The Phoenix police officer who shot and killed a man within seconds of him opening the front door last year will not face charges after a mysterious committee headed by a former cop determined he did nothing wrong.
However, the incident led to a $3 million settlement with the family of the victim in December.
The incident was captured in a horrific video showing a pair of Phoenix police officers walking up to Ryan Whitaker’s apartment and knocking on his door after receiving a noise complaint from his upstairs neighbor accusing him of domestic abuse.
Whitaker, however, had been playing video games with his girlfriend and may have gotten a little loud.
The 40-year-old had a concealed weapons permit when he opened the door holding a gun by his side, evidently not realizing they were cops, sending the cops in a panic who began yelling “whoa, hands!,” prompting Whitaker to lower his body as if intending to place the gun down.
But he was shot three times in the back by Phoenix police officer Jeff Cooke within three seconds of having opened the door.
“Why did you guys shoot him?” Whitaker’s girlfriend, Brandee Nees, asks as she stepped into the doorway.
“He just pulled a gun on us, ma’am,” Cooke says.
“Because it’s dark and someone just knocked on the door,” Nees responds.
When Phoenix police officer John Ferragamo asked Nees if she and Whitaker had been fighting, she told him they were only playing video games.
“Literally we were making salsa and playing Crash Bandicoot so there may have been some screaming from PlayStation but it wasn’t domestic violence or anything,” she says.
The incident took place on May 22, 2020 and was investigated by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Critical Incident Review Committee, which is headed by a former Phoenix police officer named Tom Van Dorn, according to the Arizona Republic.
Van Dorn reached out to an “outside expert, ” an unnamed retired police sergeant, to help the committee arrive at its decision. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office cited “safety reasons” for not being very forthcoming about who makes up the committee.
According to the Arizona Republic:
Tom Van Dorn, the agency’s first responder liaison, leads the Maricopa County Attorney’s Critical Incident Review Committee. On behalf of the office, Van Dorn reached out to a consultant who is a retired police sergeant for an outside report on the shooting.
Van Dorn worked for the Phoenix Police Department for 25 years before joining the county attorney’s office in 2019. For the Phoenix police, he was an officer in south Phoenix, a legal adviser, a detective, a field training sergeant and precinct commander.
The review committee is composed of prosecutors and community members. The office has said it will not release the names of the community members for safety concerns. The office has not responded to The Republic’s public records request for information about how the committee was formed or provided copies of the applications from members of the public.
(Maricopa County Attorney Allister) Adel stated she reviewed the investigation and records into Whitaker’s death. The review committee gave her a recommendation on whether there was a reasonable likelihood of a conviction for a crime. She then consulted an outside expert on use of force issues.
The consultant hired by the County Attorney’s Office, a retired police sergeant, interviewed the officers and the neighbor who made the complaint for his report.
He did not interview Whitaker’s girlfriend, who was inside the apartment when the shooting occurred. She later told police they had been making salsa and playing Crash Bandicoot on a PlayStation game console. In the excitement of the game, they began to scream, she said.
The neighbor who called police was never publicly identified but an audio recording of his phone call to 911 indicated the couple downstairs was keeping him awake when he placed the call on a Friday night.
“I gotta get to work tomorrow and I’m getting no sleep,” says the neighbor in the second 911 call he made to police at 10:44 p.m.
When the dispatcher asked if the verbal argument has turned physical, he said it had turned physical but sounded as if he was just saying that to get police to respond quicker.
“It could be physical,” he says. “I could say yeah if that makes anybody hurry on up. Get anybody here faster.”
The cops arrived eight minutes later and knocked on the door with one of them yelling “Phoenix police” before both of them stepped off to the side, making it impossible for anybody to see them through the peephole.
When Whitaker opened the door with the gun to his side, the cops shined their flashlights in his face, blinding him before noticing the gun and killing him.
Cooke later told investigators Whitaker opened the door in an “aggressive manner” which made him fear for his partner’s life.
Earlier that day, Whitaker had attended his daughter’s high school graduation.