OMAHA, Neb. — Police officers who opened fire while disrupting a robbery at a fast-food restaurant in Omaha killed a crew member with the TV show “Cops” as well as the suspect, who was armed with a pellet gun that they thought was a real handgun, authorities said Wednesday.
The suspect fired from the pellet gun before officers returned fire, Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said at a news conference. He said witnesses and officers thought the robbery suspect’s Airsoft handgun looked and sounded real, but discovered later that it fires only plastic pellets.
The suspect, whom police identified as 32-year-old Cortez Washington, was struck by the officers’ gunfire, but fled outside of the restaurant before collapsing. Officers continued firing on the suspect as he exited the restaurant, and that was when the “Cops” crew member, 38-year-old Bryce Dion, was also struck, said Schamaderer.
Dion was wearing a bulletproof vest, but a single bullet that hit his arm “slipped into a gap in the vest” and went into his chest, Schmaderer said.
“My concern with my officers is that they are taking this very hard,” Schmaderer said. “Bryce was their friend.”
Schmaderer said video captured by the cameraman who was with Dion shows the chaotic situation in the restaurant. Police released still shots from the video showing a hooded and masked person pointing what looks like a gun at police. Schmaderer said police would not release the full video, but that it will be part of the grand jury investigation into the shooting.
Schmaderer said Washington had a lengthy criminal record, including an accessory to robbery conviction from Missouri for which he was on parole. He moved to Nebraska in September 2013, and his parole was due to expire in June 2017.
Schmaderer said the incident began when one of the officers, on his way to another reported robbery, called to request backup for the robbery at the Wendy’s. The “Cops” crew members were with two officers who responded to that request.
When police entered the restaurant and confronted the suspect, Dion, who was the sound operator, got separated from the cameraman, Schmaderer said.
“Cops” is a reality TV show that depicts law enforcement officers in action. According to its website, the show has been filmed in at least 140 U.S. cities and three foreign countries.
Executives with Langley Productions said this was the first time one of their crew members has been fatally shot while filming. The show started on Fox in 1989 and is now shown on the Spike network.
In 2010, a TV crew for the A&E reality show “The First 48” recorded a Detroit police raid in which a 7-year-old girl was accidentally killed by an officer. That incident highlighted concerns about whether TV cameras influence police behavior, perhaps encouraging showboating.
Schmaderer on Wednesday bristled at a reporter’s question about whether his officers overreacted knowing that cameras were recording them, calling the suggestion “absolutely ridiculous.” He said the video of Tuesday’s shooting shows the officers reacted properly.
Schmaderer said he accepted the invitation from “Cops” to film in Omaha in the name of transparency. But he also expressed regret at the outcome.
“Personally, I will live with this forever,” Schmaderer said. “If I’d have known that this would happen, of course, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Key executives for Langley Productions, President John Langely and Executive Producer Morgan Langley, attended the police news conference in Omaha and agreed that police there had acted professionally.
John Langley said the crew had been filming all summer in Omaha and had only one week left when the deadly shooting happened.
“Bryce has been with us for seven years,” said Morgan Langley, who hired Dion. “This is very hard for us.”