A judge has reinstated a Chattanooga police officer after he was fired last year for "accidentally" firing his weapon at a suicidal man who had already fatally wounded himself.
Officer Brian Cottell and at least two other officers responded to the call in the 4000 block of Oakwood Drive on Aug. 26, 2018.
The Chattanooga Police Department issued a news release at the time, saying an officer accidentally discharged his department-issued handgun three times at the scene. But the officer's attorney — Janie Parks Varnell — refuted the department's statement, saying Cottell "purposefully discharged his weapon to protect himself and other officers as he was trained to do in these types of situations."
Cottell was the first to enter the apartment that August morning, Administrative Judge Claudia Padfield wrote in an order. The suicidal man pointed a revolver at officers and told them he wouldn't put it down. He then sat in a chair and eventually turned the weapon on himself.
The officers continued trying to persuade the man to disarm himself and establish rapport, according to the order. But after about one minute, the man fired his weapon, hitting himself.
"The recoil from firing the weapon caused [the man's] arm to extend so that [he] was again pointing the firearm in the direction of the officers," Padfield wrote.
"Within a fraction of a second" Cottell fired three quick rounds in response. Two of the shots hit a chair and one hit the man's leg.
Immediately after, all three officers approached the man while giving commands to drop the weapon, as he was still alive and had his finger on the trigger, Padfield wrote. Cottell disarmed the man and unloaded the remaining four bullets in the gun.
Officers started lifesaving procedures but the man died at the scene as a result of the self-inflicted gunshot wound, the Hamilton County medical examiner ruled.
All three officers were placed on administrative leave as an internal investigation took place. Cottell was fired on Aug. 8, 2019.
But now, Padfield has ruled the firing was not reasonable.
The Chattanooga Police Department did not return a request for comment Friday.
The officers "had reasonable belief that they were under the threat of deadly force" until Cottell disarmed the man, Padfield wrote.
Citing a similar case, Padfield noted it would've been "the height of foolishness, not reason," for the officers to wait until the man took aim at them before they fired, "hopefully being faster on the draw than [the man], and hopefully hitting him somewhere that would instantly prevent his finger from exerting the miniscule force necessary to pull the trigger."
"While Chief [David] Roddy is experienced, well-trained, and well-spoken," she wrote, he relied on his own judgment — a conclusion he would have reached only after the fact — rather than relying on the judgment of the officers who were at the scene, experiencing the events as they unfolded.
The officers "did not have the benefit of knowing how the less than one minute, twenty second encounter was going to end or develop [sic]," Padfield wrote.
She ordered Cottell's termination be overturned and awarded him full back pay and benefits.
"We are pleased with the Order of the Court and Judge Padfield's thorough review of the substantial evidence in this case," attorney Varnell wrote in a statement. " ... this Order reiterates what we knew all along which is that Officer Cottell acted quickly, appropriately, and responsibly when faced with a deadly threat of harm. We look forward to Officer Cottell's continued service to this community."
The city of Chattanooga has 60 days to appeal Padfield's order.
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