By Paul Kiefer
Seattle Police officer Christopher Gregorio is currently serving a 20-day suspension for failing to follow his department’s de-escalation protocols before fatally shooting 57-year-old Terry Caver last May. While an investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) concluded that Gregorio’s recklessness exacerbated an already volatile encounter on a Lower Queen Anne sidewalk, OPA Director Myerberg ultimately ruled that Gregorio couldn’t be disciplined for the shooting itself, only the decisions that led to it.
Matthew Milburn, who also fired at Caver during the confrontation, is no longer with SPD; he refused to give an interview to OPA investigators, and the case against him remains open.
On May 19, 2020, a half-dozen officers arrived at the intersection of West Harrison Street and Elliott Avenue West to respond to a series of 911 calls about a man—Caver—carrying a knife and threatening passersby. When they arrived, Caver stood alone on the sidewalk, his knife concealed under a coat; the officers demanded that he drop to the ground.
Gregorio arrived on the scene with a police dog and parked close to Caver. “Don’t park right near him, guys, are you crazy?” another officer shouted.
Caver broke into a run, shouting, “You’re going to have to kill me!” as he passed Gregorio. While other officers kept a distance, Gregorio and Milburn chased Caver down the sidewalk; Milburn fired a Taser at his back to no effect, and Caver turned to face the officers with his knife hand outstretched. Both Gregorio and Milburn opened fire, killing Caver. From the moment Gregorio stepped out of his car, the entire incident lasted just 17 seconds.
Caver’s cousin, Gwendolyn Taylor, says Gregorio’s suspension is hardly enough to hold him accountable for her cousin’s death. “It’s just awful,” she said. “Terry really mattered to us, and that officer shouldn’t be able to put his badge back on.”
Members of Caver’s family often worried about his wellbeing. “We knew he was always afraid, always paranoid that somebody was after him—that the police were after him,” his cousin, Gwendolyn Taylor, said on Tuesday. Caver had faced legal trouble since his teenage years, and his mental health took a serious turn for the worse after he survived a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles soon after leaving prison in 2010. After his sister brought him to Washington to undergo surgery at Harborview Medical Center, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; Taylor believes that the LA shooting triggered her cousin’s mental illness.
The accounts of Caver’s final moments, gleaned from 911 calls and officers’ body-worn cameras, were painful for his family members, who said his behavior was similar to earlier paranoid episodes. “If there had been one or two officers, they could have talked to him,” his sister, Vanessa, said in August. “He always listened. If they had talked to him, got him to sit down in the patrol car, he would have felt safer. But there were too many officers, so he was scared.”
In the OPA’s view, the shooting was a clear example of how an officer’s failure to approach a volatile situation carefully and patiently can devolve into a shooting. According to OPA investigators, officers had an opportunity to leave space between themselves and Caver, who was “almost certainly suffering from a mental health crisis” or intoxicated. The closest bystanders “were either across four lanes of traffic or were hundreds of feet away,” Myerberg wrote in the summary of the case.
Myerberg found that Gregorio “failed to engage in any planning or tactical discussions” before firing his weapon, in large part because his decision to park next to Caver “set up a situation where he had just seconds to prepare” for the encounter. Investigators also found that Gregorio gave little consideration to Caver’s mental health before stepping out of his car, and that shouting at Caver to drop to the ground only increased the tension. Without time or space to prepare or a plan or to wait for backup from officers equipped with crisis intervention skills or a less-lethal weapon, Myerberg wrote that Gregorio gave himself few options besides using force.
Myerberg also criticized Gregorio’s reasoning for not using his dog as a less-lethal option for disarming or distracting Caver; in his interview with the OPA, Gregorio told investigators that he worried Caver would stab his dog, so he kept it on-leash. “The K-9’s life was not more important that [Caver’s] life,” Myerberg responded in the case summary, “and, if releasing the K-9 could have possibility reduced the likelihood of shooting [Caver], it should have been done.”
Gregorio, who joined SPD in 2004, has a track record of bad decision-making. In 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Black man whom Gregorio arrested after a warrantless search of his car; according to the court, Gregorio conducted the search without a legal pretext. OPA investigation records show another half-dozen complaints against Gregorio, including a suspension in 2018 for using an unnecessary pursuit intervention technique (PIT)—ramming a car to force the driver to stop—during a high-speed chase, which investigators concluded had put the lives of bystanders and the suspect at risk.
In addition to his criticisms of Gregorio, Myerberg also raised concerns about an ongoing pattern of SPD officers killing people carrying knives, writing that the department needs to “revamp” its training on responding to knives to address more complicated scenarios with “multiple moving parts.” He also suggested that the department train more officers to use less-lethal weapons, such as net guns, that could help disarm people carrying knives without resorting to live ammunition. However, he added, SPD’s ongoing staffing shortage and budgetary constraints could hinder the department’s ability to improve its response to people carrying knives.
“The K-9’s life was not more important that [Caver’s] life,” OPA Director Andrew Myerberg wrote, “and, if releasing the K-9 could have possibility reduced the likelihood of shooting [Caver], it should have been done.”
The OPA’s investigation into the Caver shooting lasted longer than usual. Although someone filed a complaint shortly after the shooting, the OPA lost track of it amid a flood of complaints stemming from SPD’s response to the citywide protests that began a week later. According to Myerberg, the office did not initially open an investigation to give SPD’s own Force Review Unit time to assess the shooting, since the two investigations can’t happen concurrently. However, after the office received a series of complaints spurred by PubliCola’s profile of Caver in August, the OPA launched its investigation; Gregorio’s union later agreed to give the office extensions to complete the investigation.
The delays were painful for Caver’s family, who are still grieving his death. “We lost somebody that we really loved,” said Taylor, “and we’ve spent more than a year waiting to hear if the person that took him from us will be back out on the streets.” From her perspective, Gregorio’s suspension is hardly enough to hold him accountable for her cousin’s death. “It’s just awful,” she said. “Terry really mattered to us, and that officer shouldn’t be able to put his badge back on.” She added that Caver’s sister and niece have hired an attorney and may pursue legal action against the city; Vanessa Caver did not respond to phone calls on Tuesday.
Once Gregorio returns from his suspension, Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz will reassign him to a new unit; because of the department’s ongoing staffing shortage, he will most likely go to a patrol unit.