DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — Update: On May 10th, DeKalb County released several hours of previously unreleased body cam video that Channel 2 Action News requested through an Open Records Request. It includes footage from the second officer who fired the final shots, but the footage does not include a clear view of Williams’ final moments. It is currently under review, as additional questions about protocol and policy in the post-shooting response have been submitted to the county. A follow-up report is pending.
When a neighbor called 911 on the afternoon of April 12, she told police she was scared of Matthew Zadok Williams and someone needed to take him away.
At that moment, looking out of her Decatur condo window, the caller did not believe Williams was armed, but she declared he was homeless.
Williams, 31, was actually roaming around his property and “pacing,” as the caller put it, covering a knife at the sight of people and disappearing with the sound of a fire truck siren. Property records show he had owned the condo in which he was fatally shot by police that day after a series of events from that 911 call to him running and lunging behind an officer with a knife, jumping through a window and telling police — who’d repeatedly pleaded for him to drop his knife — to back up and identify themselves.
They’d done that repeatedly in the roughly 23 minutes between arrival and the fatal shooting.
Williams’ family said he was in the middle of a mental health crisis. Crisis communicators should have stepped in, they said, the moment Williams was back behind closed doors of his own house, negotiating his terms of the conversation with officers.
The moments and the view of Williams seconds before the shooting have not been released, with DeKalb County citing an ongoing state investigation in a records denial on Friday. The hour and a half after the shooting showed officers backing up outside his door, awaiting SWAT’s arrival. It was a critical time without anyone rendering aid, which could have meant the difference between life and death, the family argued.
Collectively, 911 calls, different body camera angles, Williams’ and police’s final actions, and unreleased records give law enforcement, family and an expert, who’s trained in these scenarios for decades, different views of the fatal shooting, as well as ideas of what should have been the outcome.
The 911 call
The 911 call that came in after 3 p.m. describing Williams is full of assurances that he doesn’t belong in his neighborhood.
“There’s a very suspicious man who’s been lurking around the woods around my house. He’s like walking back and forth. Pacing,” the caller tells dispatch.
“Checking his pockets, coming towards our house. Walking towards the front, walking around. It’s making me really uncomfortable,” the caller says.
“Because our house is wooded, so we can’t see what he’s doing,” she continues. “And I don’t want to go outside, and I don’t want to go walk around in that area because I don’t know if he’s armed or not.”
“All right,” the dispatcher answers.
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“I feel like he’s probably not because I feel like he’s homeless,” the caller goes on.
Half an hour later, she’d ventured outside, and called dispatch back to follow up.
“I guess I startled him, and he pulled a knife out, and he tried to like cover it, like, because I guess, I don’t know — because I’m a small woman, and he didn’t find me a threat or something,” she reasons. “But he pulled a knife out, and there’s just like a man outside my house, and I need somebody to take him away.”
Matthew Zadok Williams was not homeless. Property records show he’d owned the condo in which he was shot and killed by police that day since 2016. And when police arrived, they indicated they suspected that much.
A witness tied to the 911 caller met with police when they arrived and described a skittish Williams. The officer indicated he believed Williams is from the neighborhood.
“Well, when he heard the fire truck, he just kind of disappeared,” the witness said.
“Is that him right there?” the officer asked, pointing across the complex.
“Yeah,” the woman answered.
“I think he lives here, though,” the officer answered.
“No, no one lives there,” she declared.
A police incident report incorrectly listed the unit next to Williams’ home as the location of response that day, likely the one the women were referring to when talking to law enforcement. But everything ended inside Williams’ unit less than half an hour later, in what family described as a mental health episode before Williams ran behind police with a knife, and they shot and killed him.
Two video angles released by police last month last an hour and 40-50 minutes each. There are 23 minutes between the start of one body camera — marking the first officers’ arrival — and the fatal shooting into Williams’ home where he’s seen hiding behind an ottoman.
When the responding officer who spoke to the witness on scene approaches Williams’ front door two minutes into the video, Williams doesn’t communicate.
“Hey, what’s up man. How’s it going? You all right? Live here?” the officer asks as he walks up the stairs to Williams’ unit. “No? Yes?”
“What it say on the hat?” the officer continues, pointing to his police uniform.
“If you don’t live here, I’m kindly asking you to leave,” the officer continues.
We can’t hear Williams respond, but the officer begins to back up. Williams takes off running. The officer falls, and now Williams is seen in the second responding officer’s body camera running past the fallen officer as he gets up. At this point, Williams — who has stopped running — is now lunging behind the officer with a knife. As the officer runs up a flight of stairs, Williams is running past him underneath the staircase, and the officer’s partner has fired the first shot.
The officer who fell is now looking over the staircase and has a bird’s-eye view of Williams in a wooded area. At that point, he realizes Williams is armed and yells, “Drop the knife!”
Backup has arrived, and the first two officers have lost sight of Williams. Around eight minutes in, the officer who fired the first shot says she believes she hit him. But she doesn’t spot a knife on him when she catches a glimpse of him in the wooded area.
“Did he put it down?” the first officer asks.
“I didn’t see it,” she responds.
“Did you hit him?” The first officer asks. She answers something in the affirmative to which the officer asks to confirm, “Think you hit him in the shoulder?”
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By 12 1/2 minutes in, the police on the scene know Williams is in the home. They can hear him “messing with the front door” after jumping through a first-floor window.
“I want you on lethal. You go left lethal,” the supervisor advises as a group of officers heads to Williams’ front door.
“We gonna force entry!” One officer warns outside the door. “Come to the door.”
“Please come out for us, boss man,” another officer pleads. “What’s the problem? How can we help you?”
Once at the door at around 17 minutes in, the officers identify themselves and ask Williams to come out. They also debate whether he’s injured.
“Honestly, now that we know he’s all right,” the supervisor begins.
“That’s the thing, we don’t know if he hit,” the officer who yelled the first command reasons.
“But he’s talkin,’” the supervisor responds.
“I mean, you can get hit and still be talking,” the first officer responds.
Around 18 minutes and 20 seconds, they decide to kick the door in. A red target light flashes on the furniture. Williams is seen rushing across the unit to hide behind an ottoman. In one camera, you see Williams reach to close the door.
“He’s behind the ottoman. And as you can see, you see the sliver of the blue knife in his right hand,” DeKalb’s police chief, Mirtha Ramos, said in an interview soon after releasing the video to Channel 2 last month.
Police kick the door back open.
“Sir! Let me see your hands! Put the knife down. Put, put the knife down!” they yell.
As the door closes and police kick it back open, a shot is fired. They issue a final warning for Williams to drop the knife. By 19 minutes in, Williams starts talking, telling police they’ve broken into his home.
“My property, sir,” Williams warns.
“Come on out and talk to me then,” the supervisor says. “Then we’ll leave.”
As the door slowly closes again, police deploy tasers. They’re trying to keep the door open and maintain a clear view of Williams.
“Please, sir. I’m begging you,” the supervisor continues. “You a Black man. I’m a Black man. You don’t have to die today!”
“You came into my property,” Williams says.
“I understand that, and I appreciate that,” the supervisor answers.
“You guys come here unannounced,” Williams says, sounding distressed.
“I need you to work with us,” the officer continues.
“I’m defending my property,” Williams declares as the officer tells him to put the knife down.
Williams tells them they need to back up, and they tell Williams they need to see him. The conversation continues for about two minutes before the door closes once again.
“This is Officer Walter and Officer Morgan. We’re here to help you,” a voice can be heard.
Then the shooting begins.
It’s unclear what the officers see inside the home and what Williams is doing in the seconds before the gunfire.
“He’s still back there,” one officer says, panting.
“All right. You can back up,” the supervisor says as the officer backs off from the door.
In the remaining 1 hour and 25 minutes, the group of officers stands outside of Williams’ door before SWAT moves in. At one point, the officer in the line of Williams and the knife says he’s grateful for his partner’s actions earlier.
“She well-trained, bro, trust me,” he laughed, talking about his partner’s shot when Williams was behind him with the knife. “I don’t care what they say.”
“We don’t know if he was hit. That’s the only issue,” another officer responds, referring to Williams.
“But he had a bunch of blood, though, probably from breaking the glass,” the first officer responds.
Family: “They wait for him to die!”
A week later, cars passing Freedom Park in Dekalb County honked at people holding large “Justice for Zadok” signs. Williams’ face was plastered on other signs at a Friday night vigil. It was the eve of his funeral service.
“They wait for him to die!” Mawuli Davis yelled in a loudspeaker. The family attorney went through portions of the last moment of the body camera with the crowd, emphasizing Williams telling police he’d talk if they backed away from the home and identified themselves, something police had done repeatedly.
Davis also questioned why no aid was rendered immediately after the shooting. Precious time passed. And for more than an hour, officers were outside Williams’ door after the shooting, he said.
“This man (Williams) is shot. This man kills people, and they walk him in here in Georgia,” Davis said, referring to Robert Aaron Long, the man who shot and killed eight people in a massacre between Asian spas in metro Atlanta last month.
“Man goes in a church, kills parishioners,” Davis said of Dylann Roof, who murdered nine South Carolina church members in 2015. “They (law enforcement) take him to Burger King. They always find a way to preserve white life!”
Davis, who represents Williams’ family, has requested to see the omitted body camera, showing the view of Williams in those final moments. Davis also believes it should have been crisis communicators and not SWAT who should move in once Williams was behind closed doors.
“Whatever faith that you operate in, please think of us,” one of Williams’ sisters said to the crowd that night. She emphasized Williams had been his mother’s caretaker and the favorite of six children. “We are in deep pain right now,” she added.
An expert weighs in on mental health response
We took the released video angles, 911 calls and police report to Dr. William Brickhouse, an Atlanta-based psychologist who’s trained more than 20 police departments in police psychology and mental health response. His department training work includes the Atlanta Police Department, but he is not tied to Dekalb County police and Williams’ case.
“I saw three different chapters, and I think when you slow it down, you get to talk about the three different chapters,” Brickhouse said. “But in real time, it’s all one chapter.”
“This situation might be something that DeKalb PD might want to look at relative to training,” he continued. “It’s got some potential application there, but when you look at the amount of information the officers had — they did not have a lot of information to suggest a mental illness.”
Brickhouse recognized the false statements in the initial 911 calls but went on to discuss the threat and response changes for police the moment Williams took off behind the officer with a knife.
Asked if at any point police should have known they were dealing with a mental health crisis before the shooting, given Williams’ final statements behind closed doors, Brickhouse said, “Not necessarily.”
“The person did not choose to accept or recognize them to be who they said they were, and someone might choose to make a comment about that, but the alternative is ‘Maybe, he’s just playing it off,’” Brickhouse said.
“Any time you have loss of life, that’s a sad situation. But was this very clear? From a mental health standpoint? I don’t think so. I really don’t,” he added.
As a professional, Brickhouse said certain warnings may be clear to him, but those may not translate to others in real time, such as Williams hiding the knife from the woman who called 911 and said she startled him, a witness saying Williams jumped at the sound of a fire truck siren before police’s arrival, or Williams being unresponsive to officers until the end.
“In looking at it myself, I might be able to see something here and there, but I’ve got the benefit of an analysis that I can slow down and pick apart,” Brickhouse said. “Most of the time they spent on-site, there was no interaction.”
Williams’ death and the police shooting are now under investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The GBI only steps in to investigate police shootings by request of the agency.
While Channel 2′s request for the unreleased body camera angles was denied because of the ongoing investigation, the county found records responsive to another portion of the request. It was for previous calls of response to Williams’ home, which could give a window into whether there had been mental health issues or other calls and interactions prior to the fatal shooting. The agency estimated it will take more than a month to process this case due to COVID-19.
Part 2 of this story:
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