INDIANAPOLIS — De’Aire Gray’s family wants people to know he was more than just a Black man shot to death by police.
He was loved, they say. And he was sick.
Gray, 28, was schizophrenic. A Marion County judge found him mentally incompetent last fall.
And his mother, Tanya Atkins, is calling on Speedway police and a special prosecutor to release the body camera video of the Feb. 12 shooting that led to Gray’s death.
In a letter submitted Wednesday, attorneys David S. Lipschultz and Eric S. Pavlack said officials, “have a moral and ethical obligation to Ms. Atkins and her family to provide access to the true version of how their beloved De’Aire died.”
“It is simply the right and decent thing to do.”
Speedway officials and Special Prosecutor Chris Gaal have declined to release the video to WRTV and to comment on the shooting citing the ongoing investigation.
‘The scariest day of my life’
According to a preliminary probable cause affidavit, Speedway Police officers received an email on Feb. 9 stating a male was living in a vehicle and defecating in a parking lot in the 5900 block of West 25th Street. The email stated that the property manager wanted the male to be removed from the property.
At about 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 12, officers Robby Harris, Scott Highland and Madeline O'Day, who were investigating the complaint, saw Gray get into the Chevrolet Cavalier described in the email.
Officers tried to talk to Gray, but he told them “he didn’t like how they were walking up on him,” and ran away.
Police chased Gray for about a block to the 2400 block of Parkland Drive. According to the affidavit, an officer saw the suspect pull a gun.
Officer Harris shot Gray twice.
In an exclusive interview with WRTV, Atkins said she was talking to a neighbor when she heard the shots and ran to the scene, about a block away from her apartment.
An officer stopped Atkins before she got close, but she said she saw Gray on the ground, blood coming from his lower back.
“It is a day that will be in my mind forever, just to hear all those gunshots ringing out,” Atkins said. “It was definitely the scariest day of my life.”
Atkins recorded her encounter in a Facebook Live video. The video captures the scene from across a parking lot, more than 20 feet away from the police and Atkins’ son.
In the video, Atkins can be heard yelling questions to police.
“He was running from us,” a male officer told Atkins, “and then he drew a firearm, which got him shot.”
WARNING: The video below contains sensitive content.
Atkins claims her son had been walking home after visiting a nearby convenience store when the police stopped him.
Gray, she said, was not homeless. He was living in her apartment. Their apartment door is about 15 feet from where his car had been parked, she said.
Gray had recently moved in and there was no space for his things, Atkins said. He kept his belongings in his car.
Atkins also said the apartment has a bathroom, noting Gray had no reason to defecate in the parking lot despite the allegation that brought police to the scene.
“I didn’t think something would happen like this over something so simple, something that I feel like could have been avoided,” Atkins said. “His car was right there. If you thought that was his car, then come back another day. If you thought his stuff was in the car, then he had to come back for it.”
Gray had broken no laws before the officers began talking to him, said Lipschultz, Atkins’ lawyer.
“De’Aire didn’t do anything wrong for the police to chase him. There was no search warrant. Police had no search warrant. Police had no arrest warrant. They had no exigent or emergency circumstances,” Lipschultz told WRTV.
“And importantly, De’Aire was not posing a risk to himself. He was not posing a risk to the officers and he was not posing a risk to the public. Why did they chase him?”
Police are trained to de-escalate
At the center of Gray’s story is his mental illness.
Speedway Police Department spokesman Lt. Jim Thiele said Speedway officers, along with every officer in the state, are trained in how to approach people with a mental illness.
“Proper communication skills are key in de-escalating a situation involving an individual having, or suspected of having, a mental illness,” the Speedway Police Department spells out in a five-page General Order on the subject.
It is not clear whether the responding officers were aware of Gray's mental illness, or if they tried to de-escalate the situation before chasing and shooting Gray. Speedway police have declined to answer questions regarding the incident.
Some Speedway officers, Thiele said, have taken an additional week-long course to become qualified to join a Crisis Intervention Team, a group of officers called on to respond to people who are suffering severe distress brought on by mental illness, emotional problems or substance abuse.
Harris, the officer who fired the shots that day, has completed the Crisis Intervention Team training, Speedway Police Capt. Jason Dierdorff said.
O’Day completed a two-day course related to individuals with mental illness as part of her IMPD training academy class in 2020, he said. Highland has completed the training that all officers receive but has not yet attended a more specialized course, Dierdorff said.
A gun changes everything
Fort Wayne Police Department Lt. Tony Maze is one of the state’s experts on the Crisis Intervention Teams. His department was one of the first in Indiana to adopt the policy decades ago.
“If we go in there all hyped up, all excited … that’s how they are going to react to us,” Maze said.
Maze noted that police respond based on the information they are given. It’s important that whoever calls police tells them if they know someone is suffering from a mental illness.
“Law enforcement does take a serious look in how we are dealing with the mentally ill,” Maze said. “We don’t want tragic outcomes in any of the situations that we walk into. We would much prefer that everything get resolved with no one being hurt.”
Speedway police say Gray pulled a weapon as he ran. Officers, Maze said, can’t afford to talk calmly with someone who is holding a gun.
“If a gun came into play and the officers felt threatened, they’re going to react to stop that threat,” Maze said. “That’s just part of our training.”
Firearm, BB gun or other?
According to the preliminary probable cause affidavit, Gray pulled a “black firearm” and “pointed it at officers” shortly before Harris shot him.
But a police report and a statement issued by a police spokesman appear to contradict the affidavit.
In a news release emailed to WRTV at 2:19 a.m. Feb. 13, less than three hours after Gray was shot, Speedway Police Department Lt. Angel Rodriguez said the suspect “displayed a weapon.”
The news release did not use the word “firearm” or assert that it had been pointed at police.
And a Speedway Police Department incident report described the item found on Gray as, “other weapon (BB/pellet gun, air/gas gun, mace, pepper spray, cross bow, etc.).”
WRTV reached out to Speedway police and Special Prosecutor Gaal for clarification. They have declined to say what kind of weapon was recovered from Gray that night.
“Here we have a single police department that can’t seem to get their story straight even though they have the video,” said Pavlack, an attorney for Atkins.
“And it just raises all kinds of questions about what that video really shows. The fact that they don’t want to share it with the public in a matter of such public interest only heightens our suspicion that what happened wasn’t what was described by the officers in the first place.”
'The truth must be told'
In the letter sent Wednesday, lawyers for Atkins say the public deserves to see for themselves how Speedway officers handled the encounter.
“More than one month after the shooting you still have not provided the people of Indiana with the video recordings,” the attorneys wrote. “Instead of oversight, your citizens know only limited and conflicting information.”
Speedway police and Special Prosecutor Gaal have declined WRTV’s requests for the body camera video and other evidence in the case.
The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, however, has chosen to release body camera and other video of officer-involved shootings, despite the fact criminal charges remained pending.
On Nov. 5, IMPD Chief Randal Taylor made public body camera and other video of an officer-involved shooting that occurred on Sept. 20 at an east-side apartment complex.
Taylor told media at the time that IMPD was setting a new standard for transparency in the state’s largest police department.
“This nation learned a lot from the political and social turmoil of 2020,” Lipschultz and Pavlack wrote in the letter. “Perhaps most important is that the truth must be told.”
Prosecutors dismiss charges against Gray
Gray was in a secure jail wing of Eskenazi Hospital for eight days. Atkins, accompanied by a chaplain, visited twice during that time. Gray was unconscious, chained to the bed.
After the shooting, Speedway police arrested Gray on initial charges of resisting arrest and pointing a firearm. They turned the body camera footage and other evidence over to the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office.
On Feb. 19, the prosecutor’s office dropped the case.
Atkins visited her son again on Feb 20. The chain was gone, but he still hadn’t woken.
Sitting near her son’s hospital bed on Feb. 21, Atkins recalled a final meeting with doctors. They told her he was gone.
“At that point, I had him taken off the life support,” Atkins said. “So, within maybe seven minutes after that, he passed.”
Atkins said she is speaking to WRTV because she hopes to raise awareness about how police respond to people like her son.
“This mental illness, it’s no joke,” Atkins said.
“I want more training for all of the police stations, not just Marion County. I feel like if you know it’s a mentally ill person you should just step back and let somebody come in that’s had the training.”
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @vicryc.