Minneapolis Police Officer Efrem Hamilton made the decision to fire one shot at a car full of people in a matter of seconds.
Hamilton had just finished an off-duty shift in a bar on Hennepin Avenue in November 2016. His squad radio lit up with officers describing a chaotic scene not far away. On his way he heard that the shooting suspects were leaving the area in a grey sedan heading the wrong way down 3rd Avenue, North. Flashing emergency lights activated, Hamilton turned his squad onto that street, as a car matching the description was quickly backing up towards him.
"I was on high alert," testified Hamilton under direct examination. "The vehicle was coming toward me. I thought the vehicle was going to stop. It didn't."
That vehicle, a grey, four-door BMW 330i hit Hamilton's squad so hard, he said his neck snapped forward. He said he heard the BMW's engine revving.
"When I crashed with this vehicle I knew this driver was going to get out and shoot at me," he said. "So I shot at the driver."
Hamilton missed. Instead one round lodged in the car's rear, driver's side quarter panel.
No one inside the car was hurt.
Hamilton testified that he didn't have time to yell commands or take cover behind his car. A former staff sergeant in the U.S. Marines who had served nearly a year in combat in Iraq, Hamilton said those options weren't viable in that situation. He said ducking and hiding would give the advantage to the suspected shooter.
"Retreat is not an option," he said. "You want to win."
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Tara Ferguson-Lopez challenged Hamilton's assessment. She characterized the collision between the BMW and Hamilton as a fender-bender rather than a life or death situation.
But Hamilton didn't waver. "You have to win or you die," he countered.
Hamilton mostly kept calm during his testimony. He briefly choked up when he was asked by defense counsel why he responded to the scene of the shooting instead of just going home after his off-duty shift.
"Personally I would not want to wake up the next morning and find out another police officer was killed," he said, adding that if he knew he could have done something to stop it, "I would have to live with that for the rest of my life."
Since he joined the force in 2007, Hamilton has worked almost exclusively in the 1st precinct which covers downtown. Over that period, one Civilian Review Authority complaint was opened against him. The case was closed with no discipline. In 2017, a woman filed a civil lawsuit against Hamilton alleging he used excessive force when he pushed her and had her arrested in 2014. There is one case still open with the Office of Police Conduct Review filed in 2017. It's not clear if the lawsuit is related to the case that is still open.
Defense attorney Fred Bruno said the review panel has investigated the shooting into the car and "exonerated" Hamilton of any policy violations. However, city officials have said police chief Medaria Arradondo has not made a decision on the case yet.
Bruno asked Hamilton about the years of use-of-force training he's received in the military and on the police force. Besides receiving SWAT, critical incident training and a host of others, Hamilton said he also received marksman ratings while serving in the Marines.
Until the morning of Nov. 19, 2016, Hamilton said he had not once fired his service weapon in the line of duty.
It could be his last. If convicted of any of the three crimes — 2nd degree assault, intentional discharge and reckless discharge of a weapon — Hamilton will not be allowed to serve as a police officer in Minnesota anymore.