OMAHA, NEBRASKA — Officers did not use excessive force and had no other option but to fire their weapons while responding to a robbery at a restaurant in the U.S. state of Nebraska, killing both the suspect and a crew member of the "Cops" reality TV show, the city's police chief said Wednesday, a day after the deadly shooting.
The incident began at around 9:20 p.m. local time on Tuesday when Detective Darren Cunningham, 37, called for backup for a robbery in progress at a Wendy's restaurant in Omaha, the largest city in the state of Nebraska. Two officers, 35-year-old Brooks Riley and 39-year-old Jason Willhelm, were quickly at the scene while accompanied by two employees, Michael Lee and Bryce Dion, of the popular 'Cops' television program.
The officers entered the restaurant, followed by Lee who was operating the video camera and Bryce who was operating the sound equipment. They immediately confronted the suspect, later identified as 32-year-old Cortez Washington, who appeared to be armed with a handgun. He then started shooting directly at Detective Cunningham and Officer Riley, according to witnesses.
"The officers returned fire. Mr. Washington was injured by multiple gunshots but was able to flee out of the east doors where he collapsed in the parking lot," said Omaha police chief Todd Schmaderer. "Mr. Dion was also injured by a single gunshot and collapsed just inside the east doorway."
Both Washington and Dion were rushed to the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where they were pronounced dead shortly after.
Parts of the deadly shooting were caught on camera by Lee, and investigators who have seen the video rejected any suggestions that excessive force had been used. "Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, myself and members of my executive command staff have viewed the footage and based on our viewing of the footage, the officers had no choice other than to respond in the manner which they did," Schmaderer said.
Per department policy, all three officers involved in the shooting have been placed on paid administrative leave pending homicide and internal affairs investigations. A grand jury will also be convened to investigate the actions of the officers and determine whether charges are warranted. Langley Productions and Wendy's were both said to be cooperating with the investigation.
Schmaderer described as "absolutely ridiculous" suggestions that the officers may have been "showing off" for the cameras. "They were not showing off for the cameras. … This was a very harrowing situation," he said. "Any criticism on that front is simply unmerited. The grand jury will see this video and I'm very confident that they will come to the very same conclusion that I have come to."
The production crew of the "Cops" reality TV show had been filming in Omaha since June, and Schmaderer said he did not necessarily regret giving permission. "I don't regret it in one sense because I wanted to be transparent for the community, how I thought transparency was the way to instill a better police-community relation," he said. "Personally I will live with this forever. If I had known this would happen, of course I wouldn't have done it."
The police chief added that the "Cops" production crew had developed a close relationship with Omaha police officers over the past two months. "Just as the officers face the dangers of the policing with honor, courage and integrity, so do the production crew of 'Cops'," Schmaderer added.