State finds trooper’s actions justified in Sterling shooting

State investigators have found that the actions of an Alaska State Trooper who fatally shot a man in Sterling in October were justified.

The Alaska Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals ruled that Trooper John King’s shooting of Jon Ployhar was legally justified because he believed Ployhar “was going to seriously injure or kill him,” according to a news release from the Alaska Department of Public Safety.

A letter from the Office of Special Prosecutions to the Major Burke Barrick, the deputy director of the Alaska State Troopers, on January 11, 2016 outlined the evidence and rationale for the decision. The Department of Law sends a similar letter to the Alaska State Troopers in every officer-involved shooting for the last eight to 10 years, said Robert Henderson, the Chief Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Law.

“The purpose is to provide analysis for the Office of Special Prosecutions’ decisions,” Henderson said.

The investigation began after King shot Ployhar during a scuffle in Sterling on Oct. 24, 2015. King had attempted to pull Ployhar over for a broken brake light. Ployhar failed to pull over at first, but turned abruptly off the highway with no turn signal. King turned on his emergency lights and siren, but when Ployhar still did not pull over, King signaled the troopers about an eluding vehicle and other troopers began responding to his location, according to the letter.

When Ployhar pulled over, he exited the vehicle and attempted to flee, according to the troopers’ report.

“Trooper King yelled at Mr. Ployhar to ‘stop,’ which caused Mr. Ployhar to throw an object into the woods and keep running,” Henderson wrote in the letter. “The item Mr. Ployhar threw was eventually identified as the car keys to the sedan (that he was driving).”

When King caught up to him and attempted to capture him, a struggle ensued, according to the letter. King attempted to use a Taser to control Ployhar, but it was ineffective at first, and King began to use it in “drive-stunning” mode, which is when the officer presses the Taser directly against the person’s body and releases an electric charge, a “pain compliance tactic” of activating the Taser without using the probes, according to the letter.

It still did not work against Ployhar — although King “loudly commanded” Ployhar to stop fighting, Ployhar ignored him, according to the letter.

“Mr. Ployhar was able to twist the weapon out of Trooper King’s hand and began ‘drive-stunning’ Trooper King in the forearm,” Henderson wrote in the letter. “At this point, Mr. Ployhar had full control of the Taser.”

By this point, King was on his back and Ployhar was straddling him with the Taser, according to the letter. He tried to use the Taser against King’s neck, and King began to experience muscle fatigue, according to the letter. At that point, Trooper King believed Mr. Ployhar instended to seriously hurt or kill him, Henderson wrote in the letter.

“At that point, while lying on his back, being attacked by Mr. Ployhar, Trooper King shot him once in the middle of his chest,” Henderson wrote. “The gunshot killed Mr. Ployhar nearly instantaneously.”

The State Medical Examiner’s report concluded that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the chest, according to an April 1 news release from the Alaska State Troopers. The examination also found that Ployhar was under the influence of alcohol at the time of death.

Investigators used evidence from the scene and the audio recording of the incident from King’s personal audio recorder, which “fully corroborated Trooper King’s description of the incident,” according to the letter.

Henderson wrote in the letter that King was justified in the shooting because he was under threat of imminent serious personal injury or death. Additionally, under Alaska law, a peace officer “need not retreat to a place of safety prior to using deadly force if the peace officer is acting within the scope of his authority,” he wrote.

King returned to work in October after a 72-hour mandatory leave, a standard for officer-involved shootings.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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