By Doug Esser Associated Press
SEATTLE — An older man with dementia, alarmed by a fire department aid call outside his home, messaged his medical alert service to say he suspected a prowler and has armed himself with a gun. When police arrived, he met them at the door with the gun and was killed by officers who feel threatened.
“This was a case of extreme tragedy,” Seattle Police Chief John Diaz told a briefing Tuesday on the scenario that played out Sunday evening. “A series of events all came together at this intersection and led to this tragedy.”
The shooting of Henry Lee, 77, was the result of events that left officers no choice but to fire, although Lee probably didn’t intend to harm police, Diaz and Deputy Chief Nick Metz said.
Lee’s family has said he had dementia and lived alone. But police had no medical information about Lee when they responded to the 911 call placed through his medical alert service.
Lee said he thought there was a prowler outside his home and had a gun, “and that if anyone tried to come into his home, he would kill them,” Metz said.
“I don’t think anyone thinks there was evil intent on Mr. Lee’s part,” Metz said. “He was scared. He was confused. Obviously he thought there was a danger to himself, but he ended up offering danger to our officers at that time.”
Lee had a gun in his hand that the arriving officers saw from the sidewalk. He refused repeated commands to drop the gun and when he raised it, two of the three officers fired. Lee was fatally hit by one bullet and died at the scene.
“Our officers had to react quickly based on the threat they were facing,” Metz said.
The two officers, a 19-year veteran and a seven-year veteran, have been placed on administrative leave for a police review of the shooting. King County is expected to call an inquest to answer questions about the shooting that the prosecutor could use in deciding whether to file charges.
The mishap began when a man with some problem left his car running in the street outside Lee’s home and walked away. He later returned to his car and was treated by fire department medics. One of his shoes was found on Lee’s porch where he may have wandered or gone for help — possibly giving Lee the impression someone was lurking outside.
The killing was the first by a Seattle officer since October 2011, when a detective killed a homicide suspect in a confrontation.
The latest comes at a time of enhanced scrutiny of use-of-force incidents by Seattle police. In July city officials agreed to an independent monitor and court oversight of the police department as part of a settlement with the Justice Department following a report that found officers routinely used excessive force.
The Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation early last year after incidents involving force used against minority suspects. Most prominent was the August 2010 fatal shooting of a homeless, Native American woodcarver who carried a knife. In December, a DOJ report found officers were too quick to reach for weapons, such as flashlights and batons, even when arresting people for minor offenses.
The settlement announced in July required the Seattle Police Department to revise policies and enhance training, reporting, investigation and supervision for situations involving use of force.