San Jose police: Officer’s return fire fatally wounded gunman who killed cop

Seconds after Scott Dunham gunned down police Officer Michael Johnson from the cover of his enclosed second-story balcony, one of Johnson’s comrades instinctively raised his AR-15 rifle and fired a pinpoint shot that took down the gunman.

That detail divulged by police leaders Thursday ended speculation about whether the 57-year-old Dunham died from a police bullet or by his own hand, even if it offered at most fleeting comfort to a department in mourning.

The San Jose Police Department and the city continue to grieve the loss of Johnson, a 14-year veteran who was married. Two vigils are scheduled Friday night, one on Senter Road, where Johnson was shot and the other at City Hall, and the family and department are still planning what is expected to be a large memorial service.

The police investigation continued at the Senterville Terrace complex on Senter Road in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. The area was theThe police investigation continued at the Senterville Terrace complex on Senter Road in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. The area was the scene of an officer-involved shooting incident in which San Jose police officer Michael Johnson lost his life, allegedly shot by a suicidal man, Scott Dunham. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group) (Dan Honda)

Internally, the effect has been pronounced on different levels. Close to a dozen officers are on administrative leave per routine policy following an officer-involved shooting — as either participants or witnesses.

“We’re all in a heightened sense of awareness right now,” Assistant Police Chief Eddie Garcia said. “These officers put themselves in harm’s way time and time again. We all realize we lost a brother and also that we still have a job to do protecting the citizens of the city.”

Johnson was one of three officers approaching Dunham’s condominium complex on Senter Road when Dunham, without warning, fired at them with a high-powered rifle in what was described as an ambush.

Johnson was hit, and a second officer, reacting to what he just witnessed, raised his rifle and fired back, Garcia said. A bullet sailed through a relatively small opening at the top of the enclosed, second-floor balcony, and struck Dunham, who fell out of view.

Unbelievable bravery was shown that day,” Garcia said. “Not just by Officer Johnson, but by the officer who returned fire under unimaginable circumstances. I wish there was a stronger word than ‘bravery’ we could use.”

Police late Thursday identified the officer who killed Dunham as 16-year SJPD veteran Douglas Potwora.

While Garcia said the autopsy corroborated the police account of the violent sequence, he declined to comment on where on their bodies Johnson and Dunham were hit or how many shots were fired. The brief gunbattle was the last contact police had with Dunham; a nine-hour lockdown of the area ensued before police entered Dunham’s condo and found his body on the same balcony.

The assistant chief reiterated that the tragic result is something police officers contemplate every day. And, as if on cue, San Jose police were called out to a domestic disturbance and possible burglary call in East San Jose on Thursday morning, with the 911 caller reporting that someone might be armed.

A large response involving at least a dozen patrol cars and an armored vehicle carrying the MERGE unit descended on the home, and the episode ended peacefully with two arrests. Police on scene said the MERGE detail, the city’s term for its SWAT unit, was deployed with Johnson’s death still on their minds.

Garcia said he brought that message to the department’s two police academy classes Wednesday.

“We hope we train and have the proper equipment so we don’t have to do that, but we know there’s a chance we may have to give the ultimate sacrifice to this job,” he said. “They need to understand and be at peace with that.”

San Jose residents are assembling to mourn and honor the fallen officer. Dunham’s wife Altheia Dunham, who was reportedly the person threatened in an incident that prompted the 911 call Tuesday, posted a photograph of a San Jose police badge draped with a mourning band on her Facebook page. She could not be reached for comment.

Two vigils are set for Friday evening: 6:30 p.m. in the 2600 block of Senter Road, the site of the shooting, held by the United Vietnamese American Neighbors; and 8 p.m. in the courtyard of San Jose City Hall, led by the Star of David Ministries and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association.


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