Content Advisory: The following story includes a link to a graphic video, a description of a fatal shootout and profanity. Read at your discretion.
In the spirit of transparency, the sheriff of Laramie County on Thursday released body-camera footage showing a shootout between a suspect and a deputy last Halloween, that caused the suspect’s death.
Sheriff Brian Kozak told Cowboy State Daily on Friday that it is his policy going forward to release body-cam footage of deputy-involved shootings to the public. He does so under a provision of Wyoming statute saying agencies “may” release videos of deadly force incidents to the public.
Kozak said he worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and helped to craft that provision in 2017 when it came before the Wyoming Legislature.
Strangulation, Sex Offender
At 7 p.m. on Oct. 31, 2022, a Laramie County Deputy spotted a wanted man in the Saddle Ridge neighborhood handing out candy to trick-or-treating children, Kozak said in a public informational video dispatched Thursday to the Laramie County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.
Kozak said the deputy knew that this suspect had three felony warrants on suspicion of the following:
Strangling a woman he lived with in Laramie County
Kidnapping, in Jefferson County, Colorado
Failure to register as a sex offender in Denver
“Law enforcement had been looking for the suspect for several months,” Kozak continued. “Because of the nature of the warrants, the deputy was concerned for the safety of the children who were trick-or-treating and set up surveillance of the suspect.”
Two other deputies came to help in that effort and set up a perimeter around the house, he said.
Nearly two hours passed, and at 8:42 p.m., deputies scanned the streets and found them clear of trick-or-treaters, Kozak said. The “primary deputy” waited near the front door, and the suspect came out before the other deputies could get closer to where the primary deputy was.
Kozak next displayed a dark, body-cam video showing the occasional flash of street lamps and headlights, clattering with deputies’ feet on the asphalt.
No trick-or-treaters are visible in the video. Kozak said the road was clear of children.
“Open the door!” the deputy calls out on the video. The suspect, whom the deputy calls “James,” appears to be just behind a glass screen door, his silhouette fully outlined in the video.
“We have a dog, you will get bit!” calls the deputy.
“I have a fuckin’ shotgun, you’ll get shot!” James calls back.
James did not open the door and ducked back into his house.
Here Kozak’s video cuts back to his own narration: “The deputy was worried for the safety of the woman, since he knew she was the victim in the strangulation case. The deputy forced entry to rescue the woman.”
The suspect said “‘OK, OK’ – as if he was giving up,” Kozak added.
A Little Fourth Amendment Law
The deputy had warrants for the suspect, which enabled him to enter the man’s home, Kozak told Cowboy State Daily in a later interview.
Police agents also can force their way into a person’s home without a warrant if they have “exigent circumstances” to do so, which may include proof that someone will get hurt if they don’t burst in and intervene.
In addition to the warrant giving the deputy the authority to enter the home, Kozak said the deputy also had exigent circumstances.
Laramie County District Attorney Sylvia Hackl, who conducted the legal analysis of the shootout, could not be reached for comment Friday.
‘It’s A Weirdo’
Kozak’s briefing video cuts to bodycam footage of the shootout.
“Open the door now, James – you will be tased!” yells the deputy.
“Go away,” wails a woman.
“Get your fuckin’ ass outta here,” shouts James.
Again, the deputy warns James about the dog. And again, James warns the deputy about his shotgun.
When the deputy uses James’ full name, the video goes mute. A subtitle explains the video has been muted to prevent exposure of the man’s name, as well as a reference to the victim’s name and address.
“It’s a weirdo! It’s a fuckin’ weirdo!” James yells.
“What’s going on? I don’t understand,” says the woman.
The deputy deploys his taser multiple times through the cracked door. Then he rushes inside the house.
Now, A Shootout
The deputy’s taser crackles twice.
The video slows to show what appears to be the suspect, standing behind the kitchen counter, pointing a gun at the deputy. The deputy’s hands rise up before the video lens, clasping a pistol.
The lens still focused on the deputy’s clasped hands, a gunshot sounds. Six more gunshots follow in rapid succession.
A pained roar peals from James’ direction.
“Get on the ground,” yells the deputy. Just then, amid a gunshot sound, his bodycam wavers, he jolts backward and drops as if shot and yells, “Woah, shit!” Three more shots sound.
The deputy sustained three gunshots altogether, Kozak said later in the video.
The deputy then says, “Get out, get out.”
About four more shots sound. The deputy appears to be scooting backward on the ground. Jack-o’-lanterns on a poster float past him just before the video cuts back to Kozak speaking.
The deputy’s attempt to tase the suspect failed, Kozak said, adding that the deputy watched the suspect retrieve an item believed to be a weapon from the cabinet. The deputy ordered the second deputy to “get out.”
The sheriff said that deputy, a trainee, thought the deputy said “get down,” instead of “get out,” and he crouched behind the couch.
So, the first deputy “reengaged the suspect to evacuate the other officer,” Kozak continued.
Here the camera cuts back to the bodycam footage to show the shootout again. This time it ends with the deputy scrambling to his feet and rushing out the door, with his own stunted shadow, cast by the porch lamp, preceding him.
The suspect retrieved a rifle and waited for deputies to reenter the house, Kozak explained during his narrative.
While waiting, he died from his wounds.
The deputy couldn’t get back to work because of his injuries and has since retired from law enforcement, Kozak said.
Kozak said the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation looked into the incident and disclosed as part of its investigation that the suspect had said prior that he’d shoot law enforcement if they came to his door.
Hackl’s office ruled that the deputy’s actions “were reasonable,” said the sheriff, adding that an internal investigation also found the deputy’s performance was within policy.
Nevertheless, Kozak continued, the department has implemented new policies to “become better.”
The agency revised its criteria for using a SWAT team to include high-risk warrant service.
It agreed with local law enforcement for agencies to pre-notify each other before high-risk warrant service.
The sheriff’s office assigned a deputy to the U.S. Marshall’s taskforce to “be another resource for high-risk warrant service.
An ambulance will stage for future high-risk warrant service.
A new, reportedly better body-cam system is now in use.
The department has appointed a full-time public-information officer and has crafted a policy to allow “timely updates involving critical incidents and information such as this.”
Lastly, (Kozak noted this final change in his later interview) the agency has bought “taser tens” – tasers with an effective range of 45 feet instead of the shooting deputy’s range of 25, and with 10 probes instead of two.
“The previous administration was not transparent with the facts,” Kozak said while speaking about the public information officer’s new duties.
Kozak’s department held a public briefing in the Saddle Ridge neighborhood where the shooting happened, and reached out to the woman from the video to let her know beforehand, he told Cowboy State Daily.
This Isn’t Because Of Thermopolis
Miles away from Kozak’s Cheyenne base, the Thermopolis Police Department made headlines this month when a special prosecutor revealed that a Thermopolis sergeant shot and killed a man in self-defense – but had entered the man’s home illegally and without a warrant.
Kozak said last Halloween’s shootout in Laramie County was different from the Thermopolis situation because the Laramie County deputy had a warrant and exigent circumstances, as well as a hot pursuit.
But he said the Thermopolis case isn’t the reason he’s releasing the bodycam footage. The public still had questions.
“When it’s a concern to the public, it’s no longer private,” said Kozak. “I just feel that it’s important for us in law enforcement to (release the footage) in every shooting. That’s going to be my policy moving forward.”
It’s important for the public to know what deputies face, the training they employ and their efforts “to protect the rights of the public,” Kozak added.
Meanwhile, the Thermopolis Police Department has not yet released bodycam footage of its April 28 deadly shootout to Cowboy State Daily. And it doesn’t have to under the law, though it “may,” the statute says.
Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.