A white police officer in a small South Carolina town shot and gravely wounded a black homeowner who had called 911 during an attempted home invasion. The officers apparently mistook him for a suspect.
Sheriff’s deputies shot the victim, Bryant Heyward, 26, of Hollywood, South Carolina, on Thursday morning shortly after he called 911 to plead for help because two armed men were trying to break into his home.
The men reportedly fired two shots into his home, prompting Heyward to grab his brother’s .40-caliber handgun from a bedroom and fire back.
By the time two Charleston County sheriff's deputies arrived at Heyward’s home, the two suspects had fled and Heyward went to greet the officers at his back door — reportedly holding his brother’s handgun.
But then one of the officers shouted for him to drop the gun and fired a bullet that went whizzing into Heyward’s neck.
“He thought I was the crook,” Heyward told investigators while in an ambulance being rushed to a hospital, according to audio of the interview released by authorities on Friday.
Police do not allege that Heyward ever raised the gun at the officers. Heyward’s family told local reporters that he might never walk again.
On Friday, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon apologized for the shooting and said the deputy who shot Heyward, Keith Tyner, made a “split-second decision” to fire at Heyward after he thought the man posed a threat.
“We’re talking about someone who is not a street criminal,” Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas told community leaders during a meeting Friday. “If there’s anything that makes this an even greater tragedy, it’s that. We’re talking about a young man who had a bright future.”
According to residents of Hollywood — a rural community little more than 30 minutes drive from North Charleston, where a white officer last month fatally shot a black man in the back after the man tried to flee a traffic stop — Heyward was polite and hardworking.
“While you are in your home, you are entitled to defend yourself. ... That can be a very scary thing,” Justin Bamberg, a state representative and a lawyer for Heyward’s family, told The Post and Courier. “This is a situation where the individuals charged with protecting and serving ... ended up shooting the individual who needed help the most.”
On Thursday, Charleston County Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Powell was the second officer on the scene at Heyward’s home, and wrote in an incident report that he and Tyner immediately saw bullet holes in the front windows of the house. Powell and Tyner walked around the home and noticed that the back door was also damaged, according to the report.
“As we were approaching, the back door swung open,” Powell wrote. “But (I) could not see in due to my angle.”
Powell said Tyner then shouted commands and said that he had spotted a gun. Powell reportedly then heard gunfire. Tyner, Powell said, shot Heyward to “suppress the threat.” The Sheriff’s Office has said that deputy Tyner shot Heyward because the man didn’t drop his gun.
The two deputies involved in the shooting have been suspended with pay pending a State Law Enforcement Division investigation.
“We are just praying for Bryant’s health,” Bamberg said, “and we are hoping for justice and the truth to come out.”
Bamberg also represents the family of Walter Scott, the man shot in the back in April by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager. Slager was charged with murder after a witness' cell phone video revealed inconsistencies in his account of the shooting.
Joseph Darby, a vice president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, said while the Sheriff’s Department has been mostly forthcoming with information in the case, it made an unnerving move on Friday in the release of an audio interview between investigators and Heyward. In the recording, Heyward can be heard saying at one point, ““I should have dropped the gun, but I didn’t … He thought I was the crook.”
Darby likened it to the alleged tainting of public perception by local police in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown Jr. by a white police officer last summer. In the week following the killing, the former police chief in Ferguson released security camera footage taken in a local convenience store that allegedly showed Brown taking merchandise and then roughing up a store clerk who tried to stop him. The incident at the store took place not long before the shooting, and while the incident had nothing to do with the shooting itself, some saw the release of the footage as an attempt to taint Brown’s character.
Law enforcement officials in Charleston County have not released dashcam video from the deputies’ patrol cars that might have captured some of what happened during Thursday’s shooting, but they did release audio from investigators' interview with Heyward while he was being transported to a hospital.
“The sheriff released some audio of the victim sitting in the back of the ambulance saying basically, it’s my fault, but they did not release video showing the time between officers telling him to drop the gun and when they shot him,” Darby told msnbc.
Darby said the shooting comes as local "Black Lives Matter" protesters have continued their calls for expanded demonstrations in the wake of the Scott killing, as well as a number of other shootings in recent years of black men in Charleston County. Darby said whereas the reputation of North Charleston police is that they can be downright mean, the reputation of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Department is just a little better. Instead of mean, he said, people see them as mostly arrogant.
“Because this brother didn’t die, though there’s still some question if he’ll ever walk again, I don’t think this will lead to any violence or any mass protest,” Darby said. “But the NAACP, we’ll make a renewed call for a Justice Department inquiry into all of the law enforcement agencies in the area. There have been about seven or eight shootings of black people by police here in recent years and we want a thorough review of what’s going on.”