A federal appeals court recently ruled in favor of a former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officer — currently serving with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office — who faced a suit stemming from a 2009 fatal shooting of a teenager.
In September 2009, Derek Colling shot and killed 15-year-old Tanner Chamberlain in Las Vegas.
According to court documents, police were dispatched to the site after being told a bipolar teenager was threatening his mother with a knife. Chamberlain’s mother, Evie Oquendo, later testified she and her son were involved in a physical altercation and he took 10 anti-anxiety medication pills.
When officers arrived, Chamberlain, who had a folding knife in his hand, pulled his mother in front of him, documents state; the officers and Evie Oquendo disagree on the positioning of the knife relative to her head and neck. Chamberlain did not verbally respond to commands to drop the knife and backed away, still holding onto Evie Oquendo, and Colling shot him in the head, killing him.
The shooting took place within one minute of officers arriving at the site.
A coroner’s jury later ruled the shooting was justified, according to an article in the Las Vegas Sun.
In 2011, Evie Oquendo filed a suit in federal court against Colling and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. In 2013, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada dismissed several of the suit’s claims, including negligence and unreasonable seizure claims, but found in her favor on claims of excessive force, municipal liability and wrongful death.
The police department appealed, and in a decision filed in August, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling, arguing Colling did not violate any clearly established law and had reasonable cause to believe Chamberlain was an immediate threat to Evie Oquendo.
“Indeed, our precedent indicates that it is reasonable for an officer to use deadly force to stop someone who the officer reasonably believes poses a threat of serious physical harm to others,” the appellate court decision states.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department declined Friday to comment on the decision.
Evie Oquendo said she was concerned about inconsistencies in Colling’s testimony, particularly in his voluntary police statement, in which he said Chamberlain held the knife “at” Evie Oquendo’s throat; when shown frames of the shooting video during his deposition he stated the knife was “near” her throat.
“I really am concerned to know that this can happen again … that is my main concern,” she said.
Suzanne Oquendo, Chamberlain’s aunt and a retired New York City Police Department officer, said she was surprised to learn Colling found work in law enforcement after his dismissal from the Las Vegas department.
“We’re just concerned,” she said. “We didn’t want to see him have the chance to do that to somebody else.”
According to an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Chamberlain’s death marked Colling’s second fatal shooting; in 2006, he was one of five officers to shoot and kill Shawn Jacob Collins, 43, after the man pulled a gun at a gas station.
Colling was dismissed from the Las Vegas department in 2011 following accusations he beat a videographer, Mitchell Crooks, who was recording footage of police investigating a burglary. He was later hired at the Albany County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy.
Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley said he fully supports Colling, whom he describes as a professional officer highly respected by his peers and law enforcement agencies in the county. Colling hasn’t been subject to any disciplinary action since joining the office, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office conducts an extensive background investigation before placing deputies, O’Malley said, adding Colling’s supervisors and coworkers in Las Vegas considered him a “top-notch” law enforcement officer.
“He’s a fine officer,” O’Malley said. “I’m glad that I have him here. I support him completely and his future in law enforcement.”
Colling currently serves as a custody control instructor, a firearms instructor, and a member of the special response team, O’Malley said. He was the first deputy to graduate from the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy with top honors in every area.
While Colling hasn’t yet been in a situation to test for advancement, if he does and comes out in a position for promotion, O’Malley said he would promote him “in a heartbeat.”
O’Malley acknowledged that a life was lost in the 2009 incident, a difficult situation for people on both sides.
But officers don’t go out looking for trouble, he said — trouble tends to find them.
“I don’t know any law enforcement officers who get up every morning and put on a uniform and think, ‘Well, I’m going to go out and shoot somebody today,’” he said. “But all of us that put on the uniform have to realize that those can happen. And in those situations you do the best that you can under the circumstances to protect your life, the lives of other citizens, and that type of thing.”