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Mental health issues and increase in guns lead to rise in police shootings

NewsChannel 5 Investigates reviews police shootings in Tennessee
Police shooting for Ben
Posted at 8:51 AM, Feb 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-21 19:17:26-05

WHITE COUNTY, Tenn. (WTVF) — More mental health issues and more guns on the streets are two of the reasons experts believe police shootings increased last year.

They increased in Tennessee and across the country despite calls for policing reform.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates reviewed recent officer-involved shootings in Tennessee including one in White County last year. That shooting led to the death of 47-year-old Charles Williams, who was unarmed and holding his wallet when he was shot.

Deputies were trying to arrest him because he refused to pull over the day before after a deputy saw that he was not wearing his seat belt.

Dillon and Michael Williams can't stop thinking about the violent way their father died. "I miss my dad," Dillon Williams said.

"He wasn't a violent person. I mean he didn't carry weapons. He didn't even own weapons," said Michael Williams.

"I think he was running because he was scared," Dillon added.

Body camera video from January 8, 2021, shows deputies kicking in the door to the trailer where Williams was staying. "Sheriff's office. See your hands," a deputy yelled as they entered the home with their guns drawn.

They were there because the day before a deputy noticed Williams "to not be wearing his seat belt."

He attempted to pull Williams over, but Williams sped off. So the next day deputies got an arrest warrant for evading arrest, reckless driving and driving on a suspended license. Deputies surrounded the home and believed Williams was inside.

After no one answered the door, deputies burst inside.

"It's never a good sign when they kick the door down and guns are drawn," said Michael Williams who was not there that day.

Body cam video shows Charles Williams attempted to run out the back - but when he saw the deputies - he turned around to run inside. His family says he grabbed his wallet to give to his girlfriend - that's when a deputy fired.

Immediately after the shooting the deputy realized Williams was unarmed. He said on body cam, "He came at me with a wallet. I didn't know what he had in his hand."

The distraught deputy apologized to Williams as he tried to help him. "I'm sorry man you came at me with that wallet, I didn't know what it was," the deputy said.

The shooting was ruled justified, and the District Attorney did not file charges against the deputies.

Clearly, Williams did not listen to commands. But his family said something that started as a seat belt violation should not have turned deadly.

Attorney Richard Brooks said police knew Williams was not a violent person. "What threat was he to the general public? None," Brooks said.

Brooks said bursting into homes with guns drawn for this kind of warrant is reckless. He said it puts everyone in danger, including the officers.

"That's all they've got to do is chase Charlie Williams around? He was scared," Brooks said.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) investigates most officer involved shootings in the state, even if they are not deadly.

In 2019 the TBI investigated 47.

In 2020 the TBI investigated 46, but last year in 2021, the number rose to 55.

Vanderbilt Law Professor Christopher Slobogin said Tennessee is not alone when it comes to rising numbers of police shootings. It happened across the country last year.

"I think the police are asked to do too much," Slobogin said.

He said there are now more guns on the streets than ever before - making officers jobs more dangerous. "Police are trained, and I think rightfully so, that if they see someone reach for something, you shouldn't wait until you find out it is a gun or you'll be dead," Slobogin said.

Along with more guns there is also more mental illness, and police are usually the first to respond.

The shooting of Landon Eastep on I-65 last month raised questions about officers' ability to deal with mental illness. "Why send in people who are trained to use deadly force and have the means to use it," Slobogin said.

Slobogin said police departments have become more militarized in the last 30 years. In that time arrests have gone up dramatically - compared to other countries - that are more likely to issue citations.

Serving all those arrest warrants puts people - and police - at risk. Michael and Dillion Williams know their dad made mistakes, but don't think he deserved to die.

"He had already stopped. He's already pulled his wallet out. It was time to quit," Williams said.

"It means I'll never get to see my dad again. He was my best friend," his brother added.

The family has filed a lawsuit blasting the department's training.

We reached out to the White County Sheriff's Office but it did not comment on the case.