Austin Police Officer Will Not Face Charges For Fatal Shooting
The Austin police officer who shot and killed a man during an armed confrontation last December will not face criminal charges stemming from the incident.
Austin Police Chief David McKichan issued a statement today indicating his department has been "informed that no charges will be filed and the officer-involved shooting that occurred in Austin on December 23 of 2021." Mckichan indicated Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem provided a "declination letter" to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the More County Attorney's Office after reviewing the evidence gathered during the investigation into the fatal shooting.
In his letter, Ostrem indicates he was asked to review investigative reports by Moore County Attorney Kristen Nelson to avoid any potential conflicts of interest due to her close working relationship with Austin police. Following his review, Ostrem states that his office "has concluded that the evidence does not support criminal charges against any of the officers involved, including Officer Zachary Gast of the Austin Police Department.” It was Officer Gast who fatally shot Kokou Fiafonou outside an Austin convenience store. He also says that he found "the facts conclusively establish that Officer Gast acted reasonably when choosing to employ deadly force. Officer Gast reasonably believed the use of deadly force was necessary to protect himself and several members of the community from death or great bodily harm."
Ostrem's letter included the following summary of the events leading to the deadly incident.
Beginning in the afternoon hours on December 22, 2021, Austin Police Department received a call about a male walking down a street yelling about hurting someone and/or the president. An officer made contact with the subject who was speaking unintelligibly. The subject gave his name as "Ghost 5" and, a few moments later, said his name was Kokou and that police knew him well. The officer offered to take the subject to the hospital. Officers determined Kokou, fully identified as Kokou Christopher Fiafonou, was not in danger and intended to allow him to continue walking.
As a result of reported and observed behaviors, and in particular the threats, officers followed as Mr. Fiafonou walked to a residence. Mr. Fiafonou went inside and barricaded himself, randomly appearing in an upstairs porch with a knife, taunting officers. Additional members of APD responded during the ensuing hours, including the Special Incident Response Team (SIRT). Children and other family members were evacuated from the residence. Due to Mr. Fiafonou's continued behaviors including yelling and waiving/slashing a variety of knives and other objects, less-lethal rounds were deployed. While the rounds initially caused Mr. Fiafonou to drop the knives he had at the time, he went inside and came back with more.
Officers maintained a presence for approximately 24 hours at the scene. Due to continued aggressions, the regional SWAT team also responded to the residence with the hope of gaining custody of Mr. Fiafonou. Negotiators had also spent hours trying to calm Mr. Fiafonou and bring him into custody. A variety of less-lethal options were deployed without success in gaining access to Mr. Fiafonou. Of note, taser deployments had been unsuccessful against Mr. Fiafonou during the evening. Mr. Fiafonou was wearing heavy clothing and the taser probes apparently did not penetrate. Mr. Fiafonou continued to be verbally and physically aggressive.
Ultimately APD determined to withdraw the large law enforcement presence and leave behind two patrol officers to ensure if Mr. Fiafonou went back on the streets that the general community would be safe. Initially, Officer Diggins was tasked to watch the residence. Officer Diggins asked for an additional squad after experiencing aggressive behaviors from Mr. Fiafonou. Specifically, Mr. Fiafonou had charged Diggins' squad with a knife and hammer. Officer Gast joined Officer Diggins at the residence. Mr. Fiafonou repeated the same charging behaviors toward the officers a number of times during the evening, always with a knife and sometimes a hammer, ultimately retreating back to the residence on most occasions.
At approximately 9:30 p.m., Mr. Fiafonou left the residence and began walking southbound on 12th St. SW. Officers followed him as he was headed toward a busy intersection and the area of a busy convenience store. Officers tried to distract Mr. Fiafonou using their squads, hoping he would turn and chase them, thereby detouring him away from the intersection and store. Mr. Fiafonou continued to the store and officers could hear him stating he was going to hurt staff members. Officers observed Mr. Fiafonou with a long knife in his hands.
The officers were in communication with their leadership and advised that Mr. Fiafonou appeared headed into the store. Officers were told that if he entered the store, one of them would have to follow to ensure public safety.
Mr. Fiafonou entered the store and Officer Gast quickly exited his squad to follow him in. Just taking a couple steps inside, Mr. Fiafonou quickly turned around and aggressively exited the store. Officer Gast was now out of his squad, between it and the store entrance. Mr. Fiafonou aggressively ran toward Officer Gast with a knife. Officer Gast gave a number of commands to "drop the knife" or "stop" or "get on the ground." Mr. Fiafonou did not slow his approach toward Officer Gast. Officer Gast retreated a little, but Mr. Fiafonou continued aggressively and with the knife.
Officer Gast discharged his weapon toward Mr. Fiafonou seven times. Officer Diggins and other responding officers provided medical intervention and an ambulance arrived. Mr. Fiafonou died as a result of gunshot wounds.
It should be noted there were several employees and customers in the store, parked in front of the store and at the gas pumps as this event transpired.