A woman wielding a knife who was shot by a D.C. police officer Saturday remained hospitalized in serious condition Sunday and is facing several charges, including arson and assault with a dangerous weapon, according to a police report.
The woman was identified by her mother and in a police report as Renita Nettles, 22. Nettles suffered a single gunshot wound to the shoulder, according to police. She was being treated at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
District police officials declined Sunday to identify the officer who shot Nettles, although a spokesman said the officer has been placed on administrative leave with pay pending the completion of the investigation. Such action is routine.
It remains unclear what prompted the confrontation, but numerous bystanders captured the shooting on Clay Terrace in Northeast Washington on cellphone cameras, and videos of the incident were quickly posted on social media.
On Sunday, several witnesses criticized the officer for firing at Nettles and said police should have disarmed her without shooting.
“She took two steps toward the officer, and he backed up,” said Terrence Boggan, 49, who witnessed the incident. “People were yelling at her to put the knife down. She wouldn’t. She took two more steps toward the officer, and he fired.”
Boggan described the knife Nettles held as small, but he said she had several others attached to her belt or pants. He said he didn’t see her lunge or attack. “This didn’t have to end this way,” he said. “I didn’t see her swing the knife. He shouldn’t have shot. Not at all.”
But Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. Police Union, noted that Nettles refused several commands from police and pleas from onlookers to drop the knife, and he said it appears the officer acted within his training and the law as she advanced toward him.
“It’s unfortunate that she had to be shot,” Burton said. “But I don’t know what other choice he had.”
The incident began shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday when firefighters were sent to a house fire in the 5300 block of Clay Terrace NE. A D.C. police report obtained by The Washington Post says the fire had been intentionally set “using an open flame.” The report also says that Renita Nettles, wearing a pink baseball-style hat, pink shoes and goggles, was seen “acting very agitated” and was “observed running in and out of the burning home, throwing items into the street.”
Boggan, the witness, confirmed this account.
A second police report describing the shooting says that officers who responded to the fire encountered a woman “holding several knives and a hammer in her hands while standing in the middle of the street.” The report says officers ordered her several times to drop the knife and that she did not. The report says the woman “began swinging the knife” at the officer. Video clips that have emerged show the woman swinging her right hand with the knife by her waist. She also is seen holding something in her left hand, but that item is unclear from the video.
The video shows Nettles eight to 10 feet from the officer and moving toward him. The officer has his hands extended, pointing his gun at her. Other officers are close by, some with their hands on holstered weapons. Onlookers shout at her to drop the knife. A video posted by WUSA-TV shows Nettles staggering after she is shot and finally collapsing as an officer and a woman rush to her and knock items out of her hands.
Boggan said Nettles was combative as police and paramedics restrained her to a stretcher and put her in an ambulance. A police spokesman said that several knives and a hammer were recovered at the scene.
The shooting and the video add to the ongoing debate over the police’s use of deadly force and how officers deal with people who appear as if they might be mentally ill or under the influence of drugs, demonstrating unpredictable behavior and forcing quick action by officers. In this case, officials noted that a large crowd had gathered and that Nettles could have been a danger to herself, police, firefighters and bystanders.
“With a knife, it becomes a really dangerous situation because somebody can stab the officer quickly, or throw the knife,” said Philip Stinson, associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University. Stinson, who watched a video of the confrontation, said: “It seems the officer was restrained and there was only one shot. It appears the officer was justified.”
Stinson said officers develop “tunnel vision” to focus on the threat as other officers assess the surroundings — in this case, people screaming at the woman to surrender, bystanders recording, firefighters putting out a fire and children standing nearby.
“You can’t multi-task when you’re holding someone at gunpoint,” Stinson said. “I don’t know if anything could’ve been done to restrain her. She wasn’t in a mood to negotiate.”
But, Stinson said, Nettles “wasn’t lunging,” which could invite questions as to whether “less lethal force could’ve been used. . . . Those are fair questions.”
William Terrill, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, said these cases “are always tough calls.” He said officers are “universally trained” to act with deadly force if a suspect has a knife and is in within 25 feet.
But he said context is important in determining whether an officer’s actions are equal to the threat. “He must protect himself and everyone else around him,” Terrill said. “It’s a balancing act.”
Burton, the chairman of the D.C. Police Union, said the shooting could have been avoided had Nettles complied with the officer’s orders. “The officer had the absolute right to defend himself and the people around him,” Burton said. “When an officer tells you to do something, do it, particularly when there’s a weapon involved. Drop the knife and comply with the instructions.”
In a text message Sunday, Angelenia Nettles, 48, said her daughter was badly injured and “what I need now is a prayer.”
Angelenia Nettles said she was too distraught to talk. Other relatives returned Sunday afternoon to the burned house on Clay Terrace to salvage belongings but declined to speak with reporters. Some items burned in the fire, including a charred mattress, were strewn about a small plot of grass in the front.
Gwendolyn Crump, the D.C. police department’s chief spokeswoman, said Sunday night that Nettles was charged with assault on a police officer, assault with a dangerous weapon and arson.