SUNDAY EDITION | Video shows moments before controversial police shooting
Federal judge finds that Bowling Green “police used more force than was reasonable" in the shooting death of an unarmed, mentally ill man.
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WDRB) – He was mentally ill, unarmed and so intoxicated that he had urinated on himself when police found him staggering along a railroad track in Bowling Green on the early morning of Aug. 12, 2012.
“If you don’t f---ing show me your hands, I will shoot you,” Bowling Green Police Sgt. Donitaka Kay shouted to Gregory Harrison within a minute of arriving on the scene.
Within 10 minutes or so, Harrison was shot and killed by another officer, Keith Casada, even though he was more than 70 feet from the closest officer and had made no threatening movement towards police, according to court records.
“It’s hard to understand why this happened,” attorney Greg Belzley, who represents Harrison’s estate in an ongoing wrongful death lawsuit against police and the city, said in an interview.
The shooting has come under new scrutiny in the last few months when a federal judge ruled, while allowing the wrongful death lawsuit against the officers to continue, that “police used more force than was reasonable,” especially involving someone who was, at most, guilty of a misdemeanor.
“There was not probable cause to believe that Harrison presented an imminent threat of serious physical harm to the officers or to others, as he had made no threats to police and was walking along the tracks, not facing officers,” U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley said in his Feb. 24 ruling, which also noted the officers were wearing bullet-proof vests and barricaded behind their cruisers.
While McKinley found there was “nothing sinister or evil about Officer Casada,” his ruling was a rare rebuke to police officers.
Bowling Green police say Harrison, 46, had told a 911 dispatcher that he had a gun, was hiding his left arm behind his back, refused repeated orders to raise his hands and made threats, including what officers characterized as a “final declaration,” asking his mother to forgive him for what he was about to do.
And a Kentucky State Police investigation ruled the suspect “began walking toward the officers with his hand behind his back placing the officers in fear for their safety.” The Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office declined to prosecute Casada after receiving the state police investigation.
Police and Harrison’s family both say a video of the incident proves their version of events is the correct one.
Carey Woodcock, Harrison’s niece, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the video from a dashboard camera inside Kay’s cruiser shows how police escalated the situation and failed to use non-lethal force against a mentally ill man who was not a threat. (No weapon was found on Harrison after he was shot.)
“Had they used more time and tried other measures, I think it would have turned out differently,” she said. “From watching the video, I could tell he was scared. … Countless times he is asking someone to call his sister. He wants his sister. And he is crying. He wants someone to help him.”
In the video obtained by WDRB News, Harrison walks out of the frame right before he is shot, but Judge McKinley wrote that Harrison never stepped off the railroad tracks to advance toward the officers.
“Rather, he moved down the railroad tracks a few steps at a time, sometimes retracing his steps, while staying within the railroad tracks from the time the officers arrived and took no threatening actions (other than noncompliance with shouted orders),” McKinley said in his ruling.
The location of the bullet indicates Harrison was not facing Casada when the officer fired the fatal shot, according to court records.
Harrison’s shooting, according to court documents and the video, seemed to have been the result of an agreement Key reached with Casada to fire at him if he moved past a point not illuminated by the searchlight on her cruiser.
Casada returned to duty without “meaningful discipline and corrective retraining,” court records show. And the police department has not changed any policies or added any training as a result of the shooting, according to court documents.
“It’s very disturbing,” said Belzley, who represents Harrison’s estate in the civil lawsuit. “And it raises a lot of questions, about training, about attitudes, about accountability and about the worth we put on a life like Gregory Harrison’s.”
Attorneys for the city didn’t return phone calls to WDRB but told the Associated Press earlier this year that McKinley’s ruling is "a 20/20 hindsight" decision that failed to factor in the split-second decisions officers often must make.
Thomas Kerrick, a lawyer for the city and the officers, told the AP the officers had no way to know Harrison didn't actually have a gun. He had told dispatchers he had one, and refused to remove his hand from his pants, despite repeated pleas from officers.
Woodcock said in an interview, that her uncle’s death is part of a larger problem of police shootings across the country.
“It’s not just mentally ill people, it’s everyday people,” she said. “My point is to bring awareness.”
’I am going to die tonight’
On the night of the shootings, Harrison left a voicemail for a family member saying, “I need help because I am going to die tonight,” according to the KSP investigation.
Harrison called the police from a store, telling them he was at the Louisville Road Bridge, needed help, had a gun and was going to harm his brother.
A witness outside the store told Kentucky State Police he saw Harrison waving his arms wildly in the air, pointing a finger like it was a gun and saying into his phone, “Go ahead and kill me, shoot me!”
In the dashcam video of the shooting, Kay immediately starts screaming at Harrison to show his hands or she will “fu—ing shoot” him.
Several officers repeatedly yelled at Harrison to show his hands and come toward them.
Harrison urinated himself and cried, shouting back that he wanted to talk to his sister, according to court records.
Police said they would call Harrison’s sister when he showed his hands. An officer said Harrison had his left arm behind his back, was waving his right arm and screaming.
The video does not capture what Harrison yells back to police, though officers said he continued asking to speak to his sister and told police to shoot him. The judge’s order said Harrison yelled, “The voices won’t stop.”
Officers repeatedly told Harrison to show his hands and sit down. One officer reports she could not see what he has in his left hand.
A little before 2 a.m., according to the video, an officer said over the police radio that “if he takes one more step this way, uh, we’re shooting.”
Kay testified in her deposition that while she did not instruct Casada to shoot Harrison, “We came to an agreement that if he didn’t – if he came past a certain point, we would [shoot him].”
“Sit down Greg, we’ll talk to you about it,” one officer can be heard saying on the recording.
Police told Harrison they were going to shoot him if he did not comply. A minute-and-half later, an officer reported that Harrison had apologized to his mom for whatever it was he is about to do.
“Stop Greg, or I’ll shoot,” Casada yelled. “Quit moving, Greg.”
One shot was fired. Harrison, who was walking on the tracks toward the nearby Bowling Green Police Department, went down and was pronounced dead a short time later.
“There was no sudden, unexpected escalation of events giving rise to a serious physical threat to the officers or to others,” Judge McKinley wrote. The judge wrote that Harrison was not physically resisting officers; “he was simply passively noncompliant.”
Harrison “‘did not attack the officers’ or anyone else, nor did he threaten to do so at any point while officers were on the scene,” the judge ruled.
But police contend that Harrison acted as if he had a gun, refusing to show officers both of his hands – and keeping his left hand tucked in his pants behind his back.
“Any reasonable and well trained officer faced with this set of circumstances would have a reasonable perception that they, as well as the general public, were faced with an imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death particularly as Mr. Harrison continued to move on the tracks,” police practices expert Jack Ryan, who will testify for the department, said in court records.
Harrison’s estate sued police in August 2013, claiming he was wrongfully killed without due process and that the incident did not warrant lethal force.
Officers failed to try to calm the situation or come up with any tactical plan other than using lethal force, an expert for Harrison’s estate said.
“The manner in which this incident was grossly mishandled leading to the unnecessary shooting of Mr. Harrison reflected a complete lack of effective, appropriate, and/or meaningful training on the commonly understood and observed practices that are the foundation of my opinion,” police procedures expert Roger Clark said in court documents. “Their use of force was grossly inappropriate, excessive and unreasonable.”
The investigator for the Kentucky State Police said she was unsure if police had any non-lethal weapons that could have reached Harrison from that distance, such as bean bags.
“If they had them, they would have used them probably,” Kentucky State Police Sgt. Laura Phillips said in a deposition. “Nobody wants to kill anybody.”
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