Morrow County District Attorney Justin Nelson said a grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing in deputy Aaron Haak’s Sept. 22 shooting of an armed man.
The grand jury Monday afternoon watched police video footage from the shooting that took place along Interstate 84 near Boardman. The grand jury also heard testimony from the state police detective who investigated the case. After reviewing the evidence, he said he asked the jury if it wanted his office to pursue charges against Haak.
“And their response was no,” Nelson said.
Nelson said the shooting victim, Efren Hurtado Jr., 26, of Boardman, is recovering at a Portland hospital, and was well enough to talk to police, in spite of taking a bullet to the head.
Haak, of Heppner, parked his police car behind an older Chevy Tahoe on the westbound side of Interstate 84 near the exit for Boardman in the early morning hours of Sept. 22. Nelson said other officers the day before noticed the vehicle, and Haak was going to make sure state police tagged it for towing.
As Haak approached, Nelson said he did not expect anyone to be inside. That’s when Hurtado opened the rear passenger door, looked out and pointed a gun at the deputy.
Haak quickly fired two rounds, Nelson said. One missed and the other struck Hurtado in the side of the head, dropping him. The bullet, however, did not penetrate the man’s skull.
Haak rushed back to his car for cover, Nelson said, called dispatch and waited until other police arrived minutes later.
Police approached the SUV, he said, and found Hurtado unconscious with a revolver next to his hand.
Nelson confirmed that the investigation followed the Morrow County Sheriff’s Office protocol for police shootings. That includes waiting at least 48 hours before questioning the officer in-depth and allowing the deputy to have an attorney present. Nelson said he knows the delay is controversial among some law enforcement reformers and the practice has come under fire in Portland.
Morrow County Sheriff Ken Matlack defended the protocol, explaining an officer’s “excited utterances” at the scene are not always helpful to figure out what happened.
Matlack said the best practice in the immediate wake of a traumatic event is to ask an officer questions “for basic clarity,” such as: Are people injured? Should police look for a suspect? Pushing an officer to give details in the moments after a shooting can cloud recollections because, he said, “they’re full of adrenalin and full of all the emotions.” The waiting period allows an officer to “decompress,” he said, and provide better information during later questioning.
Matlack also said because the shooting involved one of his deputies, he wanted an outside agency to handle the investigation to avoid conflicts of interests.
“I can use anybody I want and feel is appropriate to investigate this,” he said.
Oregon State Police made the most sense, he explained, because the agency is a member of the major crime team for Morrow and Umatilla counties, so those officers responded to the shooting. While state police took the lead, Matlack said the detective still had to adhere to the sheriff’s office plan for investigating the shooting.
Nelson said his office has not decided about charging Hurtado, who told police he knew when Haak approaching the vehicle that he was a police officer, but otherwise gave guarded answers. Circuit court records show Hurtado pleaded guilty to methmphetamine possession in December 2015 in Morrow County and November 2016 in Umatilla County and is serving five years probation, which includes a provision not to possess weapons, firearms or dangerous animals.
Matlack said Haak has been on leave during the investigation, per the officer-involved shooting plan, which is in the process of review.
The plan does not provide a timeframe for when an officer should return to work after a shooting, Matlack said, while most agencies specify a period of 48 or 72 hours. Matlack said the sheriff’s office is looking to change the period to something like no sooner than 48 hours to create some certainty and line up with other agencies.
“He’s ready to come back to work,” Matlack said Monday, “and we’re ready to have him.”
Haak, of Heppner, was a parole and probation officer in Morrow County until summer 2016, when he moved into a deputy vacancy at the sheriff’s office. He graduated in January from the basic police course at the Oregon Public Safety Academy, Salem.
Contact Phil Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0833.