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Savannah police officer charged with murder in suspect's death

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Posted: June 1, 2007 9:04 a.m.
Updated: June 16, 2007 5:00 a.m.

SAVANNAH - A police officer has been arrested on accusations he unjustly shot and killed an unarmed man during a foot chase.

Officer Antonio Taharka, 33, was arrested Thursday and charged with murder in the death of Anthony Smashum, who died Wednesday after being shot twice.

"A member of the community is dead, and a member of the police family has been charged with a crime," Police Chief Michael Berkow said. "There are no winners here."

It began around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday when Taharka spotted Smashum, who was wanted for violating probation, and tried to arrest him.

But Smashum, 41, fled. Taharka caught up with him and a struggle began. During the struggle, Smashum lost his shirt and shoes.

But Smashum was able to get away and ran again, cutting through a house and hopping a fence, police said.

Taharka ordered Smashum to stop, but he didn't, police said. That is when Taharka drew his weapon and fired a shot, hitting the man in the leg. But the bullet did not stop Smashum and he continued to climb over a fence.

Taharka fired again, police said. The second shot hit Smashum in the back and he collapsed behind a house.

Paramedics brought Smashum to Memorial Health University Medical Center, where he later died.

Initial findings showed Smashum was not armed and there was no threat to the officer, Chief Berkow said.

Berkow said Taharka's actions violated police policy and state law.

"We reached the conclusion that in fact our officer had committed a crime," Berkow said. "We had probable cause that our officer through the use of deadly physical force constituted an unlawful act."

State law allows deadly force only when a life is in danger, Berkow said.

Taharka has been booked into the Chatham County jail, where he is being kept in protective custody with only about half a dozen other inmates, said Sgt. Tommy Tillman, spokesman for the Chatham County Sheriff's Department.

"This is not an officer who got up (Wednesday) morning and came to work and said, 'I'm going to shoot and kill someone.' This in an officer ... who got in his police car and went out to do his job," Berkow said. "Something happened. I don't know what."

Smashum had been arrested 18 times in the past 20 years, according to jail records. He had served time for rape, sodomy and aggravated assault convictions.

Records also show Wednesday was not the first time officer Taharka used deadly force.

In 2003, he fired two shots at Ashford Cuffy during a traffic stop after seeing a dark object in Cuffy's hands. Neither of the shots hit Cuffy, who hopped a fence and tried to flee. At the time, Taharka said he was in fear of his life.

An internal affairs investigation found Taharka was justified in that shooting.

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