A D.C. police officer on Wednesday defended his partner’s decision to shoot a motorcyclist, saying he believed the man drove directly at the partner and intended to “incapacitate” him.
Officer Jordan Palmer said he and Officer Brian Trainer had pulled their cruiser into an intersection ahead of the biker, who had been driving recklessly, when Trainer began climbing out the passenger’s door to make a traffic stop. Palmer said the motorcyclist looked at the officers, revved his engine and drove toward them.
“I felt and heard the impact” of the motorcycle hitting the passenger door, Palmer said, and then heard gunshots. He called the motorcyclist’s actions “an assault.”
Palmer’s account of the Sept. 11, 2016 fatal shooting came during an administrative hearing that centered on whether Trainer feared for his safety when he twice fired at the motorcycle driver, 31-year-old Terrence Sterling.
The police department has ruled the shooting unjustified and recommended that Trainer be fired. Trainer, who said his leg was pinned when the motorcycle hit the car door, challenged that punishment. The appeal is being heard by an administrative panel known as a Trial Board.
During the first day of proceedings Wednesday, Ryan Donaldson, an assistant attorney general for the District, told the panel that Trainer had “undermined the very public trust” that allows the police department to “effectively function.” An internal police review concluded Trainer should not have pulled his gun and that Sterling, an HVAC repairman headed home after a party, was actually trying to veer around the police car.
But James Pressler, the attorney for Trainer, said that the motorcyclist intentionally drove into the car and hit the door with “a great deal of force.” He said Trainer had stepped out, and his leg became trapped.
“It’s unfortunate that Mr. Sterling died,” Pressler said. “But Mr. Sterling directed this scenario that resulted in a justified use of force.”
The trial board, made up of one commander and two captains, will continue Thursday. The board eventually will rule on Trainer’s actions and could recommend discipline.
The shooting, which came amid concern nationwide over police use of force, had sparked protests in parts of the city. Wednesday morning, several people with signs demanding Trainer be fired gathered outside the police building where the hearing was held.
In August, federal prosecutors determined there was not enough evidence to file criminal charges against Trainer.
An internal police review continued, and officials ultimately concluded that Trainer and Palmer violated departmental policies as they pursued and attempted to arrest Sterling. Trainer also failed to turn on his body-worn camera before the shooting.
The incident started about 4:20 a.m. in the Adams Morgan neighborhood with reports of a motorcyclist who had run red lights and was speeding in excess of 100 mph.
According to the internal report, which details Trainer’s comments to investigators as well as witness accounts, at least two supervisors ordered officers not to pursue the motorcycle over traffic violations. But Trainer later told investigators that he and Palmer believed the motorcycle posed a threat and that they were “aggressively canvassing” for it, the report said.
Palmer testified that he spotted the motorcyclist near the Third Street Tunnel and maneuvered the cruiser to make the traffic stop. According to the report, Trainer told investigators he began to exit the car holding his gun pointed down, and put his right foot on the ground.
Trainer told investigators that Sterling drove “violently” toward him, as if he was trying to run him over, according to the report. Trainer said Sterling ignored commands to stop before the officer fired.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Zayd Rahman, the lead internal affairs detective, spent four hours on the witness stand describing the investigation and findings.
Trainer, wearing a gray suit, sat next to his attorney and stared ahead, occasionally looking to his right to view videos or maps shown as part of the evidence.
Pressler highlighted Sterling’s aggressive driving, saying the motorcyclist “proceeded to run every red light from 18th and U to Third and Massachusetts at speeds in excess of 100 mph.”
Donaldson acknowledged that Sterling “wasn’t riding with the courtesy most of us would exercise.”
But he said witnesses relayed that the cruiser seemed to pull into the intersection “almost out of nowhere.” He noted police had concluded that Sterling appeared to be trying to clear the cruiser and almost was able to, saying the driver “had a means of escape until Officer Trainer opened his door.”
Many questions were about whether the motorcyclist had enough room to go around the cruiser and precisely when Trainer fired two quick shots.
During his testimony, Palmer said Sterling could have driven forward and avoided the car, but turned toward it. Palmer was suspended for 20 days without pay in connection with the incident, after a finding that he engaged in an unauthorized pursuit.
Howard Dorsey Jr., a civilian witness, also provided his account. He was at Third and M streets when Sterling pulled up next to him at a light. He said Sterling maneuvered his motorcycle to the front of Dorsey’s car. He then heard a sound and saw the police car blocking the road ahead — “It came out of nowhere.”
Dorsey said he saw Sterling turn his motorcycle handlebars to the left, and look left, and then drive toward the cruiser. He said the motorcycle was going no more than 10 mph and that he saw it “tap” the opening passenger side door. He then heard gunshots.
An autopsy later determined that Sterling’s blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit, and he tested positive for marijuana.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham has said the board’s decision could take several weeks. Police said the public will be told if the board concludes Trainer should be fired, but any lesser punishment would be kept confidential.
Newsham cannot increase the recommended discipline, but he can lower it or order a new hearing. Trainer, who is on administrative leave, can appeal any decision.