Video of police car striking man with gun: Excessive force or not?

Incident in Arizona suburb raises questions of police use of force

Dramatic dash camera video released this week shows a suburban Tucson police officer striking a man armed with a rifle with his patrol car in February, an incident that is raising questions about police use of force in what appears to be a quickly evolving, dangerous situation.

The video footage shows Mario Valencia, 36, walking along a sidewalk in a business district brandishing a rifle. One moment he is pointing the rifle at police. In another, he is pointing it at his head.

The audio is equally tense as an officer is heard saying: "One round just went out into the sky. It's definitely unlocked now, it's definitely loaded," in regard to the rifle. 

"Stand off, the gun is loaded," an officer warns.

Moments later a Marana Police Department car jumps a curb and slams into Valencia.   

Valencia had allegedly robbed a convenience store in Tucson, stole a car and stole the rifle from a nearby Walmart. 

Valencia was hospitalized for two days before being sent to jail. 

Michael Rapiejko, the Marana officer who was driving the car, was cleared by county attorneys and returned to work after a few days. The Pima County attorney's office ultimately cleared Rapiejko of any wrongdoing. 

The video has touched off debate in Arizona and elsewhere over whether the officer used acceptable tactics to subdue an armed and dangerous suspect or whether excessive force was used to take him down.

Here's what the sides are saying: 

Valencia's public defender: 'Obvious excessive use of force'

Valencia's public defender Michelle Cohen Metzger called what occurred "obvious excessive use of force."

"It’s a miracle that he’s not dead," he said in a statement to ABC News. "I’m hoping that the state takes into account my client’s mental state at the time, as he intended to hurt no one."

Metzger did not immediately respond to requests for additional comment. 

Police chief: Officer moved to save innocent people

Marana Police Chief Terry Rozena defended the quick decision of Officer Rapiejko.

"If we're going to choose between maybe we'll let him go a little bit farther and see what happens, or we're going to take him out now and eliminate any opportunity he has to hurt somebody, you're going to err on the side of, in favor of the innocent people," Marana Police Chief Terry Rozema told CNN. "Without a doubt."

Rozema said Valencia was walking toward businesses and while the officer was too far away to shoot, he decided to get on top of him as quick as possible to separate Valencia from the rifle.

"These officers have no choice but to begin firing" if he continued to walk down the street with the rifle, he told a local TV station. 

Maria Haberfeld, criminal justice expert: Car-ramming could be viewed as allowed technique

Maria Haberfeld, a criminal justice professor with a doctorate at John Jay College in New York, said the situation appeared very close to an active shooter situation. 

"It's an urban environment and people are certainly around. Officers clearly had to act at some point," Haberfeld told The Times. 

Haberfeld said police officers around the country are trained around what is referred to as "the continuum of force,"  and one of the stages of the continuum allows for impact techniques to eliminate the threat.

"I am guessing that the officer was exonerated from wrongdoing by his department in this case because ramming the suspect with the car was viewed as one type of the impact techniques," she said.

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