Critical Incident Review Board

The Critical Incident Review Board looked at three cases. Two involved police shootings and one a death in custody later found to be drug-related. Mesa Police Chief Ken Cost established CIRB last year. 

The Critical Incident Review Board looked at three recent cases involving Mesa Police officers.

In two of the incidents, officers fired their weapons. In those cases, the officers missed their targets and there were no injuries.

In the third case, a man died in custody – but without weapons involved.

The review board, which is weighted heavily with police supervisors, found officers responded appropriately in all three cases, with a few minor critiques.

The board ruled there were no

violations in the July 7 death of James Wheaton.

Police were looking for him after

he was “alleged to have committed aggravated assault during a domestic violence incident in which he fired a gun and fled the scene,” according to the CIRB presentation.

The Mesa Police Violent Offender Unit tracked Wheaton, who was arrested “without issue or use of physical force” after a traffic stop.

He was transported to the Mesa City Jail, where he used the bathroom, “after which time he was seen to be shaking and complained of hypoglycemia.”

A Mesa Fire Medical Department responded to an emergency call. Wheaton’s condition quickly deteriorated as he lost consciousness with no pulse. 

While MFMD assessed Wheaton, his condition deteriorated and he was rushed to Banner Desert Medical Center, where he died despite “lifesaving measures” from paramedics and doctors.

According to the CIRB report, the county medical examiner “found the manner of death to be an accident due to methamphetamine toxicity.”

Wheaton was 41 and had previous criminal charges for aggravated assault, possession of drug paraphernalia and dangerous drugs. He served five years in prison.

“This tragic event appears to be accidental, and the Mesa Police Department acted appropriately based on the known facts,” the board decided.


Shots fired in Eastmark

CIRB also examined an Eastmark shooting July 20 at 4161 S. Neptune, where officers responded to “a domestic violence incident regarding an intoxicated male who was threatening his wife with a gun.”

According to the CIRB report, officers heard a gunshot, then saw a man later identified as Dominic Alvarez “raise and point the gun” at an officer.

“Officer (David) Friestad fired one round, but the round did not strike the male.”

Alvarez then put down his gun and surrendered without further incident.

According to the board opinion, “Officers should have used the engine block instead of the back of the vehicle for cover for more safety. 

“Secondly, Officer Friestad took the safety off and had his finger on the trigger too soon, prior to his decision to shoot.”

In a plea deal, Alvarez admitted to disorderly conduct with a weapon. Alvarez, who had a previous domestic violence conviction, admitted to firing an AR-15 but said it was accidental. Other charges were dropped and a judge sentenced the 32-year-old Eastmark resident to two years or probation.


Cop fires six times, misses 

Another “officer-involved shooting” happened Sept. 5 at 839 S. Westwood Ave., in the parking lot of an apartment complex near Mesa Community College.

A man walking his dog called police after seeing a man slumped over the steering wheel of a parked car.

When officers responded and woke up the man, later identified as Diego Varela,  “The driver reacted by putting his vehicle in reverse and backed into the patrol vehicle parked behind him. Officers attempted to break the window of the vehicle... but he then drove forward through the complex greenbelt.”

Officers Octavio Contreras and Brandy Schnepf ran after the vehicle. Officer Chase Dowell followed the vehicle in his patrol car. 

After Varela stopped and got out of his vehicle, Dowell got out of his vehicle. But Varela then got back in his vehicle and drove forward, slamming into the police car, “at which time the officer involved shooting occurred.”

Dowell fired six shots.  

Varela, who was not injured, fled the scene but was later located at 948 S. Alma School. Varela “has a drug history and served three years in the Department of Corrections for leaving the scene of a fatal accident,” according to the CIRB report.

“When he was arrested for this incident, he admitted to smoking up to 50 fentanyl pills daily.”

A review of the case “agreed the elements that justified the use of force were present, but there were issues to address about the officers’ tactics.”

While no violation was found, “The review of the case exposed several concerns that should be addressed internally with training. Overall, it was evident that the three officers involved had one year or less assigned to patrol and lack experience.

“The board identified these tactical issues: impaired driver traffic-stop practices, baton use (attempting to break window), vehicle blocking, walking between vehicles, holding on to a fleeing vehicle, and chasing a fleeing vehicle on foot,” according to minutes of the meeting.


CIRB guidelines

According to the mission statement, “The Critical Incident Review Board (CIRB) is convened to conduct an administrative review of circumstances surrounding Category 1 or Category 2 Critical Incidents. 

“The CIRB seeks to promote trust and legitimacy within the community by including community representation, fostering transparency in department actions, constantly striving to improve police services, and helping hold the agency and its members accountable by issuing non binding advisory opinions.”

The board meets around once a month.

On Oct. 27, CIRB met at the Mesa Police Department Red Mountain Substation.

There are three members of the community on the board, but teacher Joshua Buckley of Mesa Public Schools was the only non-police member able to make this meeting. An MPD commander, lieutenant, two sergeants and an officer are on the board and took part in the meeting. 

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