'A Horrendous Tragedy': The Chaotic Moments Before a Police Shooting in Columbus

Students gather outside the Ohio Statehouse to protest yesterday's shooting of Ma'Khia Bryant by Columbus Police Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Body camera video shows a Columbus officer fatally shoot the Black teenage girl who swung at two other people with a knife. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Kevin Williams
·8 min read

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was Valentine’s Day when Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, moved into the foster home where her younger sister had lived for more than a year. The girls were close, and would dance and make TikTok videos together, while Bryant nurtured a constant hope: to one day live again with her biological mother.

“That’s all she said, was, ‘I want to be with my mom,’” said Angela Moore, who said she provided foster care for Bryant and her sister on a quiet block on the southeastern edge of Columbus, Ohio.

Those dreams were cut short after a Columbus police officer fatally shot Bryant on Tuesday afternoon, just moments after arriving at a chaotic disturbance outside her foster home. Body-camera footage released by the Columbus police appears to show Bryant holding a knife as she lunges toward another person a moment before she is shot.

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Her death fanned new waves of sorrow, anger and protest Wednesday over yet another police killing. And its timing — just minutes before a jury in Minneapolis convicted Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd — was a grim reminder of an unceasing tally of killings by the police.

As the White House on Wednesday described Bryant’s death as “tragic,” law enforcement authorities in Columbus pleaded for patience from the community as they released 911 calls and new body-camera videos showing the frenzied moments surrounding her shooting.

Michael Woods, the interim chief of the Columbus Division of Police, identified the officer who shot Bryant as Nicholas Reardon, and said he had been on the force since December 2019.

“Under any circumstance, that is a horrendous tragedy,” Ned Pettus Jr., the city’s public safety director, said during a news conference Wednesday. “But the video shows there is more to this. It requires us to pause, take a close look at the sequence of events, and though it’s not easy, wait for the facts as is determined by an independent investigation.”

Pettus said a third-party investigation being conducted by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation would need to answer key questions, including what information Reardon had, what he saw at the scene, and what would have happened if he “had taken no action at all.”

The first 911 call that brought the police to the house came at 4:32 p.m. Tuesday. It is a cacophony of screaming. The caller, who sounds like a younger woman, says that someone was “trying to stab us” and had “put hands” on the caller’s grandmother. The dispatcher asks again and again whether the caller has seen any weapons.

“We need a police officer here now,” the caller responds. That person’s identity was unclear Wednesday.

A second 911 call came in minutes later, but the caller hung up because the police had already arrived.

Unlike the agonizingly slow video showing Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, in which he calls out that he cannot breathe as Chauvin kneels on his neck, footage released by the Columbus police shows that Bryant’s killing unfolded in seconds.

Officers were dispatched to the home on Legion Lane at 4:35 p.m. Tuesday and arrived at 4:44, according to the Columbus police.

As Reardon got out of his vehicle, he encountered seven people outside a two-story brick home and asked, “What’s going on?” Yelling could be heard in the background.

An unidentified girl appeared to fall to the grass after being attacked by Bryant and then kicked by an unidentified man. The video footage then showed Bryant, who was holding a knife, appearing to lunge toward a person dressed in pink who was pinned against a car parked in the driveway.

“Hey! Hey!” Reardon said as he pulled his gun. “Get down! Get down!”

He fired four quick shots, and Bryant dropped to the ground at the edge of the driveway.

A witness yelled, “Why did you shoot her?”

The officer responded, “She came at her with a knife,” apparently referring to Bryant and the person dressed in pink.

Woods said Columbus officers were allowed to use deadly force to protect somebody who was in danger of being killed by another person. A Taser, he said, is generally reserved for situations where there is no immediate threat of death. Officers are not required to call out that they are about to fire their weapon, he added, though they try to if there is time.

“It’s a tragedy,” Woods said. “There’s no other way to say it. It’s a 16-year-old girl.”

Two experts who reviewed the body camera footage said that in this case, the officer’s use of force appeared at first glance to be justified.

Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, said investigators would look at whether the officer believed that there was an imminent threat to the life of the other woman.

If there was an immediate threat, investigators will look at whether the officer could have resorted to other methods of control, he said. Alpert said that based on his own review, Bryant did appear to pose a threat to the life of the other woman.

“Were there other options? Not if she was about to stab that woman,” Alpert said, adding that a Taser could take too long to deploy, and that the less-than-lethal weapons are not 100% reliable. “He’s protecting her life, not his own,” he said. “What if it didn’t work and she ended up killing this woman?”

Still, Bryant’s family and activists across Columbus questioned why the officer shot Bryant.

“I don’t know why he shot her,” Moore, Bryant’s foster parent, said. “I don’t know why he didn’t Tase her, why they didn’t try to break it up.”

She added, “At the end of the day, it wasn’t worth all this.”

Tensions over police shootings of Black people were already raw around Columbus. In early December, Casey Goodson Jr., 23, was shot to death at the entrance of his home by a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy who had been searching for someone else. Two weeks later, Andre Hill was shot by a Columbus police officer who was later charged with felony murder.

Moore said that she was at work during the shooting, but that she believed the fight began over an argument about housekeeping. She said one of her former foster children had visited the home Tuesday and criticized Bryant and her sister for having messy bedrooms.

“That’s where the problem came,” Moore said. “I didn’t know they had called the police.”

Moore said that Bryant had moved into her home Feb. 14, and that she was one of three foster children living there, including her sister.

Bryant’s family expressed dismay and outrage at her death, and described Bryant as sweet and caring. They said she should still be alive.

“This could have been de-escalated by the Columbus Police Department,” Don Bryant, a cousin of Bryant’s mother, said. “There are things you can do to avoid pulling out your gun and shooting someone. I question the use of force.”

Don Bryant said he did not know how Ma’Khia Bryant had ended up in foster care. But he said that her mother, Paula Bryant, who works as a nursing assistant in Columbus, had been working toward a reunion.

“Paula was working extremely hard to get Ma’Khia back into her home, working to do everything right,” Don Bryant said.

Ma’Khia Bryant had been enrolled at Independence High School in Columbus in February. Jacqueline Bryant, a spokesperson for Columbus City Schools who is not related, said her teachers reported that in the short time Ma’Khia Bryant was there, she was “very respectful, attended school each day, and was eager to learn.”

On Legion Lane, where a memorial of flowers and stuffed animals was growing Wednesday, neighbors were still stunned. Chris Mitchell, 31, who was visiting from another city, was playing with his two children in a nearby backyard when he heard “very loud arguing” followed by gunshots about two minutes later.

“I came out and saw a young lady on the ground,” Mitchell said.

Israel Reales, 19, said his mother, Nahomi, was unloading groceries from her car when she heard gunshots. She went outside and saw people with their hands up. She relayed the story through her son, who interpreted.

“The police need a lot more training,” Reales said. “The way it was handled wasn’t proper.”

Activists who spent Tuesday demonstrating at the scene of the shooting marched late Wednesday afternoon to Police Headquarters, and said they planned to demand answers and accountability.

“They didn’t de-escalate the situation,” said DeJuan Sharp, an organizer with a local Black Lives Matter group called the Downtownerz. “I don’t know why the gun was the first thing for him to use.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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