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Video shows Chesterfield Police shoot, kill mentally ill man holding hatchet

Charles Byers body worn camera
Posted at 7:16 PM, Jun 25, 2024

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- CBS 6 has obtained the video showing the moments a Chesterfield Police officer shot and killed a mentally ill man who was holding a hatchet, almost a year after the shooting happened.

Chesterfield Police has previously denied public records requests for the body camera footage of the fatal police shooting of Charles Byers and shielded the footage from disclosure with a protective seal when it was subpoenaed as part of a lawsuit.

But the video became publicly accessible through a link in the online federal court system on Monday.

In court filings, the family's lawyer, and the defendants currently involved in a lawsuit associated with Byers' mental health treatment, accused Chesterfield Police of using law enforcement privilege, which protects dissemination of information related to a criminal investigation, "as a shield against public scrutiny."

For months, Byers' parents have pushed for transparency surrounding the events leading up to their son's death and were critical of the police department's resistance to releasing the video.

What happened before officers responded

The shooting happened on July 8, 2023 on Wycliff Road, half a mile from Byers' address.

In the middle of the day, a neighbor called 911 and reported that Byers tried breaking into her house and damaged a window. The caller reported that Byers thought her house was his family's home.

The neighbor said Byers asked her for water and was seen "aimlessly" walking around.

A caller then reported that Byers tried opening another neighbor's door and entered a third person's garage.

The dispatcher relayed to police that there had been an attempted breaking and entering and vandalism.

The video (Warning: some viewers may find it difficult to watch)

Charles Byers body cam footage

The entire interaction between Byers and the two responding officers lasted approximately 45 seconds.
When the first officer arrived, Byers was seen standing in a yard holding a hatchet by his side.

A man, whose garage Byers took the hatchet from, was seen actively mowing the lawn close to where Byers was standing, which is blurred in the video.

The officer immediately drew her gun and ordered Byers to drop his weapon.
A few seconds later, a second officer arrived at the scene. He got out of the car closer to where Byers was standing and immediately drew his gun too.

When the second officer arrived, Byers walked from the yard into the street, passing an officer in doing so.

Byers then backed away from the officers throughout the rest of the exchange.

Byers kept the hatchet by his side throughout most of the interaction and did not appear to raise it above his waist. He continued to not comply with commands to drop the hatchet.

Around 30 seconds in, the first officer switched to a taser after saying she would "take the less lethal."
She deployed the taser, but for reasons unknown, it did not affect Byers.

About nine seconds later, as Byers still backed away and turned his head sideways, a second officer shot at him five times. At this point, police estimated Byers was 10-15 feet away.

Byers then turned around and started running away from them while still holding the hatchet, and the officer shot him two more times in the back.

Byers then dropped to the ground. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Police said five out of the total seven gunshots struck Byers.

The day of the shooting, Chesterfield Police issued a statement to the press that said Byers "continued to advance on the officers, leaving them no choice but to shoot him."

But the video does not show Byers advancing on officers. Instead, it shows him backing away from them.

When CBS 6 questioned Chesterfield Police about the discrepancy, spokesperson Liz Caroon said investigators were using information from patrol officer interviews early in the investigation and misunderstood the sequence of events.

Caroon maintained that Byers did in fact advance on officers – just not at the time of the shooting.

But still – the video does not show a point in which Byers directly approached the officers. Instead, it shows Byers passing an officer as he walked from a yard into the street where he began retreating from the officers.

Top prosecutor's justification

Chesterfield Commonwealth's Attorney Erin Barr concluded the officer was justified in his decision to use lethal force.

Barr determined officers could not allow Byers to walk into an intersection or toward other residences because he had a hatchet and did not comply with commands to drop it.

In a letter to the police department, Barr described Byers as "increasingly agitated" and that he posed an "imminent threat of serious bodily harm."

Barr's letter stated that the officer who shot Byers did not have a taser. Barr said even if he did, that officer could not have also switched to a taser because of the "short distance between them" and because he would place both officers at risk of lethal injury.

Speaking to the number of shots fired by the officer, Barr said, "Mr. Byers remained upright and moving for a period of time after being struck. In the moment, it would have appeared that he remained a lethal threat and explain the number of shots fired."

CBS 6 legal analyst Todd Stone viewed the video and said while he understands Barr's decision to clear the officers, he said a different prosecutor could have decided to pursue charges and allow a jury to weigh in.

"It's not like a firearm where you can shoot someone from maybe a couple hundred feet away. The further the person gets with the hatchet, the less reasonable the use of force might be," Stone said. “Generally when you’re backing away, you’re creating less of a threat, but he was in a residential neighborhood and the police have a duty to protect the public."

Stone believed the officers felt a reasonable fear for their safety, but he added it didn't appear to be a cut and dried situation.

"I'll admit this is not a textbook self-defense case for a civilian, but police officers are treated a little differently," Stone said.

Byers' parents Michael and Peggy Byers have criticized Chesterfield Police's handling of the situation, questioning whether officers used ample de-escalation strategies before resorting to deadly force.

“Mentally ill people are mentally ill in the wrong place at the wrong time. I know the police are here to protect public safety, but sometimes they have to make a quick decision, and sometimes they make the wrong decision," said Michael Byers.

While they said they cannot bring themselves to watch the video of their son being shot and killed, they were briefed on the incident by their lawyer and during a meeting with Chesterfield Police and Barr.

“I want people to be able to make up their own mind. There's a lot of narrative on all different sides, one entity blaming the other entity, blaming the other entity, and so nobody's really taking responsibility for what happened to Charlie," Peggy Byers said.

Byers' mental health crisis

Chesterfield Police said the shooting underscored what they considered failures and legislative gaps of the mental health system.

At the time of Byers' death, he was under an active court order to be involuntarily held at a psychiatric facility for up to 72 hours.

Byers, who had schizoaffective disorder, suffered an episode on July 5, so his mother took him to Chippenham Hospital.

While at the hospital, he was placed under a temporary detention order after he was determined to be delusional and wandering the halls. According to medical records, Byers was agitated and responding to internal stimuli.

A Richmond magistrate authorized the order, determining Byers was incapable of caring for himself.

But medical records showed Byers was admitted to Chippenham's psychiatric unit for just three hours before he was discharged, and he was not seen by a psychiatrist.

Video from inside the hospital showed a Richmond Police officer arrested Byers after an altercation with a nurse stemming from his refusal to get on an elevator. Byers was charged with assault and removed by police.

An investigation initiated by a federal government agency faulted the hospital for not protecting Byers' patient rights and failing to maintain a safe environment of ethical, high-quality care for a patient who was incapable of making his own medical decisions.

The investigation also revealed hospital staff never told the arresting officer about the temporary detention order.

Richmond Police Chief Rick Edwards told CBS 6 if the officer had known, he could have made the decision not to arrest Byers or take him to a different hospital. Following the incident, Edwards directed policy changes on how officers are to deal with patients in hospital settings.

A Richmond magistrate released Byers back to the public 36 hours before he encountered Chesterfield officers.

His parents were not notified that he was forcibly removed from the hospital.

“We were under the impression that he was in the hospital being treated," Peggy Byers said.

The family filed a $35 million lawsuit against HCA Healthcare and Richmond Police in federal court, alleging their premature removal of Byers from the hospital led to Byers' death.

The defendants disputed the claims, saying they could have never foreseen what happened between Byers and Chesterfield Police.

A settlement conference is scheduled for next month.

“We’re trying to advocate for Charlie and for the people who are in a similar situation to him, because something has to give, and it can't always be the people who are mentally ill or the families that love them," Peggy Byers said.

Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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