Witnesses question shooting
Several say man slain by police made no threats
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Several people who watched Reginald Sumbler hold police at bay for more than an hour Tuesday said the troubled man did not aim a pistol at the officers who surrounded him near his south Houston home.
Caesar Walker was on his front porch in the 4300 block of Mowery about 9:20 a.m. when Sumbler — armed with a 9mm pistol and holding a Bible — began the tense standoff with police that ended in a fatal hail of gunfire about an hour later.
Like other bystanders, Walker said he never saw Sumbler threaten the officers with the weapon. “He was shot first before he picked the pistol up,” Walker said Wednesday, as several of Sumbler’s relatives and friends gathered at the spot where he fell.
Citing their ongoing investigation, HPD officials on Wednesday declined to comment on specific details concerning the fatal shooting. They maintained, however, that deadly force was warranted after Sumbler pointed the pistol at officers. Even after he was struck and fell into a culvert, police said, Sumbler again grabbed for the pistol and fired at least once toward the officers.
But one day after the public event, many who witnessed the shooting wondered if police could have could have found a way to save Sumbler’s life and get him the help that he clearly needed. One city official said more outreach for the mentally ill is necessary to prevent tragedies like Sumbler’s in the future.
Walker said the first officers at the scene, including at least one trained in crisis intervention, were making progress in defusing the tense situation.
“The officer was talking to Reginald. He told Reginald to sit down and read the Bible,” Walker said.
Apparently heeding the officer’s request, Sumbler pulled the pistol from his waistband and placed it on the ground next to him, Walker said.
“Reginald was calm. If they had left (him) alone, he would have given up,” Walker said.
Diana Jones said Sumbler, the nephew she raised, had been despondent over several personal problems, including a child support dispute with the mother of his 2-year-old daughter.
“He felt that (life) wasn’t worth living. He said, ‘I feel like I’m going to lose my mind,’ ” Jones said.
Shortly before he went outside Tuesday, Jones said her nephew fired the pistol inside their house.
“He said, ‘I just can’t deal with it anymore,’ ” she said.
Police said Sumbler called 911 about 9:20 a.m. Tuesday, telling them that he planned to commit suicide.
As HPD officers moved in to set up a perimeter around the area, Sumbler alternated between pointing the pistol at his head, waving it around and placing it on the ground, police said.
They pleaded with him to move away from the weapon, police said Tuesday, and only fired when Sumbler pointed the pistol at them.
Quintina Talib who grew up with Sumbler, said the man became unnerved when the SWAT team arrived.
“It scared (Sumbler) because they were walking around with those big guns,” Talib said.
At times breaking into tears, Talib said Sumbler’s actions didn’t warrant the level of force that was used against him.
“They acted like this man had a bomb,” she said. “Once they hit him, they kept on shooting.”
Another witness, Delfino Ayala, said Sumbler moved away from the pistol as it lay on the ground several times — giving officers ample opportunity to take him into custody without resorting to gunfire.
“He didn’t point it at nobody,” Ayala said. “They (the police) came running at him (and) shooting him.”
On Wednesday, a large wooden cross was erected on the spot where Sumbler was shot. E.L. Jackson said he came by to remember the person he had known for a decade.
“This is where I lost my friend and this is where I wanted to be,” Jackson said.
Sumbler shouldn’t have put himself in a situation that endangered the lives of others in the area, he said.
Tuesday’s officer-involved shooting also drew comments from Houston city leaders.
Councilwoman Ada Edwards on Wednesday called for a prevention-based approach for dealing with people with emotional problems.
“If I’m a mother whose son is like this, how do I learn to keep him on his medication? We can’t leave this up to the police to handle — then we wind up with tragedy,” Edwards said.
Edwards also wanted to know why the SWAT team was called in.
“I want to know what the policy is,” she said. “Because I understand that it was being handled” (by a negotiator up to that point.)
There was not much officers could do once Sumbler stopped cooperating, said Mayor Bill White.
“We had a negotiation team there,” White said. “But, the fact is that if somebody has mental illness, and they pick up a gun and threaten police officers and disregard instructions by those officers not to keep a weapon in their hand, that is a dangerous situation for all involved.”
Chronicle reporters Matt Stiles and Carolyn Feibel contributed to this report.