Widow files lawsuit in police shooting of slain Baptist pastor

The widow of a Baptist pastor shot and killed last fall by police in Toccoa, Ga., has filed a federal lawsuit alleging "gross and plain incompetence" displayed by an officer's use of deadly force.

GAINESVILLE, Ga. (ABP) -- The widow of a Baptist pastor shot and killed last fall by police in Toccoa, Ga., has filed a federal lawsuit alleging "gross and plain incompetence" displayed by an officer's use of deadly force.

The lawsuit filed March 15 by Abigail Ayers seeks monetary damages for the fatal shooting of her husband, Jonathan Ayers, 28, pastor of Shoal Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Ga., outside a gas station where he had just gotten money from an ATM machine last Sept. 1.

A Stephens County grand jury in December found that Billy Shane Harrison, the police officer who fired the fatal shot, and Kyle Bryant, his partner in a multi-county narcotics team working on an undercover drug sting, were justified in the use of lethal force, because the way Ayers drove his vehicle as he attempted to leave the scene put them in reasonable fear for their lives. 
 
The civil lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court Northern District of Georgia in Gainesville, however, alleges that the officers acted in ways that would cause a reasonable person to believe they were not police officers but armed criminals.

The lawsuit says the men's dress and grooming were intended to convince the public they were not police officers but drug dealers as part of their undercover role. The lawsuit says a police badge around Harrison's neck was so camouflaged by his T-shirt that it was barely identifiable as a police ID and could easily be confused as a piece of "bling" or decorative jewelry, especially if a weapon were being simultaneously pointed at a startled private citizen.

When officers observed Ayers in the presence of a woman they were investigating -- someone friends of Ayers say he had been trying to convince to get off drugs and turn her life around -- they did not immediately detain him, because there was no evidence he had committed a crime.

Before allowing him to leave the scene, the lawsuit alleges, police managed to acquire the tag number on the car Ayers was driving, giving them information sufficient to identify him for later questioning if they thought it necessary.

Happening upon the vehicle parked at a Shell convenience store, the suit says the officers violated proper procedure by failing to call for assistance from a marked car or uniformed officer.

They waited until Ayers left the store on foot, got into his vehicle and started to back away before descending suddenly and rapidly on him in a unmarked Cadillac Escalade without lights or siren. The lawsuit says Harrison was pointing a firearm at Ayers while rushing toward him, and Oxner ran behind the vehicle while it was moving in reverse.

The suit calls Harrison's claim that he fired shots because he thought Ayers and run over Oxner "completely unreasonable." It alleges instead that Harrison "panicked due to a lack of professionalism and training regarding the proper use of force."

"Reasonable police officers know because of the foreseeable confusion that could be created by rushing at a suspect while dressed in plain clothes as a possible criminal and while operating an unmarked, undercover vehicle, that if the purpose of the approach of the person was merely to question them, that they should instead 1) call for a backup unit or uniformed officer, if at all possible; 2) Don police jackets and/or law enforcement gear which would clearly identify themselves as law enforcement officials before approaching either the vehicle or suspect; 3) Approach on foot calmly and professionally clearly identify themselves with a clear display of credentials under circumstances where the person being approached would not be confused, startled or frightened but would instead have adequate and sufficient time to clearly identify the individuals approaching as law enforcement officials," the suit alleges.

"Approaching someone in a vehicle traveling in reverse while brandishing a weapon at them would not give adequate opportunity to identify someone dressed in street clothes as a police officer even if a small credential was being displayed about their neck and particularly because the use of the weapon at the same time would likely confuse/frighten them," the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit seeks damages for wrongful death, assault and battery, false arrest and negligence. It also charges Harrison's and Bryant's superiors at the Stephens County Sheriff s Department and Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team with "deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights" of people within their jurisdiction and failure to ensure that officers were qualified and properly trained for undercover police work.

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This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.

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