A friend of the man who died in a hail of police gunfire on a Nashville highway has questioned why officers shot him so many times and called for law enforcement to be better equipped to deal with people suffering from mental illness.
Billy Ray Moore told The Independent that Landon Eastep was a recovering addict who had been struggling with his mental health before he was shot dead by police officers on Thursday afternoon.
Mr Moore said that, after watching body cam footage from the incident, he believes his friend wanted the officers to kill him but feels that police could have handled the situation in “so many different ways”.
“There are so many different ways they could have handled that. I don’t think he had to die,” he said.
Mr Eastep, 37, was shot dead along Interstate 65 on Thursday when nine police officers opened fire on him following a 30-minute standoff.
Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) released excerpts of body cam footage from the fatal incident on Thursday night, claiming it shows Mr Eastep acted as though he had a firearm and took a “gun stance” before the officers discharged their weapons.
The video shows Mr Eastep with his right hand in his sweatshirt pocket and an item – which police said was a box cutter – in his left hand.
Mr Eastep then suddenly appears to draw his hand out of his right pocket and aim it in the direction of an officer. At that moment, several rounds of gunfire ring out and he falls to the ground.
MNPD confirmed that the “shiny cylindrical object” in Mr Eastep’s hand was not a firearm.
Mr Moore told The Independent that he initially thought that law enforcement killed his friend in “cold blood” but had changed his mind after seeing the body cam footage.
“From the video it looks like [Landon] wanted them to shoot him,” he said.
“Yesterday when I saw the first video [posted online by a bystander] I thought it was a cold-blooded killing… Then I saw the other video.”
He added: “Yesterday I was mad because it hurt and I just felt like they murdered him and today I feel kind of hurt at him.
“It was real selfish of him to do that as he knew lots of people loved him… he has a kid and a wife and they’re now going to have to go on with life without him.”
Mr Moore said he doesn’t know why his friend, whom he met when they were both in recovery, was on the interstate and wishes he had reached out to him for help instead of going there that day.
“I don’t know why he was up on the interstate,” he said.
“I don’t understand what he was doing out there. I don’t know what he was thinking.
“He knew he could call me anytime if he wanted but he chose to do something else.”
Despite this, Mr Moore said he thinks his friend would still be alive if law enforcement had handled the situation differently.
“I think the police need to better deal with mental illness – a lot better than just gunning a man down in the middle of the road,” he said.
“Something could have happened differently instead of killing him.”
Mr Moore also hit out at the number of shots fired by the officers, especially the bullets that were fired after Mr Eastep was already lying in the road.
Authorities have not revealed how many bullets were fired but have confirmed that nine officers discharged their weapons at the 37-year-old – six MNPD officers, two Texas Highway Patrol troopers and an off-duty Mt. Juliet officer.
“It didn’t take that many shots. That was too much,” said Mr Moore.
“And when they shot two more times at the end. He was already down. Whoever shot those last two doesn’t deserve a gun and a badge.”
Mr Moore said he first met Mr Eastep around three years ago when they were both living in a halfway house.
Mr Eastep was struggling with addiction to alcohol and pills and they became close.
“He had a good heart, he was always a good guy who just wanted to help other people out,” said Mr Moore.
He said Mr Eastep got sober and saved up money to get his own place. Recently, he met his wife and got married.
Mr Moore said they stayed in touch and his friend was always “giving back” to others in recovery and helping in the narcotics anonymous programme.
They last spoke around two weeks ago when Mr Moore said his friend seemed “okay” and was speaking about his plans to start his own building business.
But Mr Moore believes the 37-year-old had started drinking again and was dealing with depression and other mental illness.
“I don’t think he would have been up there if he was sober minded,” he said of Thursday’s incident.
Court records show that Mr Eastep had an outstanding charge of domestic assault with bodily injury dated from November and was due to appear in court in April.
Mr Moore said he hopes that greater awareness around mental illness will come from his friend’s death.
“He was just a hard worker, a good man, an honest man who just wanted to help people,” he said.
Caitlin Faith, another friend of Mr Eastep’s, told The Independent he needed help with his mental illness rather than being killed.
“He was struggling with mental health. He needed a crisis counselor not 36 brutal shots. He was a caring, compassionate friend,” she said.
Police said the fatal encounter unfolded when a Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper spotted Mr Eastep sitting on a guardrail on the shoulder of Interstate 65 shortly before 2pm on Thursday afternoon.
Officials said that the trooper stopped to offer to give the 37-year-old a ride home in order to get him off the busy road but, after a brief interaction, Mr Eastep allegedly pulled out a box cutter.
MNPD officers were called to the scene as backup while Off-duty Mt Juliet officer James Kidd was travelling north along the interstate with his family and so stopped to assist with the encounter, police said.
Police said Officer Kidd attempted to deescalate the situation by speaking with Mr Eastep for around 30 minutes.
All the while, the 37-year-old had the box cutter in his left hand and his right hand in his pocket, police said.
The first body cam footage released, taken from Officer Kidd’s body-worn camera, shows the last roughly four minutes of the interaction with Mr Eastep.
Officer Kidd is heard urging him “don’t do it, brother” and reassures him multiple times that he can get him help, that “we can fix it” and that he “will not go to jail today”.
“Let us get you some help though. This is not the answer – you and I know it,” he says.
“We don’t want to hurt you, we don’t want to shoot you and you don’t want to hurt us.”
Moments before the shooting, the officer is heard referencing whether Mr Eastep has a gun in his pocket where he is keeping his right hand.
“Just drop the knife, get your hand out your pocket,” he says.
“If that’s a gun you got in there, don’t worry about it we’ll figure it out, we’ll fix it.
“I’m not too worried about that right now, I’m worried about you, I’m worried about you Landon.
“Just drop it, I know you want to do the right thing here and this is your chance.”
The 37-year-old appears to pull something from his right pocket and point it towards the officer as several shots ring out.
Mr Eastep was taken to hospital where he was pronounced dead.
The MNPD officers were identified as Officers James Kidd, Justin Pinkelton, Sean Williams, Edin Plancic, Sgt. Steven Carrick and Officer Brian Murphy.
They have also been placed on routine administrative assignment as the investigation is under way.
The two state troopers have not been identified and it is not clear if they have been placed on administrative leave during the investigation. The Independent has reached out to the THP for comment.
The investigation into the officer-involved shooting is being led by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Nashville District Attorney’s office. MNPD is also carrying out an administrative review of the shooting.
MNPD spokesperson Don Aaron said that the officers opened fire because Mr Eastep acted as though he had a gun.
“Nine law enforcement personnel fired their weapons after Eastep took a stance as if he had a firearm,” he said.
If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email email@example.com, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.