HELENA, Mont. – A police officer training instructor testified that a Montana Highway Patrol trooper and a sheriff's deputy failed to follow their agencies' policies and procedures and inappropriately used deadly force in shooting a 13-year-old boy who had stolen $8 in gasoline.
Alan Baxter, a former police commander and instructor for the Public Safety Officers Standards and Training program, testified Tuesday in Helena at a civil negligence trial in a lawsuit filed by the mother of Mark Keeley, who was fatally shot by the officers in April 2007 near Fort Benton.
Baxter told jurors that neither officer should have engaged in a chase over the theft of $8 in gas, and that the officers should have tried to negotiate with the boy rather than approach him.
"Eight dollars is not worth any kind of a life," Baxter said. "You do not risk your life or the life of the person you're pursuing unless it's for a very good cause. 'Very good cause' in most instances is pursuing a felon."
Baxter also testified that trooper Jason Wickum should not have gotten involved in the pursuit initiated by Chouteau County Sheriff's Deputy Kyle Meier based on the gas theft reported in Chester.
Wickum should have "shadowed" Meier while he awaited instructions from his commanding officer, Baxter argued. He said neither officer had probable cause to risk injury with a high-speed pursuit with the facts they knew when the chase began.
Jurors watched about 30 minutes of video from Meier's dashboard camera from the night of the shooting. It showed Keeley's vehicle drive off the road after hitting spiked "stop sticks."
Testimony from a 2009 coroner's inquest indicated Keeley fired a shot, hitting the deputy's patrol car, and then tried to drive away on four flat tires.
At one point in the video, Meier told Wickum, "He's got a rifle."
Wickum replied, "So do we."
Keeley fired at the deputy and the trooper, and both officers returned fire.
The video shows the two officers fired 29 shots over the course of about two minutes — 17 by Wickum and 12 by Meier.
A state medical examiner testified at an August 2007 coroner's inquest that three bullets went into the back of Keeley's head, two into his back, three into his thigh and six into his shoulder and arm.
Wickum testified that he felt both officers' lives were in danger after Keeley fired shots at them. He said he could clearly see the barrel of Keeley's shotgun moving back and forth out of the driver's side window in the direction of the cruiser.
Keeley was armed with a 16-gauge shotgun loaded with bird shot. But officers weren't sure if the boy had a rifle or a shotgun with shotgun shells, both of which would be more accurate than bird shot at a longer range.
John Doubek, the attorney for Keeley's mother, asked Wickum why he didn't warn Keeley before opening fire.
Wickum said Meier repeatedly warned Keeley to put down his weapon and step out of the car, but neither officer warned Keeley that he would be shot if he didn't comply.
"Once we're fired upon, the talking's over," Wickum said.
Keeley's mother, Michelle Springer, filed the lawsuit in 2009. Besides Wickum and Meier, the suit names the Montana Highway Patrol, the state Department of Justice, the Chouteau County sheriff's office and Sheriff Vern Burdick. It seeks $2 million in damages for her son's suffering and her own damages.
Max Davis, an attorney representing the state, said the boy shot at officers and officers fired back. The state has also argued that Keeley had suicidal thoughts before the car chase and told a schoolmate he planned to get himself shot by police.
The coroner's inquest found no wrongdoing on the part of the officers.
The trial is expected to continue through the week.