Handling of 911 call prompts questions Should deputies have been told about gun?

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon listens to an audio interview of Bryant Heyward after he was shot by a sheriff’s deputy

While they spoke over a phone line last week, a 911 call-taker had time to ask Bryant Heyward about 37 questions.

Some came in response to Heyward’s answers.

Others were read from a list of questions that dispatchers are trained to ask in certain situations. Heyward’s predicament: a home invasion. He said that two armed men were trying to pry open a window and get into his Hollywood mobile home.

“Are you or anybody else in immediate danger?” the call-taker asked Thursday morning as Heyward cowered in a laundry room.

“Just me!” he said.

“Does anyone need medical attention?”

“Me, if I get shot!” he said.

The dispatcher never asked whether Heyward had a gun.

He did. He had grabbed his brother’s .40-caliber handgun.

Another dispatcher communicating with deputies also never relayed that Heyward was hiding in the laundry room.

The pistol was still in his hand when he opened the door to talk with sheriff’s deputies. One of the lawmen fired twice because Heyward didn’t drop it, and a bullet hit his neck.

While it’s impossible to say whether Heyward’s fate would have been different if deputies knew he had a gun, the county’s chief dispatcher said it’s standard not to ask if callers are armed for fear it would escalate the situation.

Experts, though, faulted that approach, saying it should be standard to ensure callers are not armed when they meet the police. With tensions high nationwide over the relationship between black men and police, the experts pointed toward ways that the deputy’s use of force could have been avoided altogether.

“We do not specifically ask callers if they are armed,” said Jim Lake, director of the Charleston County Consolidated 911 Center. “Asking that question may be interpreted by the caller as a suggestion to retrieve a weapon if they have one and potentially use it.”

But to Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor and former Florida police officer, the answer to the question would prove helpful for everyone involved. It would allow dispatchers to warn deputies and instruct callers what to do with the gun when they see the officers.

Stoughton noted that a terrified victim like Heyward, who had spent more than eight minutes on the phone with a dispatcher and exchanged gunfire with would-be intruders, likely didn’t know what to do.

“I’m not surprised he was clinging to the gun,” Stoughton said. “This is a good example of how incredibly important dispatchers are to effective policing.”

The bullet paralyzed Heyward, 26, from the waist down, but it’s unknown whether the paralysis is permanent, family attorneys Chris Stewart and Justin Bamberg said.

The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating whether Deputy Keith Tyner’s use of deadly force against Heyward was justified.

Heyward’s family attorneys have said that he never pointed his gun at the deputy.

Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office said Heyward and the dispatcher could have eventually talked about how to approach responding deputies. But at some point, their conversation was interrupted, an apparent result of Heyward’s confrontation with his assailants.

“Even if you know the homeowner has a gun,” Sheriff Al Cannon added, “that doesn’t mean the person you encounter is the homeowner.”

Heyward’s nervousness was obvious seconds after the dispatcher took his 911 call around 11 a.m. Thursday. He started relaying his phone number instead of his address on Scott White Road.

Lake, the 911 director, said Heyward’s initial description of what was happening started a “home invasion protocol,” a guide for how dispatchers should handle the call. The call-taker didn’t ask whether weapons were involved because it was obvious, he said.

“Please, tell them to hurry,” Heyward said often during the call.

When deputies get there, Heyward said, they could enter his home through either the back or front door.

At times, he got frustrated.

“Listen,” he said, “they have a gun!”

“I’m just trying to help you,” the dispatcher said, “so when officers get there, they know exactly where to go.”

The dispatcher listed several instructions. She told Heyward not to disrupt anything at the scene, including weapons.

When dispatchers know callers are armed, they often tell them how to safely secure a weapon.

In Heyward’s case, the dispatcher told him to speak calmly with any intruders if they confronted him.

“Like I said, I’m at the door, and they have a gun,” he said. “There’s not really much talking I can do.”

Eight and a half minutes into the call, Heyward said someone was in his home.

Eighteen seconds after that, a gunshot resounded. Yelling is heard.

“Stay out! Stay out!”

The phone line went dead 10 minutes after the call began.

Deputies responding to the call, meanwhile, were told by dispatchers to expect armed attackers. Dispatchers relayed to them Heyward’s description of the suspects: One had a tank top and Army fatigues; one had a black and white jacket.

Tyner pulled into a driveway on the property and waited for backup. There, he heard from Heyward’s grandmother, who lived next door and also had dialed 911, that the assailants might be on bicycles.

“I’m standing by for you,” Tyner told Master Deputy Richard Powell through his police radio.

The two said little into their radios for a while after that as they walked behind the house, where a door swung open.

“Shots fired!” one said.

“You need to send EMS,” a deputy said. “You need to send EMS.”

Heyward’s shooting wasn’t the first time a 911 call resulted in mistaken identity in the Charleston area.

Edward Snowden used a gun to hold off four men who attacked him in 2000 at a North Charleston video store. A clerk dialed 911. When police officers arrived to the sight of Snowden pointing a gun at people, they fatally shot him. The case sparked protests, but the officers were later cleared of wrongdoing.

Good communication by everyone involved “can help distinguish between a store owner and armed robber, and good guys and bad guys in a variety of situations,” said Geoff Alpert, a USC criminal justice professor who has studied the use of force by police.

Dispatchers’ handling of the call with Heyward will be reviewed as a routine “quality assurance” procedure, Lake said.

Stoughton, the law professor, said constant contact between dispatchers, deputies and a 911 caller can help bring a tense, violent moment to a peaceful end.

Even if Charleston County dispatchers are trained not to ask callers whether they’re armed, they could offer instructions to make sure the callers are unarmed and to keep their hands visible during any encounter with deputies, Stoughton said.

“When someone calls 911 to report a crime in progress, they are in a tense situation that they most likely don’t really know how to deal with,” he said. “In most cases … there is time for a dispatcher to instruct the caller how to make contact with deputies in a way that minimizes the chances of the deputies mistaking the caller for a suspect.”

The disruption of the call between Heyward and the 911 dispatcher likely made that difficult. But Cannon said it might not have mattered if the deputies knew Heyward was armed because they’re trained to react to any threat they face. In Tyner’s case, he saw a man with a gun, and he reacted, the sheriff said.

“The more information you have, the better off you are, but there is some information that doesn’t change the circumstances,” Cannon said. “You just don’t know what would have happened.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.