Nashville disciplines police officer who fired last in fatal highway standoff

The Nashville police chief has stripped an officer of policing authority after he fired the final two shots to end a fatal interstate highway standoff in which nine officers opened fire on a man holding a box cutter.

During the encounter on Thursday, officers exhorted Landon Eastep to surrender while they kept their guns drawn. They fatally shot him when he pulled a shiny object from his pocket and pointed it as if ready to shoot. It was not a gun.

“Mr Eastep was executed yesterday afternoon,” said Joy Kimbrough, an attorney for the man’s wife, Chelesy, who sobbed quietly, surrounded by community advocates. “He was sitting on a guardrail. He was not bothering anyone.”

Kimbrough wondered how what should have been a welfare check turned into a situation in which Eastep is estimated to have been shot 30 times.

“I think they should have been trying to get him some sort of help,” she said. “I don’t think they should have been standing there with guns drawn ready to shoot given any opportunity.”

Within hours, police had released body-camera footage and identified the officers involved in the shooting of the 37-year-old along Interstate 65. On Friday, police chief John Drake ordered the department to decommission Officer Brian Murphy while the shooting is reviewed by the Tennessee bureau of investigation (TBI).

Police say Murphy, a 25-year veteran, fired the last two shots from a rifle. The other five Metro Nashville officers who fired were placed on administrative assignment, pending the TBI review. Drake also ordered the department’s training academy to review the response.

Academy staff will “thoroughly examine how our officers positioned themselves in this multi-agency response and as well review the tactics and procedures used in relation to those that we teach”, Drake said. “I am saddened by any loss of life, and I send my condolences to the Eastep family.”

Two state troopers involved are on routine discretionary leave with pay, according to a Tennessee highway patrol spokesman.

The Nashville district attorney, Glenn Funk, promised “any appropriate action” once the TBI finished its investigation. Funk promised to release the TBI report in full.

A police spokesman, Don Aaron, cautioned that images and video of the incident may be disturbing, but said they were released so people could understand.

A highway patrol officer saw Eastep sitting on a guardrail and stopped to offer him a ride. After a brief interaction, Eastep pulled a box cutter and the trooper called for back-up, police said. Other officers arrived, blocking traffic in both directions as a helicopter circled.

“Whatever you’re worried about, we can fix it,” an off-duty Mount Juliet officer who stopped on his way home could be heard telling Eastep. “Let us get you some help though. This is not the answer.”

Later, Eastep could be seen putting his right hand in his pocket while carrying the box cutter in his left.

“Come on brother, just drop the knife, get your hand out of your pocket. If that’s a gun what you’ve got in there, don’t worry about it, we’ll figure it out! We’ll fix it!” the officer said.

Aaron said officers tried to deescalate the situation for about 30 minutes. Finally, Eastep pulled a “silver, shiny cylindrical object” from his pocket and pointed it at officers. The object was not a weapon, Aaron said.

Eastep was married to wife Chelesy early last year. In between sobs, the 30-year-old said her husband woke up “agitated” on Thursday and decided to go for a walk to calm down. It was the last she saw of him.

“Landon was very loving, he always had me laughing,” she said. “He was all around exceptional, he tried to do anything he could to make people happy.”

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) of Nashville president, Sheryl Guinn, called the case “heartbreaking”, saying she wasn’t surprised after watching other police shootings. Her organization was monitoring the case because even though Eastep was white, she said, he was treated unfairly by law enforcement.

In September, Eastep’s landlord filed an eviction case against him, court documents show. The following month, his wife filled out a registration form for a judicially run diversion program that helps settle eviction cases during the Covid-19 pandemic using federal assistance.

“My husband Landon is a high risk for Covid19 due to him missing half a lung,” Chelesy wrote. “He got sick and lost his job and has had trouble finding work. We got behind on rent and haven’t been able to catch up.”

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