Alonzo Heyward obviously was emotionally disturbed when police were called to check on him at a McDonald's restaurant on Rossville Boulevard in the predawn hours of July 18. He held a shotgun to his head, said he didn't want to hurt anyone but himself, and walked out of the restaurant, heading to his nearby Seventh Avenue home. Police officers followed him, urging him to lay down his gun.
In the end, after he refused to drop his rifle and was shocked with a Taser, he died on his porch in a hail of police bullets: 59 bullets that left 43 wounds, to be precise.
The wounds, the initial autopsy report said, covered nearly every part of his body, from his chin to his ankle. The medical examiner's preliminary report and accompanying body sketch charting the locations of the wounds shows more than half of them on the front of his body, and the remainder on the back of his body and legs, but in locations that don't seem to suggest exit wounds. That could suggest the victim may have turned around at some point.
Regardless, the number of shots fired -- by six officers carrying semi-automatic guns with 9-to-16 bullets per clip -- raises a question of needlessly excessive shooting, at the least. Why would so many officers shoot so many rounds to bring down a man with a shotgun who apparently never fired a shot, and who apparently had shown no hostile intent toward the officers from the time they confronted him at the restaurant?
In fact, James Heyward reported that his brother, the victim, had been drinking alcohol all day, was depressed over his ability to make child support payments, and had talked about suicide earlier that night.
Taken together, the circumstances of the victim's behavior and the questions surrounding the massive rounds of shots raise the possibility of negligent homicide, and must be addressed. Police department spokespeople and Mayor Ron Littlefield have yet to tackle that issue head-on.
Police officials say they are awaiting completion of an investigation by the department's major crimes division, as well as lab tests and the medical examiner's full report. The mayor said he "can't second-guess the police officers. They were on the scene."
This newspaper's Jacqueline Koch questioned Emmanuel Kapelsohn, vice president and director of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors, on the number shots fired by multiple police officers. Mr. Kapelsohn said a person can be shot 20 or 30 times and may still retain the ability to point and fire a gun. He also said a trained officer can fire six or more shots in one-and-a-half seconds, and that someone struck by those rounds may not fall in that time. He further said that the physical response of ceasing fire in that span of time, from shooting to sensing the cessation of a threat, may not be instantaneous.
An audio tape made by an officer at the scene, however, suggests that the shots were fired in three distinct volleys. "You hear a five-second delay," Lt. Kim Noorbergen said, "and then more gunfire." She said those separate bursts indicate officers didn't think the threat presented by Mr. Heyward was finished.
Mr. Heyward's brother, at the scene when the shooting occurred, said Mr. Heyward was not pointing the gun at the officers after the Taser hit him. When he fell after the Taser shock, he clenched the gun but didn't point it at anyone, James Heyward said after the shooting. But when the shooting began, he said, "it was like they had machine guns."
Sgt. Jerri Weary, a police spokesperson who was apparently referencing conversations with the officers who fired shots, said the victim pointed the shotgun toward police, forcing them to take action.
The totality of the circumstances nevertheless beg the question of why so many officers fired so many rounds, what sort of threat they perceived, and whether other tactics could have allowed the police to safely disarm Mr. Heyward or, if not, at least to quit shooting sooner.
In the end, it is not just a question of whether the victim could have been safely disarmed, or not killed, that is so troubling. It is the apparent over-reaction and, in stark but appropriate terms, of overkill in the number of rounds fired, that strains credulity and that understandably inflames the broad community, and especially the black community, whose members have long been sensitized to police violence by a history of profiling, rough tactics and, in too many instances, needless deaths.
The shooting death of Mr. Heyward is a haunting reminder of all that. His case merits serious scrutiny, and a thorough investigation.