Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said Tuesday that he believes an officer who was struck by a burglary suspect who stole the officer's car was justified in shooting the man on Jan. 6.
"Officer (Dave) Punt took appropriate action to protect himself from imminent injury or death," St. John said at a news conference.
He pointed to video released Tuesday by the BPD from the on-board cameras of a pair of police cars, including Punt's, which shows previously unseen angles of the incident on the 800 block of Miles Avenue that left 29-year-old Daniel Brawley dead.
The first part of the video, from another patrol car parked down the street, shows Punt's car quickly back up and hit Punt before moving forward. Punt is thrown across the street before he gets up and fires at the patrol car.
In the second part of the video, taken from Punt's car, the front driver's side of the car can be seen striking Punt, who is then thrown off camera.
Punt was placed on paid administrative leave after the incident, which is required by BPD policy. He could return to work as soon as next week, St. John said.
"I've said since the beginning that my top priority in this is Officer Punt's well-being," St. John said. "He's doing very well."
While St. John expressed confidence in Punt's actions, a coroner's inquest, which is required by law any time somebody dies in law enforcement custody, will be held later to determine if Punt's actions were justified.
At the news conference, St. John said that the entire incident took about 10 seconds — after Brawley and his wife were arrested after a three-hour standoff at a home they had broken into — and that Punt acted "believing he was in imminent danger that the suspect was going to run him over."
Brawley had been handcuffed by the police SWAT team using Flex Cuffs, a sort of heavy-duty plastic zip tie. He slipped one of his hands free after Punt placed him in the back of his patrol car. Brawley then climbed through a small window and into the driver's seat of the running patrol car.
Brawley is listed by the Montana Department of Corrections as 5 feet 2 inches or 5 feet 3 inches tall, and St. John described him as slight and "very, very small." He said a normal-sized male wouldn't be able to get through the window.
Further investigation shows that Punt initially tried to release a spring to close the window, but that it didn't work. Punt tried again before manually closing it, St. John said.
"It does not appear that the cage window was ever fully seated or locked," he said.
Punt's car — an older-model BPD patrol car — has a toggle switch that, when flipped, shuts down all of the car except the motor and doesn't allow it to be driven, but Punt hadn't switched it, St. John said.
After the car struck him, backed into a tree and began to drive forward, Punt got up and fired nine shots. A forensics investigation revealed that Punt fired at least one bullet into the car's passenger side, which St. John said indicates that the car was making a left turn and moving toward Punt when he fired.
That bullet is the one that struck Brawley, entering the right side of his torso, although it isn't clear if that's what killed him. The cruiser crashed into several parked vehicles after Brawley was struck, and the Yellowstone County coroner is awaiting results from a toxicology test before releasing the official cause of death.
St. John said that the incident was a combination of a number of unusual factors — including Brawley slipping out of his cuffs, the patrol car partition window not working properly, Brawley's small size and the car running in idle — but that the result can be attributed to Brawley.
"The entire incident lies on Mr. Brawley's shoulders," he said.
He described Brawley as a "very motivated, desperate felon" who was trying to escape and said that he had access to at least a patrol-issued shotgun and semi-automatic rifle while in the patrol car.
The incident has also prompted the department to review and change some of its policies, especially in relation to handling and transporting people in custody.
The SWAT team will now be issued metal handcuffs in addition to the Flex Cuffs. If a prisoner is secured using Flex Cuffs, metal cuffs will be placed on the person as soon as it's safe to do so.
In the past, officers were required to leave their patrol car in idle while responding to incidents because on-board electronic equipment would quickly drain its battery if shut down. However, modern electronics have eliminated that problem, and St. John said officers will now be asked to turn off their patrol cars unless absolutely necessary.
In addition, rear-facing video cameras in the cars will be on at all times and impact sensors in the cars will be adjusted to automatically turn on the video cameras in the event of a collision.
"Things like this are a very good wake-up call for law enforcement agencies," St. John said.