FREDERICKTOWN – The Fredericktown police officer involved in Thursday afternoon's shooting has been placed on paid administrative leave, per department policy, according to Fredericktown Police Chief Kyle Johnson.
The other individual involved with the incident – who has not been identified by law enforcement, although his picture has been released statewide in an effort to do so – remains at-large, Knox County Sheriff David Shaffer said Saturday morning.
Johnson, who was on vacation out-of-state when the shooting occurred Thursday, returned to Knox County early Friday morning to get a handle on the case and update the public. He released a statement at noon Friday, detailing his department's account of the incident.
According to the FPD, Patrolman Josh Jones made a traffic stop on a maroon Pontiac sedan at approximately 2:47 p.m. Thursday, near the intersection of Armentrout Road and Upper Fredericktown-Amity Road in Fredericktown. He made the traffic stop for a registration violation, the FPD stated.
"The license plate that was displayed on the vehicle did not match that vehicle," Johnson explained. "That license plate belonged to a different vehicle."
As Jones approached the vehicle, "the unknown male driver pointed a handgun at him through the driver's side window," the FPD stated. "In response, Ptl. Jones fired his duty-issued sidearm at the driver, and the vehicle then accelerated away at a high rate of speed."
Jones returned to his cruiser and chased the individual north, Johnson said, while alerting local law enforcement of the situation. Shaffer said his deputies immediately responded to the area.
"He had called in the stop, and then the next radio traffic indicated shots fired, and that he was in pursuit, they were fleeing," Shaffer recalled. "And at that point, I know all of our personnel overheard the radio traffic and pretty much anybody on-station, we emptied the building to start heading that way. And then any patrol officers who were out on the road also headed that way to assist.
"It was pretty much an all-hands-on-deck effort to respond to that area, to assist him as he initiated that pursuit and tried to catch the vehicle.”
Jones reportedly followed the vehicle north, but lost sight of it near Divelbiss Road. The Knox County Sheriff's Office issued a Knox Alert at 3:31 p.m., asking the public for assistance in locating the vehicle. It was found abandoned in Richland County at approximately 5 p.m., Shaffer said, and has since been impounded.
Shaffer declined to say exactly where the vehicle was found, or if any evidence was recovered from it, citing the ongoing probe by the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI).
While original reports indicated there might have been a female in the passenger's seat, Johnson said a second individual has not been identified at this time.
"All I can go off of is what I see in the footage that I watched," he said. "And I can see that there’s somebody in the passenger’s seat, but beyond that, I have no further information.”
It's unclear how many rounds Jones fired at the individual, or if the individual fired back. There were 10 evidence markers placed midway up the hill on Upper Fredericktown-Amity Road on Thursday afternoon.
Shaffer confirmed the placards were in close proximity to where that traffic stop actually took place, but could not comment on what specifically they were marking.
It's also unclear if the individuals in the vehicle were injured. Johnson said Friday that Jones was not injured, but declined to provide further information on his well-being, "out of respect for his privacy."
Jones was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday, immediately following the incident, Johnson said. This is standard protocol for law enforcement officials involved with gun-related incidents. Johnson said counseling services will be offered to Jones during this period.
It's unclear how long Jones has worked at the department, or what kind of training he has received. Those details are located in the officer's personnel file, which Johnson declined to provide Friday, citing BCI's ongoing investigation.
Johnson did note that Jones' actions appeared to be in-line with national use-of-force standards for police officers. The chief said he had seen the body camera footage, which has not yet been released publicly.
"If an officer perceives an immediate threat that’s gonna cause possible death or serious injury to themselves, they have the ability to defend themselves if need be," Johnson said.
The Fredericktown Police Department chose to release a screen-grab image from the body camera footage on Friday afternoon, in a coordinated effort with the Ohio Attorney General's Office to try to identify the individual in the vehicle.
While it appears as if the individual is pointing a gun at the approaching officer, according to Johnson and Shaffer, this has not yet been confirmed by investigative authorities. It's also unclear if the alleged weapon was loaded.
For now, the individuals who fled remain at-large. The Attorney General's Office notified citizens and law enforcement agencies across the state Friday, in an effort to locate those involved. Anyone with information is encouraged to call the Knox County Sheriff's Office at 740-397-3333.
"It’s tough at this point, without knowing the identity of the individual, to really put a radius on (the search) ..." Johnson said. "So we’re asking for help from anybody.”
Jones was one of five full-time patrolmen on Fredericktown's police staff, Johnson said. The department also has one-part time and one auxiliary officer.
The Knox County Sheriff's Office has offered to help fill any coverage gaps during Jones' absence.
"The sheriff and I have already discussed this morning plans for assistance from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office," Johnson said Friday, "to make sure that there is no lapse in protection for the community."
Knox Pages has requested from BCI copies of any footage of Thursday's incident, including body-worn camera and dashboard camera recordings. The website has also filed a public-records request for Jones' personnel file. BCI was unable to fulfill those requests Friday.
THE LEGAL PROCESS: Jones will remain on administrative leave as BCI's investigation runs its course, Johnson said. It's unclear how long that will take. According to Steve Irwin, press secretary for the Ohio Attorney General's Office (which oversees the BCI), the timing depends on the specifics of the case.
“Typically, an officer-involved shooting takes about 400 hours to investigate, and the timeline could be several weeks or a couple months," Irwin said.
BCI investigations of officer-involved shootings are typically "very thorough," Irwin noted, and include multiple steps.
"We gather all the evidence, process the evidence in a crime lab, conduct interviews with any witnesses or any involved parties," Irwin said.
"And then ultimately, BCI’s investigation is forwarded to the county prosecutor, who then makes a decision or takes the case to a grand jury, who would ultimately determine if a use of force was warranted or not."
Knox County's last officer-involved shooting took place in December 2014, Knox County Prosecutor Chip McConville said, when a 22-year-old Mount Vernon man was killed by officers after threatening to stab his grandmother.
“We took that to grand jury in that case and the officers were cleared," McConville recalled. "It was deemed to be a legitimate use of force.”
That would likely be the threshold in this case as well, McConville said, if the case is taken to a grand jury.
“In this particular case, it would be, ‘Was this a legitimate exercise in self-defense?’" said McConville, noting the facts of the investigation are still unknown, given the nuance of the case.
McConville said he supported the idea of taking cases like this to a grand jury, as a measure of public transparency.
"Sometimes even if it’s legitimate and clear-cut, taking it to a grand jury, I think, gives the public a measure of confidence in the decision – that it wasn’t just one person making the decision," McConville said.
If a grand jury were to rule that Jones' actions were validated by Ohio law, he would be cleared. If it found Jones' use-of-force was not legitimate in this case, McConville said his office would then present the grand jury with a charge.
The charge would likely depend on the status of the other individual involved, McConville said, among other evidence.
"Assuming that he wasn’t hit ... the most you would get out of that is a potential felonious assault by shooting at someone," McConville said. "And then the question (for the grand jury) is, ‘Was it a legitimate use of force in acting in self-defense?’”
If a grand jury were to find Jones met the charging requirements, he would be indicted and the case would move forward in the Knox County Court of Common Pleas. If the grand jury were to find Jones did not meet the charging requirements, he would be cleared.
Regardless of whether the individual in this case had a legitimate firearm, or whether it was loaded, McConville said the same use-of-force standard would apply.
"You have to put yourself in the shoes of the officer at that time, knowing what the officer did," McConville said.
"If the officer believes that someone is about to fire a gun at him, that justifies the use of deadly force in self-defense. So the officer has to see and have a sincere belief, even if that belief is mistaken, that a gun is being pointed in his direction and he thinks that person is gonna fire.”
The length of BCI's investigation will likely hinge on the amount of evidence involved, McConville said. The last time BCI conducted a criminal investigation in Knox County, leading up to the Caleb Sarge murder trial, McConville said the process took "about a month."
“I do not have any expectations about the timeline," McConville said. "I know the investigator who is doing the investigation and he’s very good. It’s just gonna take as long as it takes."
Both McConville and Irwin did note, however, that this officer-involved shooting might take less time to investigate than others in Ohio in recent months. There were relatively few witnesses in this case, Irwin said, given the rural setting in which the incident occurred.
"If we have an officer-involved shooting in a neighborhood in Columbus, there’s a lot more potential witnesses and potential cameras to gather footage from, things like that," Irwin said. "My understanding is that this scene in this one is pretty limited.”