Ryan Whitaker never got a chance.
Just three seconds after he opened the door of his condo at 16000 S. Desert Foothills Parkway in Ahwatukee around 10:53 p.m. May 21, Phoenix Police Officer Jeff Cooke fired three quick rounds, killing him with two bullets in the back.
Whitaker’s final moments are recorded in a chilling video that was released last week by the Phoenix Police Department.
It is part of an internal and criminal investigation that may also include an unidentified neighbor and a 911 operator whose conversation with the neighbor occurred about eight minutes before Cooke and Officer John Ferragamo knocked on Whitaker’s door.
The video consists of portions of the recordings from the two officers’ body cameras, audio of parts of two 911 calls by the same man and commentary by Phoenix Police public information officer Sgt. Tommy Thompson.
The day after the video’s release July 15, Whitaker’s family and their attorney, Matthew Cunningham, held a press conference outside City Hall to demand that murder charges be filed against the officers. An online petition with that same demand at change.org has already been signed by more than 3,700 people.
The video also prompted renewed calls by activists and family members for greater accountability by police and justice for the slain 40-year-old Whitaker, who, according to family members, had been celebrating his daughter Taylor’s graduation from Mountain Pointe High School and had been playing a video game loudly when the neighbor had first called police.
“There is no effective police force unless there’s trust between the police department and its citizens,” Cunningham said. “They could start with this case. They can say ‘we will be accountable…and we will be truthful. We’re going to train our officers that we don’t use excessive force in these situations. We don’t just kill innocent people.’
“This was a good man. And he was a good citizen who honored and respected the police just like this family does. And he has two children. And he should be alive today.”
The slaying of Whitaker – whose great great grandfather was one of Phoenix’s first 12 policemen – also prompted Councilman Sal DiCiccio to issue a statement expressing condolences to the victim’s family and concerns about the conduct of the officers and the 911 operator.
“I have had serious questions about this incident from the beginning and have pushed Phoenix Police to release this information as soon as possible,” said DiCiccio, who has been a strong advocate for police over the years.
“Based on the horrific events we witnessed in the Critical Incident Briefing video, I will continue to insist on a thorough and comprehensive investigation of this case. I have serious concerns about the nature of the 911 call and how that information was relayed to our officers, as well as the actions of the shooting officer,” he said.
The 911 calls and the slaying
The tragic series of events that led to Whitaker’s death began around 10:18 p.m. May 21 when an unidentified man called 911 to report a domestic disturbance between a man and a woman.
“I have a domestic dispute going on,” the caller said. “And I can tell that they’re just at each other’s throats down there.”
Thompson said that at 10:44 p.m., the complaining neighbor called 911 a second time and “indicated the incident had become a physical altercation and the call was upgraded to an emergency response.”
Only a portion of that second call was released by Phoenix PD.
In it, the caller tells a different 911 operator that he had called before “and it’s getting really loud and been doing it for the last hour. I got to get into work tomorrow and I can’t get no sleep. These guys have been noisy constantly (words deletedin the video) …Every time I come back, these guys are noisier than hell. Always fighting.”
The 911 operator interjected and said, “Okay, does it sound like it’s escalated to anything physical or still just sound verbal?”
The caller replied, “It could be physical. I, I could say ‘yeah’ if that makes anybody hurry up on (words deleted in video) ...getting over here any faster.”
The operator then asks the caller if he heard anything that might “indicate that it might be getting physical?”
The caller replied, “I hear slamming of doors and I don’t know. Somebody could be gettin’ thrown into a door for all I know. But I hear all kinds of banging.”
At this point in the video, Thompson says, “The information was relayed to the responding officers.”
Cooke and Ferragamo arrived at the scene about 10:52 p.m., Thompson said.
Ferragamo took his position facing Whitaker’s condo to the left of the door and Cooke on the right side of the door, both out of sight from the door peekhole. Ferragamo knocks and announces, “Phoenix police.” A few seconds elapse and Whitaker opens the door, holding a gun in his right hand at his side.
In his narration, Thompson says Cooke, “believing the other officer was in danger, fired his weapon” and noted that Whitaker never fired his gun.
The video shows Whitaker opening the door and saying, “Whoa!” as soon as he sees Ferragamo. The victim’s back is turned to Cooke.
Whitaker immediately begins kneeling down. He raises his left hand and is extending his right arm to put the gun down when Cooke fires three times.
Whitaker appeared to be less than two feet away as the officer fired. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Cooke has been a patrol officer for Phoenix for less than three years.
Whitaker was born in Chandler, one of Alan and Diane Whitaker’s four children, and graduated from Mountain Pointe High School in 1998. He left behind his widow Stacey, a 17-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son, five siblings, three grandparents and “many uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins,” his obituary stated.
“Ryan loved softball, playing cornhole with his son and beating everyone at everything,” the obituary states. “He had a bigger than life presence and loved his family more than anything.”
A Gofundme.com campaign raised nearly $22,000 for his family.
Anger and outrage
Two of the victim’s siblings, Steven Whitaker and Katie Baeza, and his father spoke emotionally at a press conference and rally attended by friends July 16.
Steven said the video proved his sister Katie was right when she told TV reporters the day after the shooting that “Phoenix PD murdered my brother.”
“I know there’s people out there they’re saying ‘hey man, your brother came to the door with a gun. He got what he deserved. He had what he got coming to him,’” Steven said. ““Well, I say this to those people: ‘My brother had no idea police were on the other side of that door. None whatsoever.”
“My brother was pro-law enforcement,” Steven said, adding that his brother once wanted to become a police officer and that had he known police were knocking, the gun “would never have come out of that nightstand.”
He referred to a recorded interview by a detective at the scene and noted, “country music playing in the background and it’s really loud. It’s very obvious. There was loud music going.”
“Look at my brother’s face,” he continued. “You can see the very second he identifies it’s police on the other side of that door. You can see it in his face, the fear...He immediately takes a defensive position, very submissive and wanting to give up and put his weapon down.”
Steven lashed out at police, stating, “There’s been zero accountability and people wonder why … there’s a lack of trust right now in Phoenix PD. There’s no transparency, no accountability.”
His sister Katie said Cooke was her brother’s “judge, jury and executioner” and called for the officers’ prosecution and the dismissal of the 911 operator, who she said “used poor judgment in escalating the call.”
She said the neighbor who complained had “falsely, knowingly escalated that call because he needed to sleep.”
Cunningham said he and his assistants are currently breaking down the video, but added that the department has not released all the footage, saying the video obscures what he believes the moment when the shots were fired. He said he believes Whitaker had already laid down his gun before Cooke fired.
“This rises to the level of an ambush,” Cunningham said.
“We need a great police department,” the attorney continued. “We would love for Chief (Jeri) Williams to sit down with this family in the memory of Ryan Whitaker. Let’s impose some effective change. Let’s make sure that some family doesn’t have to go through this again. Let’s minimize any chance that this happens again.”
“We deserve better. The citizens of Phoenix deserve better. The police department themselves deserve better than that officer who overreacted with excessive, unnecessary force. The Whitaker family deserves better.”
The victim’s father also spoke, noting his son’s great, great grandfather’s legacy as one of the city’s first police officers.
“That’s the heritage he had in his heart,” he said of his son. “And that’s why we know he would have done the right thing and he did. And my great grandfather would be so disappointed and disgusted with this department right now – to know this goes on and all of you ... don’t stand up and say, ‘This is wrong.’ That is what is terrible about this department and this incident. That’s gotta change and I’m sorry for yelling, but something’s gotta change.”