49.
Unlike California, where police officers have authority to place suspects on an involuntary 72-hour hold when they appear to be a threat to themselves or others, police officers in Arizona have no such authority, Bartosh said.
When police arrived on scene April 2, there was no doubt that Shanafelt was a threat to herself and others, including the officers themselves. Witnesses told investigators it was clear Shanafelt would have shot at one of the officers had she not been shot first, according to police records.
“It’s not like TV,” Bartosh said. “[An officer’s] adrenaline is pumping 100 mph and they’re trying to make rapid decisions. The fact the Tasers didn’t work was not necessarily unusual. The fact she was hit with three shots is unusual. So many times they miss. But people need to understand the physiology of what’s going on at the time with the officer and how difficult this is.”
“You can always go back for any incident and say, ‘Jeez, I wish we could have done that differently.’ But she was a danger not only to the officers but to the public as well. Apparently she was convinced she found the best way to end her life,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate. It’s something you never want to see happen, but ultimately we’re faced with these decisions at times. All we can do is learn from it and hope we can continue to do our job and keep the people of Cottonwood safe,” Braxton said.
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