Son of man shot by police didn't mention BB gun in 911 call

Michelle Theriault Boots

Anchorage police Wednesday released the audio recording of the call between the son of a man killed in a July police shooting and 911 dispatchers that shows authorities weren't told the man's weapon was just a BB gun but were warned that he might try to commit "suicide by cop."

What was said on the call has been an issue of contention between police and the man's son, Russell Smith, who have presented differing versions of what led up to Harry Smith being shot by police in the backyard of his Jewel Lake-area home July 1. Smith was shot after pointing a BB gun that resembled a Smith and Wesson handgun at officers.

Russell Smith has maintained that he warned dispatchers and police on scene that Harry Smith had a BB gun and begged them not to shoot his father, who was drunk and suicidal.

But at no point during the roughly 18-minute call can Russell Smith be heard mentioning anything about a BB gun. He can be heard, however, telling the dispatcher that his father wants to commit suicide by having police shoot him and warning them that his father could try to "whip out a cellphone" to get officers to do that.

Last week the APD and the Department of Law announced that investigators had concluded the shooting was justified.

Police also released audio of the radio conversation between police dispatchers and officers as the call unfolded and a written log of the incident Wednesday.

Russell Smith did not return phone calls Wednesday afternoon.

911 CALL

The released material paints a detailed picture of the chaotic minutes leading up to Harry Smith's fatal confrontation with police in the backyard of his Jewel Lake home while raising questions about how information is shared between complaining witnesses, 911 dispatchers and police.

At the start of the call, a calm-sounding Russell Smith tells police that his father is drunk and trying to kill him.

He says that there are guns in the house but that they were in locked boxes downstairs in the room he and his girlfriend had barricaded themselves in.

Throughout the call, Harry Smith can be heard yelling and threatening the two from the other side of the door. At one point he reaches through the cracked door and hits the girlfriend in the face.

Later in the call, Smith says his father says he is "going to go outside with his gun, with a gun in his hand, and take care of everything."

The dispatcher asks if that means Harry Smith has a gun.

"No, they are down here, I believe," Russell says. "I don't believe he's got one upstairs."

When the dispatcher tells the son that "lots and lots of help is coming" Russell begs her to tell them not to shoot his father "because he's acting stupid."

His father is suicidal and wants police to shoot him, he says.

"That's what he's got planned," he says. "I mean, I want the people who show up to know what he's planning. So he might whip out a cellphone at you to get you to shoot him."

"OK, just don't, just don't shoot him," Smith says.

The record of police radio conversation during the incident shows that the dispatcher told officers arriving at the scene that Harry Smith was "talking about 11-28 by officer," meaning he wanted to commit suicide by having the police shoot him. But the detail that Russell Smith told the dispatcher -- that the father "might whip out a cellphone" to get officers to shoot him -- is never explicitly communicated from the dispatcher to police.

That's because the possible use of a fake weapon is implied in a suicide-by-cop scenario, said police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker.

"Any officer going into a situation where a person has threatened to use the cops to kill themselves, that's something we consider and understand going into that," he said.

It wouldn't have mattered, Parker said, because police have to respond to the threat they see in front of them. In this case, he said, that was a gun.


When police arrived at the house they broke into three teams, Parker said.

At the same time, the 911 dispatcher instructed Russell Smith and his girlfriend to leave the house and talk to an officer in the cul-de-sac out front.

Smith has said he told the on-scene officer about the BB gun as police in ballistics gear and helmets walked into the backyard. There is no recording of that conversation. The officer who spoke to Smith has "no recollection" of hearing anything about a BB gun, Parker said.

One team of a few officers walked in to the backyard of the house next door, where children were playing in the backyard, Parker said, intending to evacuate them to safety. The second team went directly in to Harry Smith's house, where two friends he'd been drinking with were still passed out on the couch upstairs, he said. The third team entered the fenced backyard through a gate on eastern side of the house.

They found Harry Smith sitting in the corner of the backyard by a patch of trees, wearing blue jeans and a black tank-top shirt. He was about 20 yards from the officers, Parker said.

According to the police version of events Smith pulled out the lookalike handgun and began to raise it when a sergeant fired a "less lethal" foam round at him and missed. A second foam round hit Smith, who then pointed the gun directly at officers, according to Parker.

That's when one officer "perceived an immediate threat" and fired twice with his shotgun, once hitting Smith, Parker said.

"Shots fired, shots fired," can be heard on the recording at 8:16 p.m., followed by a voice saying 20 seconds later, "he's still got the gun, he's still moving."

Police say Smith reeled from the impact of the first shot but again pointed the gun. The same officer fired three rounds at the same time another officer in the adjacent yard fired two, hitting Smith in the chest.

In other cases involving suicidal subjects, such as a recent standoff between Wasilla Police and a homeless man brandishing a knife on a busy highway that ended peacefully, officers are often able to "talk down" a subject, Parker said.

"He took the opportunity to do that away from the officers by pointing a gun," he said. "We don't have to wait to get shot."

Parker said that he thinks Russell Smith believes that he did tell police about the BB gun, though it might not have mattered -- an officer could have still perceived a lethal threat when the look-alike gun was raised by Smith.

The scene was chaotic. Things happened fast.

"It sounds like he had done what he could to keep his dad from doing something like this," Parker said. "He just apparently missed one gun."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.

Audio: Listen to the 911 call
Anchorage Daily News