Use of force in OPD shooting draws scrutiny

Sarah Eames, The Daily Star, Oneonta, N.Y.
·6 min read

Apr. 9—Local residents who served on the committees tasked with reviewing local police departments questioned Thursday the use of force during an April 6 police shooting death of an Oneonta man in the throes of an apparent mental health crisis.

Tyler R. Green, 23, of Oneonta, died en route to Albany Medical Center hours after Oneonta Patrol Sgt. Ralph Pajerski shot him in the front yard of his River Street residence.

Pajerski and an unnamed partner were responding to reports of a domestic incident in which Green allegedly threatened his girlfriend with a knife. Both officers have since taken leave.

A witness reported that Pajerski shot Green twice at point-blank range within four minutes of arriving on scene.

An official timeline of events, with times of dispatch, has not been made public.

Aaliyah Abdelsalam, a sophomore studying political science and women's and gender studies at SUNY Oneonta, served for several months as a member of Oneonta's community advisory board, which was tasked with reviewing the city's police policy and procedures in accordance with state Executive Order No. 203.

"This incident made it really seem like there's a lack of sensitivity training and deescalation," Abdelsalam continued. "It took only four minutes for them to respond in such a drastic way."

Abdelsalam said a community survey conducted by the city's community advisory board found that many respondents felt that OPD could "benefit from further training."

Together with other members of Subcommittee No. 1, tasked with evaluating OPD's policies regarding mental health response, Abdelsalam said she supported the recommendation to shift responsibilities related to substance abuse, homelessness and other mental health issues to trained social workers, and were disappointed when the recommendations included in the committee's final report appeared "watered down."

"I felt that what we were pushing for was too radical. It was too soon. Oneonta wasn't ready for it," she said. "We're depending on OPD for too much — we call them for anything. That's sort of the tradition there."

Abdelsalam outlined the final recommendations as the city's pledge that "OPD will advocate for increased mental health training and awareness."

"It's doesn't feel so proactive," she said. "It doesn't put in actual steps. Then what? What comes next?"

Joyce St. George, a professor of criminology at SUNY Delhi, called the shooting "a tragedy."

St. George, who had served on Delaware County's police reform and reinvention committee since its inception in November, said arranging for a mental health professional or a peer counselor to accompany police responding to mental health crises was among several community members' top recommendations.

"That's the most troubling part, that this whole thing happened in four minutes," she said. "This is a perfect situation for this," she said of the River Street shooting.

As the result of Delaware County's police reform and reinvention process, the county is adopting a policy requiring a mental health professional to follow up within 24 to 48 hours for those involved with police during a mental health-related incident, but St. George said she worries the policy is not enough.

"I would have loved to slow things down," she said. "There's so much protocol on this stuff in terms of deescalation."

"It's very difficult to second-guess what an officer has to do within four minutes or four seconds," she continued. "I would not want to judge what the police officer did until I learn more."

Investigation of the incident was turned over from Oneonta police to state police in the hours following the shooting. The Office of the New York State Attorney General announced Tuesday evening it would take over the investigation in accordance with state law.

"Thank God (New York Attorney General) Letitia James is doing what she's doing with this special unit," St. George said, noting the similarities to her career investigating the police misuse of weapons and matters of corruption in New York City in the 1970s.

St. George said she was the first woman picked to work for a program under the office of New York Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, who served from 1957 to 1978. The program was established as a result of the findings of the Knapp Commission, tasked with investigating alleged police corruption in 1970.

New York City Mayor John Lindsay formed the commission in the aftermath of public testimony given by NYPD Patrolman Frank Serpico detailing widespread police corruption, the events of which are depicted in the 1973 film "Serpico."

Upon leaving her post as an Attorney General's Office investigator in 1979, St. George said she founded her own police training company and taught deescalation tactics to police, investigators and hostage negotiators.

In coaching such a situation, St. George said she would have advised responding officers "not to straight in, to look in through a window and try to assess the situation," surmising that's what the two OPD officers who responded to the scene were trying to do when they drove past the house and parked around the corner on a side street.

"How do you slow things down?" she said. "Did the officers try, or did they start asking questions that escalated the situation? When I trained police, I tell them you're asking everyone to take a breath without ever saying it."

"I wish it wasn't four minutes — the four minutes bothers me," St. George said. "It's a messed up case. I feel for the cops. You could tell they were pretty shaken. You know the rest of your life is going to be changed because of those four minutes."

St. George said the shooting eerily echoed her warning to Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond a few months ago.

"It's only going to take one cop doing one thing to destroy everything you're working on, and you're not paying attention!" she recalled "yelling" at the sheriff.

DuMond denied the conversation took place.*

"For a police officer to shoot with a 2-year-old in point-blank range, something drastic had to happen," St. George said. "Police do not shoot at kids. Maybe if he had dropped the kid and lunged with the knife, you have to shoot. You couldn't tase. Tasers are not that dependable."

"People don't think knives are dangerous," St. George said, recalling an NYPD officer she knew who was stabbed to death by a knife-wielding suspect who was thought to be on drugs, even after the officer shot the man five times.

"It's very difficult to understand what the police officers faced," she said. "For the officers to fire their guns when there's a 2-year-old — I can't imagine. Something horrendous must have happened. Something had to trigger it to get to the point where it became deadly force. The answer is there, in the four minutes."

No further updates in the investigation were released Thursday, April 8. Phone calls and emails to the Attorney General's Office were not returned Wednesday or Thursday. A Wednesday voice mail to acting Oneonta Police Chief Christopher Witzenburg was not returned, and several Thursday phone calls to his office disconnected without going to voicemail.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

*Story changed at 3:25 p.m. to add comment from Sheriff DuMond.