Alonzo Heyward carried a rifle around his low-rent neighborhood one day last month, ranting about suicide and ignoring the pleas of friends for hours before six Chattanooga police officers surrounded him on his front porch and decided it had to end.
His father says Heyward told the officers, “I’m not out here to hurt anybody.”
But the police, who tried unsuccessfully to disarm Heyward, fired 59 rounds to kill him on July 18. The medical examiner found 43 bullet wounds in his chest, face, arms, hands, legs, buttocks and groin. Police contend Heyward was a danger to others and threatened the six officers.
Chattanooga police spokeswoman Jerri Weary described the case as “suicide by cop.”
As questions continue to surround the shooting, Heyward’s family and civil rights leaders take issue with the police response.
“We have a large concern about the amount of shots fired,” said Valoria Armstrong, president of the NAACP branch in Chattanooga.
A Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial cartoon asked “IS THIS EXCESSIVE FORCE?” — spelling out the question with letters labeling the wounds in a drawing based on Heyward’s autopsy report.
His father, James Marine, 61, does not believe Heyward really wanted to kill himself or that he was trying to commit “suicide by cop.”
“He just needed somebody to talk to,” Marine said. … “I believe he was just depressed at that time.”
A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe is ongoing. Federal and local authorities are awaiting the TBI report before they do their own examinations of the case. Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox said he wants to see the TBI report before deciding whether to pursue a criminal case.
Heyward, a 32-year-old moving company employee, was black. The six officers are white. They were temporarily placed on administrative leave but have since returned to work.
Police spokeswoman Weary said the officers confronted Heyward when they responded to a report of three men wrestling over a gun in the street just after 4 a.m.
Heyward’s father said there was never any wrestling over the .44 Magnum rifle that his son was carrying and sometimes pointing at his chin.
Police said the officers tried but failed to disarm Heyward with a stun gun. Weary said Heyward ignored repeated commands to drop the rifle and officers fired when they felt threatened by the way he moved it.
Police accounts and a patrol car video indicate the shots were fired in three volleys, all within 30 seconds. Each officer used a .45-caliber pistol. Some officers emptied their magazines, reloaded and fired again, while others didn’t fire all their bullets, Weary said.
Some of the gunshots ripped through the unoccupied front room of the house Heyward was renting from his employer, the owner of a local moving company. No one else was injured.
The FBI and Justice Department do not keep national “suicide by cop” statistics. FBI records from September 2008 show 391 “justifiable homicides” by law enforcement in 2007, up slightly from the previous year.
Eugene O’Donnell, a former policeman and prosecutor who is now a professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said there is “no magic number” when it comes to officers firing at a suspect.
If death is believed to be imminent “there isn’t anybody in the country who can tell the cops 10 shots and no more,” O’Donnell said.
“Unfortunately this is replicated all over the country. When you send the police they bring deadly force with them. They come armed and they come predisposed to use force,” O’Donnell said.
According to court records, Heyward had been charged three times in the past with domestic assault. The first two were dismissed. The third, from a January 2008 incident, remained pending at the time of his death.
He was sentenced in 2005 to 11 months, 29 days in the county workhouse for passing worthless checks, but the sentence was suspended for good behavior and he was given probation.
He also had a few driving related charges on his record, including a violation of the auto registration law for which he received a 30 day suspended sentence in 1997.
The morning he died, Heyward was distraught after returning from a party where he had been drinking, his father said.
“He didn’t think anybody cared about him,” Marine said.
Heyward was also upset about not seeing his children — a daughter and two sons — according to brother James Heyward.
The video shows that police were told Heyward was drunk and talking about killing himself before they started shooting.
Chattanooga police officers get two to four hours of training annually on dealing with people who are mentally ill or under the influence of drugs or narcotics. But Weary said the training could not be applied in this case because the situation was too fluid and unfolded too quickly.
Weary wouldn’t say whether Heyward had a history of mental health problems, citing the ongoing investigation. Marine said his son had no history of mental illness.
Amanda Counts, Heyward’s girlfriend, and neighbor Darrell Turner said they witnessed the shooting. They said Heyward was lying on the porch on top of the rifle when officers opened fire.
“Before the first shot was fired he was down,” Counts said. “Not one time did he threaten anyone.”
Citing the ongoing investigation, police declined to answer questions about Heyward’s position when officers started shooting.
Counts and Turner both said that during the first brief interruption in the barrage of police gunshots, they heard Heyward ask, “Why are you shooting me?”
That cannot be heard in the recording provided by police.
Police Chief Freeman Cooper this month told Chattanooga radio station WGOW the simultaneous shooting by all six officers shows they acted properly.
“We are saying that our people did what we trained them to do,” the police chief said.
The officers involved in the shooting had between three and six years on the force.
Heyward’s father said he thinks a different police response could have brought the incident last month to a peaceful conclusion.
“I believe he would have put that weapon down,” Marine said. “They should have said, ‘Mr. Heyward, put the weapon down. We’re here to help you.’ … He wasn’t threatening no one.”