The Garden Grove Police Department today released video that shows a suspect, who was left alone in a police vehicle Tuesday night, grabbing a loaded patrol AR-15 rifle, swinging it around and becoming agitated in the moments before a standoff with a SWAT team.
The man police identified as Stephen Eric Matthews, 33, of New York, is accused of firing the weapon once before being taken into custody without officers returning any fire.
An investigation has been launched not only into Matthews’ alleged criminal actions, but police procedures in Garden Grove that led to a civilian placed in a department vehicle being able to access a loaded weapon.
Dispatch received a phone call Tuesday from Orange County Mental Health asking for assistance while they evaluated a man at the Morningside Recovery drug and alcohol treatment facility at 9842 13th St., Garden Grove.
Officers arrived just before 9:30 p.m. and spoke with the OC mental health worker, who asked them to stand by while he did an evaluation on an individual at the facility, says Garden Grove Police Lt. Carl Whitney. “In situations like this, the role of police officers is to maintain safety for everyone involved,” Whitney says. “The OC mental health worker determined the individual needed to go to another facility for further evaluation and requested an ambulance respond to transport him.”
The man was not placed under arrest but he was asked to sit in the back seat of the police vehicle while the ambulance was enroute, says Whitney, who added the fellow was not handcuffed.
“At some point,” Whitney says, “the male subject was able to access the front portion of the police car and took possession of the semi-automatic patrol rifle.”
On the video below, you can see a man getting ahold of the semi-automatic rifle, at times pointing it toward windows and becoming agitated, saying such things as “sons of bitches,” “leave me alone” and, as he appears to have a target outside in sight, telling himself, “No, I don’t want to hurt anybody, I just want out of here.”
One reason the AR-15 was accessible? “The plexi-glass partition separating the front portion of the police car from the rear was defective,” Whitney says. “The locking mechanism failed and this allowed Matthews to reach into the front portion of the police car. Matthews was able to disengage the rifle from its locked position in the front passenger compartment.”
When officers realized the man in the car was holding the rifle, they ordered him to put it down, according to Whitney, who added the single round that was fired from inside went through the front portion of the windshield.
That prompted several more officers to arrive and “assist with containment and evacuations,” Whitney says. “Officers attempted negotiations but the suspect did not respond to officers’ commands.”
SWAT team members and three armored vehicles surrounded the police car while crisis negotiators tried to communicate with the gunman, Whitney says.
“After several hours of attempted negotiations, the suspect surrendered at 12:41 a.m. and was taken into custody without further incident,” he added. “Nobody was harmed in this incident.”
Matthews was arrested on suspicion of discharging a weapon and booked into Orange County Jail.
The Orange County District Attorney’s office announced that Matthews, who was now given Garden Grove as his place of residence, had been charged Thursday with felony assault with a firearm on a peace officer, shooting from a motor vehicle, discharging a firearm with gross negligence, unlawful possession of a loaded firearm in public, vandalism over $400 and misdemeanor resisting a peace officer.
Besides damaging the windshield with a bullet, Matthews is accused of using the rear part of the rifle to smash a police computer, according to the OCDA.
A conviction could send him to state prison for 10 years and four months. Matthews is scheduled to be arraigned this morning in the Central Jail in Santa Ana.
Meanwhile, the Garden Grove Police Department is busy taking a look inward.
“As a result of this incident, every Garden Grove police car was inspected and corrective measures have been taken, including review of our policies and procedures,” Whitney says.
“Supervisors at the police department will investigate how the suspect was able to gain access to the patrol rifle. At this point, it is unknown if the locking mechanism for the rifle failed or if the suspect somehow was able to trigger the release of the weapon. Detectives and crime scene investigators will collect and evaluate evidence.”
The video above will no doubt be a key piece of that.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.