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Family, friends of Falls shooting victim say act was not justified

NIAGARA FALLS – Police believed Stacey M. Lewis had a weapon and drugs when they went to his home on 20th Street Wednesday night. They also knew he had twice been in state prison, convicted on drug charges.

And when SWAT members arrived to execute a “no-knock” search warrant, they looked through a front picture window and saw him running upstairs with what appeared to be an assault rifle, according to a combination of details provided by the city police superintendent and a lawyer.

Officers forced their way through a barred storm door and metal-reinforced door and told Lewis to show his hands, they said. Lewis, standing partially hidden behind a hallway protrusion, refused that order, the superintendent and lawyer said.

And when Lewis spun around, Officer Thomas Rodgers, a couple steps away, shot him once in the abdomen. Lewis dropped face down to the floor.

He did not have a rifle, but a box cutter with the blade exposed and a cellphone were found on the floor beside Lewis, said attorney Thomas H. Burton, an expert in use of deadly force who is representing Rodgers.

A “tactical medic” immediately administered first aid to Lewis, while other officers searched the house. They found a loaded Hungarian-made assault rifle built to look like an AK-47 rifle, Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto said.

There are now two investigations, one to determine if the use of deadly force was justified and another to examine Lewis’ alleged criminal activity. Rodgers has been placed on administrative leave, but DalPorto said that should not be viewed as punitive.

Family and friends of Lewis say the shooting of the 33-year-old man was not justified.

“His mother spoke with him at the hospital and he’s going to live. He told her he did not have a gun when he was shot,” said Andre Porter, a friend of Dorothy Parks and her son Stacey.

The founder of a group known as the Disciples of Racial Profiling in the Falls, Porter said there are plans to organize a protest because of the shooting.

Parks, who visited her son at Erie County Medical Center, told The Buffalo News he did not draw a weapon on the officers.

But Burton said Lewis would not have been shot if he obeyed police instructions.

“If this guy wasn’t dealing drugs and he wasn’t in possession of an illegal assault rifle, he wouldn’t be in the hospital,” Burton said. “He’s lucky he’s alive.”

A warrant was obtained in State Supreme Court based on information that Lewis possessed drugs, DalPorto and Niagara County Sheriff James R. Voutour said. When members of the Niagara County Drug Task Force received additional information that a gun was in the house, police moved forward to execute the search warrant, Voutour added.

The superintendent estimated that the city’s Emergency Response Team, also referred to as SWAT, entered the house in a matter of several seconds.

“As the officers approached the house, they did witness the individual with a weapon in his hand,” DalPorto said, explaining that it was dark out and a light inside the house enabled the officers to look through the front window.

When asked if Lewis was armed when he was shot, DalPorto said, “That’s part of the investigation.”

Detectives went to ECMC Thursday morning to interview Lewis.

When asked if Lewis was cooperating, DalPorto said he did not know.

Drug task force members had secured “enough information on drug trafficking at the house” to obtain the search warrant, Voutour said.

In addition to the assault rifle, police confiscated six bags of cocaine, two bags of heroin and a package of unidentified pills, plus $2,000. A second individual who was upstairs at the residence was arrested on an outstanding warrant and later released on $250 bail, police said. A gray pit bull, named “Chaos,” was turned over to animal control.

When DalPorto was asked at a news conference about the sensitive situation nationally on police shootings, he said he was aware of it and making every effort to be transparent, including meeting with reporters. Lewis is black and Rodgers is white.

SWAT members, DalPorto said, receive extensive training in how to handle situations, including de-escalation.

Niagara Falls patrol officers were among the first in the region to wear body cameras, but DalPorto said the department’s SWAT team members do not wear cameras because their swift movements might not be accurately captured. He also said that confidential informants and undercover officers sometimes participate in the SWAT team responses, and recording images of them could put them at risk.

Rodgers is an eight-year member of the department and veteran of the military, the superintendent said.

Of Lewis, Burton said he has a felony criminal record and refused to surrender when asked.

“Given this guy’s track record, (the officer) is entitled to an abundance of caution so he can go home in one piece,” Burton said. “If this guy just put up his hands to a SWAT officer in full battle gear, he wouldn’t have been hurt.”

Lewis has been to state prison twice for drug felonies, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

In 2003, he served a year for fifth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance.

In 2007, he was convicted of fifth-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance and served four years, including time for a parole violation.

In 2012, Lewis was arrested in a drug raid in Niagara Falls and was indicted, but the charges were dismissed after a judge ruled there was no probable cause to issue the search warrant. Two years later,

In 2014, he was reported shot in the back on Whitney Avenue, but it could not be determined if the case was solved.

Lewis was to be arraigned sometime Thursday at the hospital on five felony drug charges and one felony count of criminal possession of a weapon.

Parks, Lewis’ mother, said her son has had his problems.

“He’s in the streets and all that but as far as drawing a weapon, that’s nonsense,” she said, adding her son is the father of three young children.

Lewis Hall, a nephew of Lewis, said he and others were outside the house at 488 20th St. when police arrived shortly after 8 p.m. Wednesday.

“I heard the gunshot. It was this big boom. I thought they killed the man. Everyone scattered,” said Hall, who added he has been the victim of police brutality.

Porter, an uncle of Hall’s, said he plans to gather members of the community to meet with Parks and other relatives to discuss organizing a protest against police in coming days.

If it is true that Lewis had an assault rifle, Porter said, it was for protection because he has been unjustly targeted by police in the past.

News reporter Matt Gryta contributed to this report.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com and tprohaska@buffnews.com

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