The wife of a 45-year-old man killed by three Honolulu police officers in December is suing the department for wrongful death.
Plainclothes officers in the Honolulu Police Department’s Crime Reduction Unit shot Caillen Gentzler as they were pursuing him to serve a warrant at the Hookipa Apartment Complex in Kaneohe, the complaint states.
Officers followed Gentzler, who was unarmed, to his vehicle where he locked himself inside, according to the complaint.
“With the vehicle surrounded and no immediate threat to justify the use of deadly force, Defendant Officers fired multiple shots and fatally struck Mr. Gentzler in the right side of his head,” according to the complaint, which presents a narrative of events at odds with HPD’s.
The plaintiff, Monica Gentzler, alleges that it was an “unnecessary, unwarranted, and unjustified” use of deadly force.
The complaint says that Gentzler was the target of a “sting operation” in which an unidentified informant lured him to the apartment complex under false pretenses so that law enforcement could detain him.
Despite the “pre-planned nature” of the operation, the complaint states that officers failed to adequately prepare for the possibility that Gentzler would try to evade arrest.
It states that Gentzler got into his Jeep, started the car and reversed out of a parking stall before driving forward and hitting a parked car. His Jeep then came to a stop, the complaint states.
Officers ordered Gentzler out of the vehicle, the complaint states, and opened fire “without justification or warning.” The car slowly rolled backwards about 100 feet and stopped against an apartment building, according to the complaint.
Again, officers fired several shots at the car while it was stopped against the building, the complaint states.
The lawsuit alleges that officers were never in the path of Gentzler’s Jeep.
Plaintiff attorney Eric Seitz said his client’s version of events is supported by eyewitness interviews and video, which he declined to share.
The police department has presented a different narrative.
Soon after the shooting last year, then-Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard said the plainclothes officers, who wore marked vests, approached the man and he ran to his car. He then reversed the vehicle, and officers jumped out of the way.
She said that officers fired their weapons because Gentzler drove his car toward officers and they feared for their lives. They shot four to six times, she said.
In the months following the shooting, HPD updated its use of force policy to limit the circumstances in which officers can shoot into vehicles. Now, officers may not shoot unless the person in the car either threatens someone with deadly force by means other than the vehicle itself or other factors warrant the use of deadly force.
Officers were not armed with less-than-lethal firearms or equipment, according to Ballard.
Ballard said Gentzler was wanted in relation to a kidnapping case, but the chief did not share details. According to Ballard, officers were trying to serve a warrant that would revoke the suspect’s parole. The chief said he had 12 felony convictions, 14 misdemeanor convictions and 22 petty misdemeanor convictions.
The incident was not captured on body cameras, Ballard said. Plainclothes officers were not equipped with them.
After Crime Reduction Unit officers shot and injured a man in another case earlier this year, Interim Police Chief Rade Vanic said the department is considering deploying cameras to plainclothes units. Whether the department has taken action to that end is unclear. The department declined to answer questions on Wednesday.
“The department is declining to comment due to pending litigation,” HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said via email. “At this time the internal administrative investigation is ongoing.”
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm has pledged to independently investigate all fatal shootings by Honolulu officers and has done so for the shootings that have occurred since he took office in January.
However, the Gentzler case occurred several days before his swearing-in, and the prosecutor’s office said it is still waiting on HPD to share information about the case.
“The Department of the Prosecuting Attorney has not yet received any reports or materials from HPD regarding this matter,” Alm spokesman Matt Dvonch said in a statement.
“Because the officer-involved shooting of Caillen Gentzler occurred in December 2020, before the current Administration took office, the Department is still awaiting receipt of reports and other materials from HPD. Once we receive them, we will perform our independent investigation.”
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