Getting a Killing Wrong

The media's initial dismissal of the police killing of Matthew "Zadok" Williams missed some important context.

Don’t be surprised if a DeKalb police sergeant faces a criminal charge for shooting Matthew “Zadok” Williams. I think it’s coming.

I didn’t think so in March, when body camera footage emerged showing Williams with a knife in his hand, seemingly lunging at a police officer responding to a call. What I didn’t understand in that moment — what changes everything for me — is that Williams was standing on his own front porch.

Williams wasn’t a nefarious figure prowling an abandoned property. He was a homeowner having a mental breakdown while locked out of his house. And DeKalb County is supposed to have procedures for managing such things by now.

A lengthy breakdown of events by the inestimable Charles Bethea at the New Yorker last month described the scene. Zadok Williams, a cryptocurrency trader, had been reclusive even before the pandemic; said his sister Hahnah Williams, a health care attorney. Zadok Williams was outside looking for his lost keys when a 911 caller drew police to his house.

Zadok Williams appears on body worn camera footage to lunge with a knife in hand at a police officer who is questioning his presence there. The footage shows the officer’s frenzied effort to de-escalate. And, frankly, many people let that be enough to draw conclusions.

Williams had committed no crime when police approached him. He broke back into his home, which is also not a crime. The knife thing, however, is problematic.

“In the initial days after the incident, Dekalb police released limited bodycam footage, which resulted in hardly any footage being shown of Sgt. Devon Perry unlawfully shooting Zadok in his house and leaving him to die,” Hahnah Williams said. “We acknowledge that Zadok had a mental health crisis outside, but Zadok retreated in his own home and there was no reason for Sgt. Perry to kick his door in, fire four shots inside his home at close range, and leave him to die.”

What should have happened, Hahnah said, was that a mental health crisis response team should have been made available after Zadok retreated in his home and a proper negotiator should have arrived on the scene with the support of family to talk Zadok Williams out of the house. Responding officers should have also activated SWAT, Hahnah said. Instead, a sergeant, Devon Perry, took over from the initial responding officer, kicked the door in, shot Williams dead, and ordered officers to stand down without rendering medical aid to Zadok. 

Where, exactly, were the resources that DeKalb County police are supposed to have at their disposal after the reforms enacted in the wake of the Anthony Hill and Quintas Harris killings. A former police officer is sitting in jail today in part because the department didn’t know how to handle a mental health crisis well.

Today, virtually every police officer in DeKalb has had formal crisis intervention training, but that training isn’t consistently reinforced with continuous training and evaluation.

The DeKalb County Service Board provides mental health services to the county. It staffs a mobile crisis unit pairing police officers with mental health professionals from the DeKalb Crisis Center. The department is supposed to have three of these units up and running.

Where were these units at the time of Williams’ confrontation with police?

Allowing Williams to bleed to death in his home by delaying entry of emergency medical service staff raises more questions about the shooting.

“Sgt. Devon Perry fired four shots into my brother's home at close range and left him to die rendering no medical aid,” Hahnah Williams said. “They turned EMS away. What kind of heartless human being could allow a man to bleed to death behind his front door while they stand on his front porch doing nothing?” 

The family grieves in pockets because the fight for justice is a full-time job, Hahnah says.  The Dekalb SCLC sponsors a weekly protest for Zadok every Wednesday at 12 noon at various locations, including the steps of the DeKalb County courthouse, where the SCLC and others call for the prosecution and firing of Sgt. Devon Perry. 

You can stay up to date on the location of the protest and how to further support the Williams family by texting Zadok to 555888, visiting https://justiceforzadok.com, and following @justiceforzadok on Instagram and Facebook. 

I’m including the contact information for Sherry Boston, DeKalb’s district attorney here: dekalbda@dekalbcountyga.gov, phone (404) 371-2232. To the degree that she can be influenced by public opinion, I encourage you to register yours with her office.