Officer-involved shooting deemed 'suicide by cop,' says TPD chief

·6 min read

Jul. 22—Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz and area law enforcement officials Wednesday defended the actions of city police and Michigan state troopers who fatally shot a Toledo man following a pursuit that began with him shooting at a female relative in Monroe.

"I believe it will be impossible for any citizen to see that video and feel anything other than a sense of pride and security in the performance of these officers," Mayor Kapszukiewicz said during a news conference in his One Government Center office in which authorities showed body-camera footage of the incident that resulted in the death of Michael D. Clifton, 50, of the 500 block of Custer Drive.

"It's a suicide by cop case if there ever was one," Toledo Police Chief George Kral said.

Law officers from both states opened fire on Mr. Clifton, who had previously held a handgun to his own head, after he assumed what the Toledo chief called "a shooter's stance" toward them. They fired a collective 53 times.

"I feel sorry. I apologize for whoever one of you has to shoot me. I don't want it to be on your conscience, so please forgive me. Don't hate me, but we gonna do this," Mr. Clifton had said, according to Chief Kral, while displaying the .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun.

Mr. Clifton did not fire. He was pronounced dead after 1 a.m. in a parking lot near the Monroe Carryout in the 2800 block of Monroe Street, police said.

The standoff followed a 17-minute vehicular pursuit into Toledo from Michigan and then a foot pursuit over about six blocks after the car Mr. Clifton crashed near Scottwood Avenue and Virginia Street. Police said Mr. Clifton held the gun to his head during the foot chase.

Asked if the 53-shot fusillade was excessive, Chief Kral said a total of seven law-enforcement officers fired their weapons, and they are trained to shoot "until the threat is gone."

The shots included 32 handgun rounds from four TPD officers, two shells fired from a police officer's shotgun, four handgun rounds from a Michigan State Police trooper, and 15 rifle shots from another MSP trooper, the chief said during his presentation. Several officers had taken cover behind their vehicles, he said, and it was not known how many shots were fired by such officers as opposed to those standing out in the open in front of Mr. Clifton.

Once Mr. Clifton was shot, the video showed him lying on the ground unresponsive with officers talking to him, slapping him on an arm, and telling him paramedics were on their way to the scene.

Chief Kral said officers recovered the handgun with a round in its chamber but its magazine "shot out," while at least three other rounds were recovered beneath Mr. Clifton.

Mayor Kapszukiewicz said police performance at the incident was "outstanding" and the public should "rest a little more comfortably knowing that there are men and women like these to keep us safe."

Officers' attempt to negotiate with Mr. Clifton, he said, "was so professional that I believe it should be taught at the [police] academy .... They did a fantastic job."

Monroe County Sheriff Troy Goodnough, who also spoke at the news conference, said Mr. Clifton had fired a shot about 12:38 a.m. toward a female relative at the Mall of Monroe in the 2100 block of that city's North Monroe Street.

A 911 call about that gunfire resulted in the pursuit by Monroe city police, Monroe County sheriff's deputies, and the Michigan State Police that went across the state line.

Sheriff Goodnough declined to identify by name the relative, who was not hit, or disclose her familial relationship to Mr. Clifton. A young woman who answered the door at Mr. Clifton's address late Monday morning refused to talk to a reporter.

The news conference included a slide presentation of incident details from Chief Kral, who also showed and interpreted two video clips of several minutes apiece taken from a Toledo Police Department cruiser's dashboard camera and from a body camera worn by Sgt. Joe Okos, a critical-incident negotiator who spoke to Mr. Clifton.

The dashboard video showed a few minutes of the 17-minute pursuit. During the pursuit, several MSP vehicles and a Monroe deputy's vehicle were struck by Mr. Clifton's vehicle, Chief Kral said.

While presenting the body-camera video, the police chief repeated Mr. Clifton's spoken words, which were barely audible on the recording.

"Can you put the gun down so we can talk about it? We can get you through this, Michael," Sergeant Okos can be heard saying. "You may not see it that way, but it is. God got you here for a reason, Michael."

Chief Kral then picked up the conversation: "Now ... he [the suspect] says, 'Now, there's no officers over here. I'm gonna start it here and I'm gonna go across and I'm gonna go point it this way so when it starts coming around ... and toward the officers you guys let me know when.' And he is saying, 'Tick Tock, Tick Tock,' as he is doing that."

The negotiator pleaded with the suspect to put the gun down so that he could "be able to tell the story about [his kid]" for about a minute, the suspect can be heard saying, "I have a life of hell ahead of me or a life of hell in front of me," at which time he pointed the gun to the ground.

The dash-cam video showed that after Mr. Clifton started walking toward officers, he stopped, took the "shooter's stance," and then started to raise his weapon, after which a rapid burst of gunfire erupted and he fell to the ground.

According to an initial police statement, a Michigan state trooper had tried "unsuccessfully" earlier in the encounter to disable Mr. Clifton with a taser.

Sergeant Okos, 42, and four other Toledo police officers who fired their weapons have been placed on paid administrative leave.

Sergeant Okos was hired in 2006 and has been a critical-incident negotiator since 2018. The others are Officers Robert Ebright, 33, who was hired in 2015; Patrick Hohenberger, 30, who was hired in 2018; Noah Bauer, 33, who was hired in 2019; and John Morrison, 32, who was hired in 2012.

Of those five, only Officers Ebright and Hohenberger have active disciplinary matters pending, each including neglect of duty regarding failure to investigate an OVI incident properly.

Mayor Kapszukiewicz said the release of information about the incident took longer than usual because of the multiple law-enforcement agencies involved.

Mr. Clifton had only traffic violations to his name before Monday, but had experienced mental-health crises in the past, officials said. His death marked Toledo's 37th homicide this year. By this point in 2020, there had only been 28 homicides in the city.

"The outcome was heartbreaking and terrible but that does not mean officers of all these multiple jurisdictions did anything less than the absolute best that can be done," the mayor said.

First Published July 21, 2021, 1:41pm

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