Payson’s police chief is confident three officers involved in a fatal shooting last week will be back to work soon.
Chief Ron Tischer said they could be back as early as this week if a preliminary internal investigation shows the officers acted within the department’s protocols, they have met with a psychologist and they feel they are up to returning to duty.
Sgt. Justin Deaton and officers Jirhod Brennan and Max Farren were all put on administrative leave following the fatal shooting of Michael Romo, 28, on Jan. 4.
“An initial review of the facts show that the officers did not violate any department policies,” Tischer said.
The officers shot Romo, who had a knife, after he reportedly refused to listen to commands, according to initial reports. Residents had reportedly observed Romo breaking into vehicles and acting suspiciously in the Bison Cove apartment complex on Malibu Drive, across the street from the Payson Police Department.
Officers had dealt with Romo in the past as he has a lengthy criminal record, Tischer said. Deaton had known of Romo since he started with the PPD more than eight years ago. Officers had most recently had contact with Romo a week prior.
Online court records show Romo was found guilty of weapons misconduct in 2018 (he was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison and released in January 2019), assault in 2017, third degree burglary in 2013 and theft, possession of drug paraphernalia and criminal damage in 2011.
This is the first officer involved shooting for the PPD since 2013.
Tischer said he wants to make sure the officers have time to get the help they need and is offering them his full support. He is also offering them a safe place to talk about what happened. Tischer he has been involved in two fatal shootings since he started his career 27 years ago.
He said it used to be officers were told to ‘suck it up and get back on the road,’ but times have changed.
“Police departments do a lot better talking about it now,” he said. “We get them to a professional to get checked out... We have come a long way.”
Tischer admits that having three officers out, especially during the pandemic, has put a strain on the small department.
“Being a smaller department it makes it more difficult,” he said. “Having three guys out for six months is a big deal. But we are not going to jeopardize anyone’s safety.”
He hopes the officers can return to duty soon.
If the officers will ultimately face charges will be up to the Gila County attorney.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety is investigating what happened between Romo and the officers.
Tischer could not comment on DPS’s initial findings, but confirmed an autopsy was performed Tuesday and they were interviewing witnesses Wednesday.
He said it normally takes several months to receive toxicology results so he does not expect DPS wrapping up their investigation for at least that long.
The county attorney will then decide if they will face charges.
Lt. Jason Hazelo is conducting an internal investigation simultaneously to make sure officers followed department policies.
If Hazelo finds no wrongdoing, Tischer said they could put the officers back to work while DPS completes their investigation.
Possibly this summer, Tischer plans to put together a use of force board to run through the incident and see if there was anything the officers could have done differently. If more training is needed, Tischer said they would offer it.
Tischer, who worked most of his career in Wisconsin, said they employed a similar use of force board. Typically, they are made up of a lieutenant, a use of force instructor and a representative for each officer (of their choosing).
“What usually comes out is we find we did this well and we need to work on this,” he said.
The last officer involved shooting for the PPD occurred in 2013. It involved officer Brandon Buckner, who shot at a suspect that had shot at a DPS trooper. Prior to that, in February 2008, officers Jared Meredith and Sgt. David Blalock were involved in an officer involved shooting, according to Tischer, who was not chief during these events.
Tischer’s fatal calls
Tischer was involved in two fatal shootings.
The first occurred in 2001. Tischer said he had worked the overnight shift, training a new officer. At 7 a.m., just as they were getting off duty, there were reports of shots fired.
Tischer, who was on the SWAT team, made his way to the scene of a house with a barricaded man.
“All of the sudden a guy came out with a .45-caliber handgun with a scope on it,” he said.
The man started shooting at a neighbor’s home. The man was clearly intoxicated, he said. When the man pointed the gun at officers, four officers fired, killing him. Forensics later found a bullet from an officer’s rifle had killed him. Tischer had not delivered the fatal shot.
But Tischer killed a man several years later in 2007 while working for the City of Waukesha.
“It was one of those weird nights,” he said. “It was a very, very busy night.”
It was so busy, nearly every cop was at the hospital having a suspect checked out.
When a call came out that a man had stabbed a paper delivery driver, Tischer was one of few free officers.
He located the victim’s vehicle and while he was surveying the scene, out of the corner of his eye, “I saw a guy coming towards me at full steam,” he said.
Believing this was the same man who had just stabbed someone, Tischer reached for his gun as the man reached into his pocket for what Tischer assumed was the knife.
“And I fired,” he said, killing the man.
With his training, both as a firearm and a use of force instructor, Tischer said he handled both calls pretty well and didn’t have any lasting post-traumatic stress.
However, right after shooting the stabbing suspect, he found himself on edge, especially whenever anyone got in his squad car and didn’t put on their seatbelt, which would cause the vehicle to ding.
Months later, Tischer listened to the 911 call between him and dispatch and he realized just as he got out of his vehicle, the last tone heard is his seatbelt alarm going off.
Tischer said they will hold a debriefing with the three officers, dispatchers and firefighters where they can talk through what happened. No supervisors will be present.
Later, he will hold a department wide debriefing where officers can ask questions.
So far, police have said officers confronted Romo near a vehicle at Bison Cove apartments. Officers gave multiple commands for Romo to get on the ground, but he did not comply.
“The suspect, a 28-year-old man, came toward the officers while holding a knife. The officers continued to give the suspect commands to drop the weapon. The suspect refused to drop the weapon,” Tischer said. “Fearing for their lives, the officers were forced to fire their duty weapons to stop the suspect. The officers quickly began administering CPR and requested paramedics. Despite their efforts, the subject was pronounced deceased at the scene.”