By Joshua Sharpe – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Asia Simone Burns – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A man had a gun and he had a fit, fighting his mind in front of the police. As a crisis negotiator drove toward the scene, a rookie police officer keeping watch on the man saw him getting closer with the gun. She fired one shot.
Dearian Bell, 28, fell in the dirt. As he lay dying, the officer sobbed.
In the coming weeks, the GBI and the Fulton County district attorney’s office will scrutinize the shooting, which happened Monday, and weigh whether the officer was justified. But two days after Bell died, his mother does not feel angry with the woman who killed her son.
“She didn’t know what she was walking into,” Catina Williams told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. “I feel for her. I feel like she just panicked. She didn’t know who my son was, she didn’t know his capabilities.”
Williams knows her son. She knows he’d struggled with schizophrenia since he was 16. She knows — she believes because she knows her son — that he meant no harm to the officers or anyone else and was acting out because he needed help.
On Wednesday, Atlanta police released more than three hours of bodycam footage from the three officers who responded to the scene. The video provides the most complete look at what happened yet and will be central in the GBI’s investigation.
The film shows an upset man making very little sense as three police officers attempt to calm him. If you ask Bell’s mother, it shows something else, too: that the way American society handles people in the midst of emotional episodes is wrong. Instead of beat cops, people who specialize in helping the mentally ill should respond, she said.
“People are having emotions and they’re getting killed for it,” Williams said.
The last day
Williams tried as much as she could to keep in contact with her 28-year-old son to make sure he wasn’t depressed or angry. She called him “D.” She smiled when she thought of him. He made her laugh. He took $20 to jump into a freezing pool full of algae sludge. He put on a wig and did his best impersonation of his mom in her Lithia Springs home.
Since the pandemic hit, Williams has been covered up with work — she helps businesses stay afloat for the Small Business Administration — at her home office.
Bell would often show up and ask his mother and other family members to hang out in the pool, cookout or listen to music. He’d had trouble finding his way since he went to prison as a teenager, when he was convicted in a burglary and theft case. Bell looked at his siblings, saw them thriving and wanted the same thing for himself. He applied to a trade school recently.
On Monday afternoon, Bell’s mom checked in with a text. He said he’d been catching up on rest. He said he and his wife were going to look at an apartment. He asked his mom, who is also a hair stylist, for a cut.
Then he stopped answering.
‘Get killed today’
Police received a domestic disturbance call and arrived at Gladstone Apartments in southeast Atlanta before 7:30 p.m., according to the GBI. They found Bell in an SUV with his wife, who stepped out to explain that she needed to leave, but Bell wouldn’t get out of the vehicle.
About then, the police noticed Bell had a gun, the videos show.
“Bro, what are you doing?” the cop asked. “You’ve got your hand on a gun.”
All three officers crowded around the car door and tried unsuccessfully to pull Bell from the SUV.
“I’m just trying to stop my wife from leaving,” Bell said. He said he had a loaded pistol.
Long minutes stretched by with the officers watching Bell, asking him to calm down.
Before arriving at the scene, Ariel McDonald had been a police officer about nine months. Like Bell, she is Black. Like the two other officers on the scene, she had no disciplinary history on file with the state agency that certifies police. Last month, she took a class on the use of deadly force, state records show.
McDonald stood behind the SUV, gun in one hand, Taser in the other. Bell’s wife spoke up to say his gun wasn’t loaded.
“We’re not fixing to play these (expletive) games with no guns,” McDonald told Bell.
Bell said something about a “crime of passion” and said he was going to “get killed today.”
‘Put it down’
Bell suddenly stood and ran through the apartment courtyard. After a while, Bell reemerged and announced that he had “one in the clip.”
At some point, one of the officers called a crisis negotiator to the scene, but police haven’t said exactly what time.
Bell walked toward the officers carrying what appeared to be a scooter in one hand and a gun in the other. For eight minutes, the officers told him to drop the gun. He didn’t.
“Y’all not going to stop me,” he kept hollering before starting toward McDonald.
“Don’t come any closer!” she yelled. “Put the gun down!”
He placed the gun to his head.
Bell disappeared again. Bell came back again. McDonald mentioned using her stun gun. Bell said it wouldn’t stop him. “I’m a whole gorilla.”
Bell walked toward the cops. He threw a bicycle at them.
McDonald told Bell to drop the gun again as he walked between a building and a large bush, seemingly coming toward her.
McDonald squeezed the trigger.
“You shot me, man,” Bell said. “I’m gushing.”
As two officers started trying to help Bell on the ground, McDonald called for an ambulance. Bell’s blood soaked the pine straw. McDonald burst into tears and sobbed.
The phone call
Around 8:30 p.m. Monday, Williams was still at her desk at home. The phone rang. Someone said her son was dead.
“What?” she screamed, jumping up, running to her husband, who jumped up.
They raced to Grady Memorial Hospital. By the time they arrived, Bell was gone.
Later, she realized her son had just received a piece of mail. It was a letter saying he’d been accepted to the trade school.
Williams has been thinking a lot about a dream she had before her son died. In it, her mom, who died a few years ago, walked into her room holding a package.
Williams’ mother opened the box and pulled out a burgundy graduation cap and gown.
Williams takes this to mean her son has graduated and is going to be with his grandmother. That’s what she has chosen to believe. Just as she has chosen to believe that there can be purpose in her son’s death. To believe otherwise is to suffer more. To hate McDonald is to suffer more.
“She didn’t wake up and just want to kill somebody’s child,” Williams said. “I’m hurt, but no, I’m not angry with her.”
Williams believes in destiny. She believes God used her son’s life to bring change and ultimately help other families from suffering when a mental episode leads to a police shooting.
“I just need time to get my son in the ground, and yes,” Williams said, “his momma’s going to work.”