Police chief says officers were given no choice in fatal shooting

The family of Joseph M. Ramos Jr. (left) said he had a neurological condition that weakened his legs. The family of Joseph M. Ramos Jr. (left) said he had a neurological condition that weakened his legs.
By John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / August 14, 2009

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Dartmouth’s police chief said yesterday that a fatal confrontation between his officers and an armed man Tuesday night happened too fast for nonlethal weapons to be used.

But the lawyer for the family of Joseph M. Ramos Jr. said that Ramos had a neurological condition that weakened his legs, leading the family to question whether use of deadly force was justified.

Ramos was fatally shot by Officer Jared White Tuesday around 9:30 p.m. after Ramos allegedly charged into another officer, Scott Brooks, knocking Brooks to the ground, said the office of Bristol District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter II and a witness.

Ramos was armed with a screwdriver, prosecutors said. White deployed a police dog, but the dog attacked Brooks instead, according to prosecutors and a witness, Terri Carter.

The dog was called off, but Ramos, according to Carter, got off the ground and charged toward White, who fired once. Ramos was pronounced dead at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford around 10 p.m.

Chief Mark Pacheco said yesterday that his officers are issued .45-caliber Glock handguns, pepper spray, and a collapsible baton, but do not carry electric stun guns. He said that on Tuesday the officers never had a chance to use the pepper spray, which they carry on their duty belts.

“There was just no way of getting it out in time,’’ Pacheco said. “The suspect was already on them. He was already attacking the officer. It was a bang-bang type of situation.’’

But Ramos family lawyer Jeffrey Denner of Boston said yesterday that the family is skeptical of police assertions that the only course of action they could have taken was to shoot the 42-year-old Ramos. “We continue to investigate why the use of lethal force was felt to be necessary,’’ Denner said.

Pacheco said the police dog attacked Brooks because the officer was entangled with Ramos.

“I don’t think the dog could distinguish which one he was supposed to go after,’’ Pacheco said. “Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.’’

The chief said the two officers were shaken by the fatal shooting, which he said was the first in the department’s history. He said Brooks was hired as a full-time officer last year and that White has been on the force since 1995.

Pacheco said the officers were being questioned for the first time yesterday about the shooting, which is the subject of an investigation by Sutter’s office and an internal affairs inquiry by Pacheco’s department.

“The officers are traumatized,’’ Pacheco said. “It was an officer’s worst nightmare, pulling their weapons. They are dealing with it the best they can. They are both seeking counseling. And they are both on paid administrative leave right now.’’

In a separate interview, Denner said Ramos’s family questioned why police used deadly force on a man who had lived most of his adult life on the street where he was shot and was known to be eccentric, but not violent. One issue that has sparked concern is a chronic medical condition the family says afflicted Ramos.

Denner said the chronic disease “certainly made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to get up again in short order or to pose a further threat to anyone.’’

According to Denner, Ramos had been diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a hereditary neurological disorder that weakens a patient’s leg muscles, among other symptoms.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website, the disease is one of the most common neurological disorders and is incurable. Patients often must use braces to support their legs or hands in some cases.

“A typical feature includes weakness of the foot and lower leg muscles, which may result in foot drop and a high-stepped gait with frequent tripping or falls,’’ according to the institute.

Denner said his office is seeking Ramos’s medical records.

Gregg Miliote, Sutter’s spokesman, said Ramos’s physical condition is one of the issues that will be examined by prosecutors and State Police as they investigate the case. He said ballistics and toxicology tests are being conducted.

“We will be investigating everything,’’ he said. “It’s a wide-ranging and thorough investigation/’’