A jury convicted OKCPD’s Sgt. Keith Sweeney of second degree murder on Nov. 4, 2019.
Sweeney is one of a small fraction of officers who has faced criminal charges following a fatal on-the-job incident. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater argued he acted unreasonably and unjustifiably when he shot and killed a suicidal, unarmed man named Dustin Pigeon on Nov. 15, 2017.
Pigeon’s final moments began after he called 911 shortly before 2:30 AM and said he planned to kill himself. Sweeney was not wearing a body camera that night, but OKCPD officers Troy Nitzky and Erik Howell, who arrived on the scene first, were.
The footage shows Nitsky and Howell yelling at Pigeon to drop the lighter fluid he was holding before Sweeney emerges from his patrol car and runs toward Pigeon from the opposite direction. Twelve seconds later, just after Nitsky fires a bean bag gun, Sweeney shoots Pigeon five times.
"He rushed in and created the jeopardy," Prater told the jury during closing arguments.
In the world of law enforcement, the phrases “officer created jeopardy” or “officer induced jeopardy” are used to describe situations in which officers needlessly put themselves in a position where they must use deadly force to protect themselves.
Prater also brought in a trainer for OKCPD recruits who testified Sweeney had not followed de-escalation techniques taught by the department.
Under use-of-force standards laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court, police may justifiably use lethal force in situations where they have reason to believe there is a credible and immediate threat to themselves or others.
Sweeney, who pleaded not guilty, said he feared being attacked with a knife in the dark yard on the night of Pigeon's death. His lead defense attorney, Gary James, tried to poke holes in the case by telling Sweeney’s perspective. James told jurors Sweeney was not given enough information by his fellow officers and the police dispatcher. He also brought in an analyst who spoke about the limits of body camera footage.
The Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police released a statement directly after the verdict.
“Police officers routinely face split-second, life-altering decisions with incomplete information,” said OKC FOP President John George. “We know Sgt. Sweeney did not go to work that night expecting to be placed in this position. More and more, police officers are called to respond to people suffering mental health crises. Our community must increase funding to train officers and provide mental health services for people in need.”
Sweeney could spend the rest of his life in prison, though the jury recommended a ten-year sentence.