BILLINGS — A 29-year-old man from Box Elder was fatally shot by two Billings police officers late Monday after pointing a semi-automatic handgun at officers.
The officers were investigating a call for "suspicious activity" in an apartment complex parking lot near the 2200 block of Avenue C, Police Chief Rich St. John said at a press conference Tuesday.
St. John said two separate cars with three suspects were parked at odd angles in the parking lot when a neighbor called in the activity around 10:20 p.m. Monday.
Four officers arrived to the apartment complex, tried to identify the suspects and find out what they were doing in the parking lot. St. John said the Box Elder man was standing outside of one of the cars that had its hood open, looking like he was working on the engine.
Officers tried to detain, question and pat the Box Elder man down for weapons and he refused to comply.
“This is a standard procedure for both officer safety and citizen safety. The male refused to cooperate or comply with the instructions and a physical altercation took place, resulting in the officers and the male going to the ground," St. John said.
The man struggled with officers on the ground in a face-down position. The officers were trying to get the man's hands out from underneath his body and deployed a taser with no success.
St. John said officers saw the man brandish a semi-automatic black handgun and point it at the four officers who arrived on scene.
"At some point during the struggle, the male was able to pull a semi-automatic hand gun from his waist band area and pointed it at the officers. One of the officers saw the gun and yelled a warning to the others. Officers disengaged and two (officers) fired multiple rounds striking the man," St. John said.
Two officers, Ryland Nelson and Justin Bickford, fired multiple shots at the man. It's not clear how many shots they fired or how many hit the man.
Both Nelson and Bickford are three-year veterans of the Billings police. St. John said the officers"fired multiple rounds from their department-issued Glock 9mm caliber handgun. It is unknown how many rounds each officer fired. None of the officers present were equipped with body cameras, however multiple in-car cameras were on and are being reviewed.”
Both officers received minor injuries from the altercation, St. John said. They are on administrative leave and working through the officer-involved shooting protocol.
"This was a rapidly evolving incident that took place under 30 seconds and it could have been disastrous. I am very relieved that officers Bickford and Nelson are uninjured and my thoughts are with those all who are affected," St. John said.
St. John said the initial investigation found that no shots were fired at the officers.
"At this point, it is unknown if any shots were fired at the officers. The initial assessment is that no shots were fired, but the investigation continues," St. John said.
The man was transported to a Billings hospital and later died of his gunshot wounds. St. John said the man's identity will be released by the Yellowstone County Coroner following the notification of family members.
“He is well known to law enforcement both statewide and local. He is a probation and parole absconder out of Hill County and additionally one of the two cars were stolen," St. John said.
The two other suspects were interviewed on scene and released that night, St. John said. Police found a syringe and baggies containing drug residue in one of the two vehicles on scene.
St. John said the incident is still under investigation and more forensic and witness information will be reviewed.
"Our understanding of this incident may change as additional evidence is collected and reviewed. We will update as needed. Understand that we do not draw any conclusions whether the officers' actions were consistent with policy or applicable law until all of the facts are known and the investigation complete," St. John said.
The Billings police will conduct a use of force investigation and pass the investigation to the Montana Department of Justice and Yellowstone County Attorney's office for third party review, St. John said.
Billings has seen it's fair share of shootings this year. About an hour after the Box Elder man was shot by police, shots were fired in the 400 block of Miles Avenue. Police later found the suspects after a lengthy chase later that night.
When asked about a reason for the seemingly rising number of shootings, St. John said it is a multi-faceted issue. He said the city has seen about one shooting per week going back one month.
"You just have a lot of people engaging in violent activity. Drugs most definitely is involved in the thing. COVID-19 I’m sure doesn’t help the situation. Obviously we’ve had issues getting people in jail, getting people arrested, getting people in front of the court. There is just a wide variety of issues why this could take place. This particular case here, officers responded to a suspicious call and had the decedent complied with the officers, he would have probably gotten a notice to appear on outstanding warrants and we wouldn’t be having this discussion today," St. John said.
Watch the full press conference below: