Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater would be just the sort of prosecutor you might expect to seize upon any excuse to cover up a killing.
David Prater began his law enforcement career at 19 years of age when he was hired by the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office as a Deputy Sheriff. At the age of 20, Mr. Prater became the youngest cadet ever to graduate from the Norman Police Academy. During his time with the NPD, he was a dedicated and respected Master Police Officer.
In addition to his patrol duties, he was a member NPD’s Tactical Unit, Underwater Rescue and Recovery Team and the Norman Police Department’s Pistol Team. Additionally, he was responsible for training other officers in patrol techniques, firearms, and Emergency Vehicle Operations and was awarded more than 20 commendations from Norman’s Chief of Police.
With a background like this, many would naturally leap to the conclusion that Prater would love him some cops too much. This is worth noting as a reminder that simplistic assumptions about people, their integrity, what goes on in their heads, are often wrong.
An Oklahoma City police officer “crossed the line” when he shot an unarmed suicidal man last month, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said Tuesday.
Sgt. Keith Patrick Sweeney, 32, is charged with second-degree murder. Prater filed the charge himself Tuesday morning, marking the first time the district attorney has charged an Oklahoma City police officer in an on-duty shooting.
The backstory is remarkable in that it involves a suicidal man and two cops, Erik Howell and Troy Nitzky, who responded well by trying to deescalate the situation.
Officers responded to the courtyard of a housing complex in southwest Oklahoma City and found Pigeon holding a bottle of lighter fluid and a lighter, threatening to set himself on fire, police reported.
“As the officers moved closer to Mr. Pigeon, they noticed sparks coming from his right hand,” Prater said during the news conference.
Pigeon had poured the lighter fluid on himself and was trying to ignite the lighter, police reported.
Nitzky got his bean-bag shotgun from his cruiser and, when the opportunity presented itself, fired one round in the hope of incapacitating Pigeon so they could seize him before he lit himself aflame. But just before Nitzky fired, 32-year-old Sgt. Keith Sweeney arrived at the scene.
“Just after the bean bag impact, … Sgt. Sweeny shot Pigeon five times with his 9 mm handgun,” Prater said.
As Pigeon fell to the ground, he said, “Oh, s—. Oh, s—.”
Sweeney then asked, “Is that a knife in his hand?” One officer responds, “It’s lighter fluid.”
Sweeney then tells Nitzky, “I didn’t know you had a bean bag.”
And with that, Pigeon was dead. Rather than being saved by the cops, he was dead at Sweeney’s hand. Maybe his suicide was accomplished. Maybe his cry for help was silenced with five bullets. Either way, he’s dead.
The initial police reaction was, as usual, to claim that Pigeon was violating the First Rule of Policing. But after some investigation, even the cops let that go.
After the shooting, police said Pigeon was a danger to the officers and others as he attempted to ignite the lighter fluid. An investigation later revealed Pigeon was unarmed and “not a threat to the officers when he was shot by Sgt. Sweeney,” a police investigator wrote in a court affidavit.
“After presenting the investigation to the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office, it was determined the use of deadly force, by Sgt. Keith Sweeney, against Dustin Pigeon was not justified,” according to the affidavit.
Significantly, Prater recognized that the first two officers on the scene had things under control, were knowledgeable about what they were facing, and were using less-than-lethal force to avoid harming Pigeon. And then Sweeney arrived, clueless and ready to kill.
Prater said Sweeney should not have shouted orders at Pigeon because there were already two officers engaging him.
“I wanted to let the public know that even though we did charge an officer in this incident, we had two officers — Officer Howell and Officer Nitzky — who did everything textbook in trying to bring this to a peaceful end by using less-than-lethal force,” Prater said.
On the one hand, Howell and Nitzky sought to end the interaction without harming Pigeon. On the other, Prater indicted Sweeney for needlessly putting five bullets into a man who’s only threat was to himself. And whether or not Prater is the perfect prosecutor, he surely did the right thing here.