'Excessive force' use questioned in fatal shooting

'Excessive force' use questioned in fatal shooting

August 5th, 2009 by Jacqueline Koch in News

In light of discussion that Chattanooga police officers may have used excessive force in fatally shooting a local man, a weapons expert says firing multiple times at someone perceived as a threat is not always unjustified.

"A person can be hit 20 or 30 times and still retain the ability to point their gun at people and pull the trigger," said Emmanuel Kapelsohn, vice president and director of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors. "There's tremendous variability in what the bullet may do when it hits someone and how effective it may be."

Family members of the deceased and several commenters on a local Internet message board have said the officers used excessive force and had itchy trigger fingers in killing Alonzo Heyward, 32, on July 18 in East Lake Courts.

One message board poster named "frayne" wrote: "Seems just a tad excessive if you ask me. Shot once with a tazer (sp) and then 59 rounds expended."

But another poster identified as "Justin Thyme" commented that he couldn't see how the force would be considered excessive: "Once he's dead I don't think any more rounds are going to hurt him any worse so how's it excessive? He was killed too much?"

None of the identities of those posting on the message board could be determined.

Mr. Heyward's family did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

Law enforcement officials said Mr. Heyward was pointing a rifle at his own face outside the McDonald's restaurant on Rossville Boulevard when police approached him. Officers followed him to his home to Seventh Avenue, asking him to disarm, but he did not comply, police have said.

On his porch, Mr. Heyward refused to drop the weapon, and then officers used a Taser stun gun, which police have said was ineffective. It was unclear Tuesday why the Taser was ineffective.

Police then used deadly force.

A preliminary report from the Hamilton County Medical Examiner's Office shows Mr. Heyward sustained 43 gunshot wounds, including entrance and exit points. Officers fired 59 times, police have said. An audio tape released by the police department indicates officers fired three volleys of gunshots.

Mayor Ron Littlefield said he would wait for the investigation to be completed before making assumptions.

"I can't second-guess the police officers," he said Tuesday. "They were on the scene."

The Chattanooga Police Department major crimes division is investigating the incident and awaiting lab results and the complete medical examiner's autopsy, spokeswoman Lt. Kim Noorbergen said Tuesday.

Most of the six officers involved used .45-caliber pistols that hold nine bullets. Some may have used 9-millimeter pistols that hold 16 bullets, Lt. Noorbergen said.

Mr. Kapelsohn said a trained officer can fire six shots or more in one and a half seconds. Someone struck by those rounds may not fall in that time, he said.

If six officers independently fire for one and a half seconds, 30 to 50 shots could go off, Mr. Kapelsohn said.

A reaction period is associated with cease-firing because of the time the eyes need to perceive a threat has ended and for the brain to send a signal for the shooter to quit pulling the trigger, he said.

Mr. Kapelsohn likened that reaction time to a driver seeing an accident ahead and not tapping the brakes until his brain perceives the obstruction.

Mr. Heyward had wounds from his chin to toes, with some shots concentrated in the abdominal area, the preliminary medical examiner's report shows.

Officers across the country are trained to shoot at a person's upper chest. Mr. Kapelsohn said. That area offers shooters the greatest chance of hitting the target.

In conditions that include poor lighting and stress, officers may not always be able to aim at that part of the body, he said.