Man killed by officers aimed BB gun at them, police say

Son says he told officers of type of weapon his dad had.

Anchorage Daily NewsJuly 2, 2012 

The man Anchorage police shot and killed Sunday night had pointed a BB gun at officers that's almost identical to a real Smith & Wesson handgun, a police spokesman said Monday.

Harry Smith, 59, was shot by two officers in the backyard of his Jewel Lake-area home, police said.

Police were called to the house after Smith's son reported that he was threatening to kill himself and others inside, said APD spokesman Lt. Dave Parker.

The gun, a Smith & Wesson M&P .177-caliber BB gun, is a look-alike "replica" of a Smith & Wesson pistol used by police and military, according to a product description on Amazon.com. The BB gun is easily available on the Internet.

Smith's son, Russell Smith, 35, said he warned officers before they rushed into the backyard that his father might pull out a BB gun that looked like a real handgun.

"They shot him with a BB gun in his hand that didn't work and they knew it before they went in the backyard," he said.

Parker said the department is investigating the son's claim.

'IN CRISIS'

Smith said his father had been "in crisis" and increasingly despondent in the days leading up to Sunday night's encounter.

Police say someone at the house called a police dispatcher to say that his father was drunk and threatening to kill other people in the house and himself.

Officers arrived at the house, in the 9000 block of Noble Circle, around 7:50 p.m. The neighborhood is off Dimond Boulevard just east of Jewel Lake Road.

The caller then told a dispatcher his father said he was "going outside with a gun and was going to 'take care of everything,' " according to police.

When officers confronted Harry Smith in his backyard, he pointed the BB gun at them, police said.

Two officers shot Smith, according to Parker.

Police used both "less lethal force" in the form of 40mm projectiles commonly used by riot police, Parker said, but he couldn't provide an exact sequence of events or say when the projectiles were used. At least six officers were on the scene at the time of the confrontation, he said.

Tara Coleman, who lives down the block, said neighbors heard multiple gunshots.

'A REALLY BAD ISSUE'

Russell Smith said he called police Sunday night because he wanted help taking his father to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

"I called police and begged (the) dispatcher to help me get my father to API to help him," he said.

Harry Smith was a good father who had been struggling with depression and alcohol since his former wife and the mother of his children, Leta Smith, died of lung cancer in 2010, his son said.

He said the couple had three children together.

His father had cared for his mother, who also had MS before being diagnosed with lung cancer, for years.

After she died he was "lost," Russell Smith said.

He was also on disability from a job he had held for more than 30 years as a garbage truck driver and was unable to do things he had once enjoyed, like golfing, he said. Drinking took over, he said.

"He was just dealing with a really bad issue," he said.

Smith, who does contract steam cleaning for work, said he had been living at the house with his father for about six months. He had moved in partly because he was concerned about his father, he said.

In February, his father assaulted him and was arrested on misdemeanor charges, he said. He went through mental health court proceedings that barred him from having guns in the house or drinking alcohol, Smith said. That worked for a while, but after he graduated from the program in June and charges were dismissed he was back to drinking within a week, his son said.

Police had been called to the residence multiple times in recent days, Parker and neighbors said. But Russell Smith said he made those calls and that they didn't involve his father. He declined to say what they were about.

On Sunday night, Smith was worried his father was might hurt him or someone else in the house, he said. Along with Russell Smith and his girlfriend, two friends Harry Smith had been drinking with were in the house at the time, his son said.

"I was concerned about everybody's safety in the house," he said.

When police arrived, Smith said, he feared his father would try to entice them to shoot him.

His father was a Jehovah's Witness and didn't believe in suicide, he said.

"I told (the police) his intention (was) to trick them into shooting him," Smith said.

Police would not comment on Russell Smith's assertions about what happened.

PROBLEM OF REPLICAS

The BB gun police say Smith held retails for $39.95 at numerous websites.

The pistol costs $619 on Smith & Wesson's website.

Both are black-and-khaki with a polymer frame.

Look-alike guns are "the bane of law enforcement," Parker said.

In 2010, a man was shot and killed by Anchorage police in a hostage standoff after aiming an air pistol that turned out to be a look-alike of a semi-automatic handgun. In 2009, Anchorage police shot and wounded a 17-year-old who pointed a pellet gun that looked like a scoped hunting rifle.

The problem with replica guns is that an officer may only have a split second to respond, Parker said.

"The issue is the officer's perception of danger at the moment that they are called on to use force," he said.

When replica guns became popular, manufacturers marked their barrels with an orange marking to differentiate them from real guns, said John Novak, an assistant attorney general with the state. That didn't work very well.

"Criminals took no time at all to paint their real gun barrels orange so cops would think they were toys when they were real guns," Novak said.

There is no state or local law in Alaska that requires replica guns sold to be marked, he said.

Some cities have banned the possession of replica guns altogether. Anchorage has no such ban, Novak said.

Local criminal defense attorney D. Scott Dattan says that while there's nothing illegal about having a replica gun, people can and have gotten themselves into trouble by pulling them out in the wrong situation.

"I don't think it's the replica that's the problem any more than it's the firearm that's the problem -- it's the way it is used," he said.

This is the second incident in which APD officers used deadly force against a suspect in a month.

On June 9, APD officer Boaz Gionson shot and killed Shane Tasi, a 26-year-old Mountain View man police said wielded a broken broom handle.

Last week, the state Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals found no basis for charges against the officer in that shooting. Police detectives and state prosecutors will both investigate the latest incident, Parker said.

Names of officers involved will be released after three days.