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Tempe Police Officer Won’t Be Charged In Fatal Shooting Of 14-Year-Old

Tempe Police Officer James Jaen.
Tempe Police Department
Tempe Police Officer James Jaen.

Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel announced that her department would not pursue criminal charges against former Tempe Police Officer Joseph Jaen, who shot and killed 14-year-old Antonio Arce in January 2019.

Adel said her agency’s decision not to prosecute was based state statutes and case law, which she says allows police officers to use deadly force when they reasonably believe that a suspect poses an imminent threat. Additionally, Adel said there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction had the case gone to trial.

“That day, Officer Jaen did not see a 14-year-old boy with a replica,” Adel said. “In that moment, he saw a suspect running through a neighborhood with a weapon. In those few split seconds, Officer Jaen believed someone was fleeing the scene of a crime, that they were in possession of a handgun, and holding it in a manner where the weapon could be easily discharged.”

On Jan. 15, 2019, Officer Jaen was investigating a suspicious vehicle parked in an alley that dispatch had advised may have been a burglary in progress. Jaen said he observed the driver — later identified as Arce — “reach back and to the left, into the rear seat, where Arce obtained a black firearm, which was visible to officer Jaen,” a report said.

Arce ran down the alley toward the neighborhood. Jaen fired two shots at the teen, striking him in the back. Arce continued running before collapsing on the street near the entrance to the alley.

The “black firearm” turned out to be an airsoft replica of a Colt Model 1911 semi-automatic handgun.

The Tempe Police Department accepted the County Attorney’s decision, but was quick to disavow Jaen’s actions as violations of department policy. If Jaen was still employed by the department, Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir said he would have faced disciplinary action based on the investigation. Jaen resigned from Tempe Police in May, 2019.

“It was determined that former officer Joseph Jaen failed to comply with the department’s use of force guidelines,” Moir said. “Although Joseph Jaen resigned prior to the conclusion of the administrative investigation, based on the findings of our internal investigation, disciplinary actions would have been recommended.”

Viridiana Hernandez, the director of Poder In Action, says this is just one of many injustices Arizonans of color face from law enforcement in the state.

“Although we’re not surprised, it is always heartbreaking to know that this continues and can continue to happen with impunity,” Hernandez said. “The history of this county, and what we have seen from Maricopa County for a long time, usually there are no charges. But it’s still outrageous, angering, and heartbreaking.”

Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell expressed his disappointment in Jaen, but accepted Adel’s decision.

“It is difficult and it is upsetting to learn that the police department policies and procedures were not followed,” Mitchell said. “Former officer Jaen was found to have acted outside the scope of his training.”

Admitting that department policies were violated, Moir and Mayor Mitchell promised change.

“I can clearly tell you that Tempe police officers engage in an array of training,” Moir said. Moir pointed to a simulated judgement trainer, in which officers must use the correct commands to de-escalate a situation.

Moir also pointed to mindfulness training, which she says will help officers evaluate fluid situations more holistically.

“Some of that is related to mindfulness, and how officers engage in...the difficult and complex and rapidly evolving issues that officers find themselves in,” Moir said. The promise of that training is to help officers take in more information and “have a response that is wholly appropriate.”

That’s not enough for Hernandez.

“That is a disgusting response to a life lost,” Hernandez said. “A fourteen-year-old boy is no longer alive, his family no longer gets to see him, because of that wrong. It’s not just wrongdoing, but there’s a history that we’ve seen with Tempe police of this type of action.”

Hernandez called on Tempe to change its policies and make officers justify their actions after an officer-involved shooting.

“Other cities and other states are also moving to put the burden on the officers to prove that their life was at risk and in danger,” she said. “This officer’s life was very much not in danger, as Antonio ran away from him and was over 100 feet away.”

While expressing sympathy for Arce’s family, Tempe Officers Association President Rob Ferraro lauded Adel’s announcement.

“A 14-year-old is dead. And a decorated military veteran and police officer continues to struggle with the aftereffects of a split-second decision that resulted in him shooting a human being in the line of duty,” Ferraro said in a statement. “There is no joy to be found here, though we absolutely agree with the Maricopa County Attorney’s decision not to prosecute Officer Jaen.”

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Scott Bourque was a reporter and podcast producer at KJZZ from 2019 to 2022.