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Faipule continue to question commissioner about armed cops

Armed police officers  [photo by AF]
Public complaints heard — about cops with guns during recent traffic stop

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Police Commissioner Le’i Sonny Thompson told members of the House Public Safety committee during a hearing last month, the reason why police officers show force on public highways is not because they want to, but because when people see police officers with guns, that’s when they start to change their actions and comply with the law.

“Every morning during our briefing with my senior staff, I always remind them that their weapon is our last resort. When dealing with vehicles with drugs and weapons inside, they have to use necessary force by way of a baton, pepper spray, and other tactics and physical maneuvers such as taking down a person,” Le’i said.

Committee chairman, Rep. Manumaua Wayne Wilson told Le’i during the hearing that almost every week lawmakers receive a lot of concerns and complaints from members of the community, in regards to the issue of police officers carrying guns during their traffic stops.

Manumaua reminded Le’i of a case that was reported in Samoa News in February, where a mother was complaining when several police units with several police officers inside pulled over their vehicle in the middle of the road, pointing their guns at their vehicle while she inside with her husband and their 4-year-old son.

“If a weapon is the last resort, why did police officers draw their weapons and point it at the vehicle instead of treating this traffic stop as a normal stop like they do to other vehicles on the road?” Manumaua asked.

He was referring to the case of Hapakuki Fotuaika, a man accused of firing a gun into the air outside a nightclub on the night of Super Bowl LII and police officers arrested him with a warrant from the court during the traffic stop, with guns drawn.

Le’i told lawmakers when police officers pulled over the family’s vehicle that was in question during the traffic stop, they had the feeling the gun that was allegedly discharged was inside the vehicle.

“The reason why we show force on public highways, it’s not because we want to, but maybe people will change their behavior and mindset when they see police officers with guns on the road,” Le’i said.

The Police Commissions said that it’s his responsibility to make sure all police officers comply with what they are trained for, and if a police officer fails to comply with all the training they have had, that police officer will face consequences for his/ her actions, and the weapon will be remove from him/ her immediately.

“Did police officers accomplish their mission?” Manumaua asked Le’i, referring to the Fotuaika case. Le’i responded, “Yes, the suspect was arrested and he’s now being charged.”

Fotuaika, who is released from custody on a $10,000 surety bond, is being charged with weapons possession. His case is now in High Court and is represented by William R. Olson of the RDA Law Firm.

TCF warden, Tauese Va’aomala Tauese, who is the former head of DPS Criminal Investigating Division (CID) told lawmakers that one of the things they need to remember is the circumstances surrounding the case.

“I want faipule to know that this is a case involving a weapon that was allegedly discharged that can kill somebody and cause serious physical injuries,” Tauese said, who echoed Le’is’ testimony that police officers went out to execute an arrest warrant during a traffic stop.

According to Tauese, based on police officers’ training, it’s required that this type of incident must be treated as a felony stop.

“When it’s a felony stop, there are certain requirements for police officers’ safety, and that is the primary thing for a police officer. Unfortunately in this case, a mother and her young son were inside the vehicle, and these are unfortunate things that can happen,” Tauese said.

“But remember, that’s doesn’t take away by any means the value of a police officer’s lives, their safety has to come first — and this incident needs to be addressed because if people question the action by police officers on that day, we have to look at the totality of all the circumstances surrounding this particular incident.”

Vice Speaker, Rep. Fetu Fetui Jr told Le’i that there’s no question about how dangerous their job is. Moreover, they’re heading to the most critical part of their job due to the fact that police are now officially armed — something he did not think was going to happen.

“Do you have confidence that those police who are selected to be armed are qualified to do the job?

“There are a lot of concerns from the community about the arming of police, and because of this, people are now saying they too have rights under the Constitution to be armed,” he said.

Fetu made the same comment during last year’s hearing with the police commissioner when lawmakers asked questions on whether local police who have been certified to carry weapons have received all the necessary training.

At the time, Le’i said that out of 47 police officers that received training and were certified, including three court marshals, only 24 of them carry weapons.

(Le’i is one of those 24 police officers, along with police commanders, captains, lieutenants, sergeants and several police officers.)

The three court marshals who are now certified to be armed were part of a two-week weapons training conducted by retired LAPD officer Ernie Haleck last month, where 14 participants received certificates of completion, bringing the number to 47.

According to Le’i, the 14 participants come from Department of Public Safety, the Court House and Port Administration. The next training will be held in the next 4 months.

Manumaua congratulated Le’i for doing his best to make sure armed police officers will continue to receive training to upgrade their ability, knowledge, and skills to make good decisions. He told Le’i he believes that with more training, the officers will be more comfortable and confident in utilizing his/ her weapon.