‘They Rushed to Judgment’: Family, Experts Left Stunned by Highway Cop Shooting

·7 min read
Metro Nashville Police
Metro Nashville Police

A Tennessee man with a boxcutter who was fatally shot by nine cops on a busy highway had cut himself off from family in recent months, sparking concern among loved ones about his state of mind—but a former officer said it appeared the police had “rushed to judgment” when they opened fire all at once.

Landon Eastep, 37, died in a hail of gunfire following a 30-minute standoff on Interstate 65, near Nashville. The incident began at around 2 p.m. Thursday, when a Tennessee state trooper spotted Eastep walking down the shoulder of the interstate and offered him a ride home. But while talking to Eastep, the “exchange escalated” and Eastep pulled the box cutter from his pocket, according to authorities.

An off-duty police officer driving by noticed the tense confrontation, and stopped to assist. Backup officers from the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) and reinforcements from the Tennessee Highway Patrol arrived a short time later. In body-camera footage released by law enforcement on Thursday night, officers can be seen trying to get Eastep to drop the box cutter from his left hand. His right-hand remained in his pocket.

“C’mon brother,” one of them said in the video. “Just put your hands up, drop the knife and let’s figure this out.”

About a half-hour after the incident began, Eastep appeared to “adjust his stance and reach for what was later identified as a metal cylindrical object at his waist,” according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “At least nine of the law enforcement officers fired upon Eastep, who died at the scene. No law enforcement officers were hurt in the incident.”

The metal object was “not a gun,” Metro Nashville Police spokesman Don Aaron said in a video statement posted late Thursday, in which he called the circumstances of the shooting “unusual.”

After Eastep relocated from Limestone, Tennessee, to Nashville, 260 miles and one time zone to the west, he distanced himself from those closest to him, Eastep’s cousin told The Daily Beast on Friday.

“He moved down there and ended up getting married, and quit talking to the family pretty much,” Dustin Eastep, 39, said. “A few months ago, he didn’t show up to his dad’s funeral or anything.”

According to Dustin, Eastep, a construction worker, was on the highway because he and his wife got into a fight.

“He told her to let him out of the car and he started walking down the interstate,” he said, citing discussions with other family members.

When analyzing a police shooting, it’s important to frame the events in the correct way, said Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant and an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ police shooting,” Giacalone told The Daily Beast after reviewing body-cam footage from the incident. “A lot of times, people talk about it in terms of good or bad, but police shootings are either justified or not.”

The officers in Tennessee were at a disadvantage from the start, according to Giacalone, who explained that a highway, as opposed to an apartment, for example, affords a suspect too much open space for cops to contain the situation in any meaningful way.

“It’s a terrible location, and they had to deal with it one way or the other,” said Giacalone. “Unfortunately, it did not go as planned.”

In such moments, there should be only one officer interacting with a suspect—not the “multiple voices” Giacalone said he heard in the bodycam video “because that can confuse the situation.” In New York City, NYPD protocols dictate that the supervisor on the scene chooses “one shooter, so that you don’t get that massive reflex response,” said Giacalone, who called Thursday’s action a “terrible job by the sergeant.”

“Granted, this gentleman is obviously going through a mental health crisis, but he’s in the middle of a highway,” said Giacalone. “They shut it down and they did a pretty good job. Now, you can’t give them all the accolades, because they killed him, but it appears justified.”

To the contrary, retired Newark Police Department Sgt. Luke Laterza, a trained firearms examiner who oversaw the Newark PD’s ballistics lab, watched the bodycam footage and decried the officers’ actions.

“First and foremost, the guy is surrounded,” Laterza told The Daily Beast. “Look how far away these officers were from him. Where is the imminent danger toward these officers? He had a blade on him. What’s he going to do, throw it? They had time on their side, they were a safe distance away, they overreacted.”

Laterza, who said he has been in similar situations himself, would have called for a less-than-lethal option before drawing a firearm. And now, he added, the officers involved are going to face an uphill battle convincing a grand jury they did the right thing.

“You’re telling me nobody had a taser? Nobody had beanbags? They didn’t have to shoot him. They rushed. He made a sudden move, and they rushed to judgment. Which is bullshit. This could have been prevented.”

One of the officers on the scene had a taser “on standby,” Aaron said at a press conference on Thursday, but that “no tasers were deployed, as far as discharging.”

Shortly after the shooting took place, Eastep’s sister-in-law, Samantha McGill-Barge, launched an online fundraiser to “help get justice for Landon Eastep.”

“This man was murdered by several officers,” the GoFundMe page states. “He was shot for no good reason at all and he did not deserve to die. He has left behind his wife, and she has no means to financially care for herself during grieving, bury Landon, or even provide any services for her husband. He had no life insurance and no other means of care after life.”

Eastep had a troubled past, racking up multiple convictions for driving on a revoked license, possession of stolen property, and probation violations. He was arrested last November on charges of domestic assault with bodily injury, and was scheduled to appear in court on April 19.

Eastep’s public defender, Natalie Unger, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.

“He was pretty wild, doing things that he shouldn't have been,” said Dustin Eastep. “I’ll just leave it at that.”

Eastep paused his long estrangement from family, if only briefly, shortly before his death, his cousin said.

When Eastep last spoke to his sister, Michelle, he was “cussing her, going off on her, and she pretty much had no contact with him in a few months,” Dustin Eastep said.

Their father, Howard Eastep, died in September at the age of 74. Landon wasn’t there to say goodbye.

In recent weeks, Michelle was helping to ready the retired brick mason’s home for rent or resale, according to Dustin.

“She had missed a call from him the other day and he left a voicemail,” he said, adding that Michelle was busy working on the house and that “it slipped her mind to call him back.”

“Then she got a phone call last night that he had gotten shot,” said Dustin. “I talked to [her] this morning, and she’s bawling her eyes out.”

Eastep’s sister was unable to be reached.

WARNING: This video includes extremely graphic gun violence

The Metro Nashville Police officers involved have been placed on administrative leave, the department announced Thursday. They were identified as Justin Pinkelton, Edin Plancic, Brian Murphy, Sean Williams, James Kidd, and Sgt. Steve Carrick. Murphy, a 25-year veteran of the force who investigators say fired the final two shots at Eastep, has been stripped of his police powers, the MNPD announced on Friday. The off-duty Mt. Juliet officer was identified as Corporal Fabjan Llukaj. The state troopers involved have not yet been publicly named.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said it is “working to independently determine the series of events leading to the shooting,” and will share its findings with the district attorney general.

“He loved my sister and my kids very much and, to my knowledge, was a good guy,” Eastep’s sister-in-law, Samantha McGill-Barge, told the Daily Beast hours after the shooting. “It’s a very unfortunate situation. I’m in shock.”

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