FARGO — Fargo police officers will not face discipline after an internal investigation found they acted appropriately when they shot a man in the eye with a less-than-lethal weapon in October.
The man, 27-year-old Tyler Alexander Patel, told officers he had a gun, according to a 13-page internal investigation report The Forum obtained Wednesday, Dec. 11, through a public records request.
Patel's mother, however, claims her son was not a threat to anyone and alleged officers only escalated the situation before firing a pepperball gun, which fires rounds containing a powdered chemical similar to pepper spray, and blinding him in his right eye.
Police officials found the use of the pepperball gun against Patel on Oct. 2 was “reasonable, necessary and within policy,” according to the internal investigation report.
Patel told police he wanted them to shoot him while refusing to obey commands to drop the gun he claimed to have, the report said.
Internal investigators interviewed nine officers who were at the scene, some of whom said they feared for their lives and the safety of others in the area.
“Officers had to take into account Patel’s history, mental state, claiming to be armed and safety for all around the area,” the report said, adding that the officers’ actions prevented him from further hurting himself or others.
Because the internal investigation cleared the officers of wrongdoing, police do not plan to forward the case to the Cass County State's Attorney's Office for prosecutors to review for possible criminal charges against the officers, police spokeswoman Jessica Schindeldecker said.
According to the internal investigation report:
Officers arrived shortly after 6 p.m. at the Dacotah Foundation Alternative Care Services building at 1322 Gateway Drive, near 13th Avenue South and 25th Street, where they encountered Patel outside. Officers brought along a first-aid kit to treat Patel after hearing he cut himself.
Patel told police he had a weapon and refused to drop it, despite officers' commands to put it down. Officers drew their guns after he said he had a weapon.
Police also asked several times what type of weapon Patel had until he said he had a gun concealed in his waistband, according to a summary of video recorded by police. At times, Patel told officers to shoot him, but it doesn’t appear he threatened to shoot anyone.
As Patel turned to run, Officer Jon Novacek sprayed pepper spray at him, but it was ineffective and he made it into the building.
Officers tried to negotiate with Patel from outside the building, and he eventually opened the door slightly. Novacek shot a pepperball gun, with one round hitting bricks above the door.
The pepperball appeared to not affect Patel, and he went back inside. Officers continued to order Patel to come out with his hands visible, while another officer said they were there to help.
Patel exited the building again, this time with his hands in the air. Patel then put his hands down near his waistband, where officers thought he had a gun.
Sgt. Travis Moser ordered Novacek to “give it to him.” And Novacek shot four pepperball rounds in rapid succession— three to the chest and one to Patel’s eye.
Patel was arrested, but no weapon was found on him, the report said. He was taken to Essentia Health for medical attention.
Patel has been charged in Cass County District Court with a Class C felony of terrorizing and a misdemeanor count of preventing arrest. He has a court hearing set for Thursday, Dec. 12.
Patel's mother, Stephanie Patel, told The Forum her son tried to de-escalate the situation by going inside to avoid having to deal with the police. She also noted that Dacotah staff told police her son did not have a weapon — one officer said that in the internal investigation report.
She asserted there was no reason to shoot him.
“If someone felt threatened because they really believed someone had a gun, if their fear was that irrational, the sensible thing was to leave and let someone who was not consumed by irrational fears deal with the situation,” she wrote in an email to The Forum.
Novacek told an internal investigator he had interacted with Tyler Patel in the past and knew him to be “extremely volatile and unstable,” the report said. Tyler Patel made threats toward officers in the past, and Novacek said he feared for his own safety during the Oct. 2 encounter, the report said.
Moser said Tyler Patel appeared to be “posturing and devising a plan” just before he was shot, the report said, with Moser adding that he feared the situation could turn into a “deadly force encounter.”
The report's conclusion cited the department's use-of-force policy, which says officers “shall use only that amount of force that reasonably appears necessary” during the situation. Officers have an objective to avoid and minimize injury, but officers are not required to retreat or be exposed to physical injury before applying reasonable force, according to the policy.
“(Tyler) Patel’s actions forced the officers to intercede,” the report said, adding that he “posed a significant risk to the public …. Backing off and allowing Patel to move about freely was not a reasonable option.”
Tyler Patel had surgery on his eye last month, but he is still blind in that eye, according to his mother. “This is a permanent disability which will restrict him in life, limit the kinds of jobs he can have and perhaps cause additional suffering,” she wrote.
The report said Novacek correctly fired the pepperball gun in rapid succession, noting a “slight movement” can change where a round hits. “While it is unfortunate Patel was struck in the face, I do not believe that was Officer Novacek’s intention,” the report said.
Stephanie Patel has spoken with police about possibly changing their policy when it comes to using less-than-lethal force and helping those in crisis.
Chief David Todd was unavailable for an interview Wednesday, but he issued a statement saying: “All incidents like this provide an opportunity to look at policies, and this incident, after an internal review, shows the officers acted appropriately."
Tyler Patel’s mother said this incident presents an opportunity to learn from mistakes and start a discussion about helping those with mental health challenges.
“What needs to happen is honest dialogue about these issues,” she said.