State says Seward police shooting of man in patrol car justified

Seward Police Officer Matthew “Eddie” Armstrong detains Micah McComas early Oct. 1, 2017 (screengrab from Seward police dashcam video obtained by The Associated Press)

The state says a Seward police officer was justified in the fatal shooting of a man he had handcuffed and detained in his patrol car in early October.

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The man, Micah McComas, had wriggled into the driver’s seat of the police vehicle moments before the shooting.

It was about 1:30 a.m. October 1 when Seward Police Officer Matthew “Eddie” Armstrong pulled over the Kia Sportage that McComas was driving.

In body camera video obtained by the Associated Press through an open records request, Armstrong is heard questioning McComas and his female passenger. He soon learns McComas has a suspended license.

Armstrong checks McComas’ pockets and wallet for weapons. The officer tells McComas he’s doing that for safety reasons, because McComas’ wallet is large and he wants to put him in his police vehicle while he talks to MComas’ passenger.

But Officer Armstrong notices suspicious baggies in the wallet.

Armstrong reads McComas his rights and puts him in the back of the patrol car with his hands cuffed behind his back. According to a report from the state Department of Law, Armstrong suspected McComas was on drugs and also holding drugs.

“If you want to contest it, just do it in court man, that’s the way it goes,” Armstrong tells McComas in the video.

“I’m a good guy…” McComas says.

“I’m not saying you are a bad guy, Micah. Have a seat,” Armstrong says.

The video shows Armstrong return to the Kia to interview the passenger, and he starts searching her purse.

All of a sudden, the patrol car’s horn starts honking. According to the state report, McComas is bumping it as he climbs through a partition into the front seat. Armstrong runs to the car, pulls out his gun and flings open the driver’s side door. McComas is now in the driver’s seat with his hands still cuffed but in front of him.

The video doesn’t show the gunshots, because the body camera was knocked off as Armstrong lunged into the car. The state report says he fired five times and that McComas died from a gunshot to his torso. The report also says while Armstrong performed first aid he heard McComas say, “I was just trying to get away.”

The report says investigators later found methamphetamine and heroin on McComas, and his blood tested positive for amphetamine.

“The suspect did actually shift the vehicle into gear, and hit the gas and started taking off,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills said, speaking on behalf of the Department of Law.

McComas’ attempt to flee was key to the department’s review of Armstrong’s actions, Mills said.

Both McComas and Armstrong appear to be white, and the state report does not indicate whether race was a factor in the shooting.

According to the report, after getting struck by the car, Armstrong acted reasonably to protect himself and others as McComas attempted to steal the vehicle, which had other firearms in the trunk.

“So under those circumstances, it was reasonable for the officer to believe that the use of deadly force was necessary, and as a result, criminal charges are inappropriate in this case,” Mills said.

Seward City Attorney Will Earnhart said Armstrong followed police department policy and that the department has its own review planned.

Earnhart said the city is proud of Officer Armstrong for showing professionalism but added that city officials have deep sympathy for McComas’ family.

McComas’ sister told the Associated Press she thinks it’s suspicious that the body camera video does not show the shooting and she wonders why so many shots were fired. The AP reports she is traveling to Alaska to meet with officials and view the video.

According to the state Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, the office reviewed a total of 13 cases involving law enforcement officers using lethal or potentially lethal force in 2017.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at