Department officials previously moved to fire the officer, Brian Trainer, who avoided criminal charges when the U.S. attorney’s office decided there was insufficient evidence to pursue a case. The family settled a wrongful-death suit against the District for $3.5 million.
Sterling’s family said in a statement they are “pleased with this decision. Since it appears Officer Trainer will not be prosecuted, at a minimum, he should be fired.”
Three police officials heard public testimony for more than 40 hours over three days in April. Their written ruling was not released, nor was how each voted. Trainer’s attorney, James W. Pressler Jr., said the panel unanimously found his client guilty on all three charges he faced — using excessive force, shooting at a moving vehicle and failing to turn on his body camera.
Pressler said he plans to appeal to D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, who has 10 business days to review the case. The next step would be arbitration, then the District’s employee relations board and, finally, the court system.
Trainer and the police union have complained that the officer did not received a fair hearing. Pressler said he felt panel members — who in addition to hearing testimony, joined in the questioning of witnesses — were prosecuting his client rather than independently weighing evidence. At one point, the panel’s chair, Cmdr. Morgan Kane, told Trainer: “You willfully disregarded the policies of the police department, everything that we taught you.”
Pressler said the ruling came as “no surprise” and that he had already begun working on an appeal. “It was very clear where this was headed,” he said. “The decision was made before the hearing. It was a charade, in our view. We have to get outside the city and outside the department before we can get relief in this case.”
The attorney contends Trainer’s actions amounted to “a justified shooting. I don’t see how anybody who is truly neutral could find Officer Trainer guilty.” Trainer had said he was in fear for his safety when he fired.
Newsham declined to comment Friday, citing the likely appeal. A spokesman for the D.C. attorney general office, whose attorneys prosecuted the case, referred questions to police. Kane did not respond to a request for comment.
The shooting occurred early in the morning of Sept. 11 after Trainer and his partner, in a marked police car, spotted Sterling at an intersection.
Trainer testified at the hearing that Sterling initially stopped his motorcycle in front of the cruiser at a red light on U Street, glanced back at the officers and then bolted through the light. The driver, Officer Jordan Palmer, took off after him, ignoring orders not to chase the motorcycle, and engaged in an unauthorized pursuit to Third and M streets NW, more than 30 blocks away.
Police noted that Sterling had been reported speeding more than 100 mph, and had marijuana and twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system. Nearing the tunnel entrance, the officers saw Sterling at an intersection across the street. Police officials said the cruiser blocked Sterling, which is against department rules, though Trainer and Palmer denied this.
Trainer said Sterling looked in his direction, turned the bike’s handlebars toward him, revved the engine and then shot forward, appearing to aim directly at his cruiser as the officer began to step out of the car, his gun already drawn.
The officer said he put his right leg out of the cruiser and was trying to stand up. As the motorcycle got closer, he said he tried to get back into the car but the motorcycle's front tire hit the door, trapping his leg between the door and the car frame. He testified he fired twice as he fell back into the car. Sterling was shot in the neck and lower side.
“He was coming deliberately at me,” Trainer testified. “I feared he was going to run me over.”
But the lead detective in the inquiry disputed Trainer’s account, and concluded that Sterling was likely trying to maneuver around the cruiser but his path was cut off when Trainer opened the door. Panel members questioned why Trainer had pulled his gun before he perceived a threat and why he decided to exit the car.
An attorney for the city who argued for terminating Trainer likened the shooting to a road-rage incident that a more clear-thinking officer would have simply let go.