Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Slain Woman was Heather Smith

Police: Slain RP woman had weapon
Report says 31-year-old shot by officer after she refused orders to drop straight-edge razor blade

By RANDI ROSSMANN and Laura Norton
March 18, 2008



A woman shot and killed by a Rohnert Park police officer Sunday was armed with a straight-edge razor blade she refused to drop as she came at the officer, investigators said.

But a family member of 31-year-old Heather Smith, a single woman living in Rohnert Park with her mother and pre-teen son, said the shooting was the tragic conclusion of a desperate family seeking help.

"It's just completely insane," said Edward Burns, who said he was a cousin of Smith's now living in New York City. "Apparently Heather was feeling suicidal, and my aunt Patti called 911 as a last resort to get some intervention because there was nothing left to do. She called 911 to save her daughter, and the result was quite the opposite."

Police from both Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa, now the lead investigative agency, have refused to identify the officer or the person shot, or elaborate on many of the details surrounding Sunday's shooting.

They did confirm that a 31-year-old woman was shot after an officer responded to a call from a resident seeking help on Cornell Avenue, a home listed as the residence of Patti and Heather Smith. Heather Smith is also known as Heather Billings on address records.

Police said a resident of the house called at 3:46 p.m. seeking help with her daughter, whom she said had been drinking and "might have some psych issues," according to a statement released Monday by the Santa Rosa Police Department.

The caller said her daughter hit her in the face, was "tearing things up around the house" and had cut herself.

Five minutes later, an officer arrived and approached the front door. The officer heard screaming from inside the residence, according to the statement.

The officer opened the unlocked front door and found a woman holding a blade in her right hand. Her left arm was bleeding.

The woman moved toward the officer, still holding the blade, according to the statement. The officer ordered her repeatedly to drop the blade and stop advancing. But the woman would not stop, and the officer opened fire, said Sgt. Lisa Banayat, spokeswoman for the Santa Rosa Police Department.

The death is the second to involve a police officer in Sonoma County this year. In Santa Rosa, 24-year-old Jesse Hamilton, a mental health client, was shot by a Santa Rosa officer after Hamilton came at officers with a weapon.

In that case, a stun gun was initially used but failed to stop Hamilton, authorities said. It was unclear whether the Rohnert Park officer had access to nonlethal weapons in Sunday's incident.

The shooting also raises concerns similar to those surrounding the death of 16-year-old Jeremiah Chass a year ago. He was shot and killed in a struggle with two Sonoma County sheriff's deputies after he became psychotic and violent at his family's home.

Deputies were cleared in the shooting. But it remains a catalyst for discussions about mental health care in Sonoma County and helped spur additional training for law enforcement in responding to mental health crises, training that included Rohnert Park officers this year.

Banayat said the Rohnert Park officer feared for his safety and the safety of the others in the home when he fired his handgun.

An autopsy was expected to be conducted today.

Police would not say how many shots were fired but confirmed there was only one officer on the scene.

Burns said his cousin was shot three times, at least once in the chest. He said Heather Smith was holding a blade at the time of the shooting and Patti Smith was in the room. Heather Smith's child, Kyle, was apparently not in the room at the time, Burns said.

Banayat said she didn't know if the officer carried a Taser stun gun and in a statement said detailed information would not be released until interviews with witnesses could be completed.

Lt. Jeff Taylor of the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety said he could not comment on Rohnert Park police protocol, access to nonlethal weapons or officer training for dealing with psychological situations.

Steve Donley, Rohnert Park city manager, said officers typically carry Taser guns, pepper spray and batons as nonlethal weapons.

Donley said he did not know the specifics of Sunday's shooting but said in close life-threatening situations, an officer's use of a nonlethal weapon might not be appropriate.

"In general, if someone is using deadly force against you, a Taser is not the weapon you could use," he said.

Donley said Rohnert Park police officers recently participated in a countywide training for law enforcement on interacting with mentally ill patients.

Donley said Rohnert Park police did have protocols in place on how to treat suspects dealing with psychological disorders.

Neighbors of the Smiths said officers had been to the home repeatedly, but they said they didn't know why. Police officials Monday said they would not release a history of police calls to the home.

On Monday, a small memorial was left in front of the home. Sitting near a white picket fence and the sidewalk, someone had left a tall candle in a glass container decorated by a picture of Jesus on the cross. Next to it was a dark pink azalea plant with an unaddressed card.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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Over the years my opinions have changed but this will never change: Jesus Christ, Lord, God and Savior, died on the cross and rose from the dead to pay for my sin.