Shooting reopens old wounds

Shooting reopens old wounds

August 9th, 2009 by Pam Sohn and Jacqueline Koch in News

Staff Photo by Matt Fields-Johnson James Marine, father of the deceased Alonzo Heyward, examines the aquarium that was shattered by police bullets when Mr. Heyward was shot. The aquarium was home to Nemo the fish, and Nemo was buried with Mr. Heyward. "This just doesn't make any sense," Mr. Marine said.

Several members of Chattanooga's black community are talking among themselves and with representatives of civil rights groups to try to understand how and why 32-year-old Alonzo Heyward was shot by police 43 times last month.

"It's really disheartening to hear all this stuff and have all these shootings," said Maxine Cousin, a longtime critic of the Chattanooga Police Department after her father, 66-year-old Wadie Suttles, died in 1983 from a fractured skull received in the now-closed City Jail. Witnesses had seen Mr. Suttles scuffling with jailers and another inmate, but no one ever was charged.

On Saturday, Ms. Cousin said the July 18 shooting of Mr. Heyward reopened old wounds for her and others locally.

The number of shots fired at Mr. Heyward -- 59 in all by six officers -- didn't surprise her "in Chattanooga," she said. But what she called "the callousness" did.

"What I got from that was that they really don't know what else to do," she said. "There can't be, in a sane society, that the only thing you know to do in your job as a policemen is just to shoot and kill folks. There have got to be other ways to deal with this (handling people with mental disorders or depression)."

Mr. Suttles had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Mr. Heyward was threatening suicide when officers were called to a fast food restaurant on Rossville Boulevard where he held a rifle.

Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper said last week he doesn't argue that firing 59 times at a suspect seems excessive. Nor does he disagree that 43 entry and exit wounds on the body of Alonzo Heyward, who was fatally shot by police July 18, appear extreme.

"We're not trying to debate that," he said. "We're not upset that people think that's excessive. We understand how people would feel that way."

But Chief Cooper said that level of excessiveness is necessary when officers are faced with a deadly threat, something average citizens don't always understand.

"(An officer's) mind is focused on the threat they're presented with, and their training tells them to continue what they're doing until the threat ceases to exist," he said.The six officers involved, Lauren Bacha, Deborah Dennison, Zachery Moody, George Romero, William Salyers and Bryan Wood, were placed on seven days paid leave, according to Chattanooga Police Department policy. All have returned to work.

Papa Ricks Mukasa, a self-described "black power" advocate who met in Alton Park on Saturday with Ms. Cousin and several other concerned community members, called the leave "a paid vacation."

"We've got to get mad," he told the group, which included Tennessee Civi Rights Legal Consultant Ronald Madden, an investigator with Tennessee Civi Rights Clinic.

Chief Cooper said it was disheartening that some people attempted to turn the situation into a racial issue.

"We don't determine whose house we're going to," the chief said. "Officers don't see it in black and white. They're protecting the citizens and our communities of people that they don't know."

The local chapter of the NAACP released a statement calling for the release of information in regard to Mr. Heyward's death, as well as about the six officers involved in the incident.

The organization is seeking answers and accountability more than anything, chapter President Valoria Armstrong said.

"We're not saying anything was done wrong, but we want to make sure everybody has the information that's available," she said.

A preliminary report from the Hamilton County Medical Examiner's Office last week revealed that Mr. Heyward had 43 entry and exit wounds on his body after he was shot to death by Chattanooga police.

Police said Mr. Heyward had been making suicidal threats July 18 when officers were called to the McDonald's on Rossville Boulevard. Police continually asked Mr. Heyward to drop his rifle and followed him to his Seventh Avenue residence. When he would not drop the rifle and turned to enter the residence, they used a Taser, which was ineffective.

Only one probe was found attached to Mr. Heyward's body, said the officers' attorney, Bryan Hoss. A Taser is effective only when both probes fix themselves to a suspect.

Mr. Heyward then allegedly moved the barrel of the rifle from his chin to point it at the officers, Mr. Hoss said.

The officers then used deadly force, firing in separate volleys because Mr. Heyward did not immediately fall to the ground or release the rifle, Mr. Hoss said.

Mr. Hoss disagrees with statements that officers shot an excessive number of times, saying that they followed departmental policy by continuing to give verbal warnings, attempting to use a Taser, calling for assistance on their radios and using force only when the threat could not be abated.

"It is a classic case of Mr. Heyward wanted to die that night," he said. "It's tragic that he forced officers to do that. When you refuse to put a gun down, they are absolutely authorized to use deadly force."

A rifle shell casing recovered at the scene will be tested to determine where it came from, though authorities don't know how long it had been there.

None of Mr. Heyward's family members, who previously said the shooting seemed excessive, could be reached for comment last week, despite repeated messages left for comment.

Chief Cooper said it's important to provide the public with as much information as possible -- without compromising an investigation -- so residents can understand what occurred before and during the shooting and why police initially got involved.

That six officers all perceived the same threat and acted accordingly also speaks well of their training, he said.

Ms. Cousin, however, questions the training.

"If somebody has a mental problem there ought to be facilities to handle that, or the police ought to be trained to recognized somebody with mental problems so that they can deal with it properly," she said.