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'Water pistol' police shooting raises concerns about crisis response

Posted at 10:25 AM, Aug 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-12 01:28:42-04

A portrait of Stanley Howard sat on the curb with the trash cans after his death.

The front of his apartment was riddled with police bullet holes and evidence markers.

According to Phoenix police, officers shot the 64-year-old man as he stood in the doorway pointing a red water pistol at them on July 8, 2021.

Stanley’s brother, John Howard, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Phoenix police last month alleging negligence, excessive force and wrongful death.

“When he was younger,” John told ABC15 in August 2021. “I looked up to him as an idol. He was very intelligent.”

On the night he died, Stanley called 911 more than 20 times, using obscenities, making threats, and saying he was hurt.

“I cut myself in the place you commit suicide,” Stanley is heard saying in one call.

Phoenix police responded to Stanley's apartment three times that evening. During the first visit, Stanley yelled at the officers and smashed his hand through his front window. The officers walked away.

After Stanley continued calling 911, officers returned two more times. ABC15 reviewed the police bodycam video.

On the officers' final trip to Stanley’s residence, they brought two officers who were trained in crisis intervention. Stanley is inside the apartment talking to officers outside. This is their interaction between him and several officers:

Stanley: I got blood all over the damn house.

Officer: Well, the fire department is here. Can they help you?

Stanley: No, they are idiots

Officer: Okay, well why are you calling them, then?

The conversation continues as Stanley comes into the front doorway:

Officer: We're just trying to get you some help, Stanley.

Stanley: I have a gun.

Officer: Put the gun down.

Stanley: Yes, I have a gun.

Officer: Put it down.

Three officers opened fire on Stanley, according to police reports. With Stanley on the ground bleeding in the doorway, the officers back away and regroup:

Sergeant: Can we still see the gun?

Officer 1: I can't see it, Sarge.

Sergeant: And I am going to assume one of us saw it?

Officer 2: I did, yeah.

Officer 1: I saw it in his right hand.

Phoenix police later determined the ‘gun’ was really a red plastic water pistol.

“They got to do better at this,” John said. “That's just the bottom line.”

John said the Phoenix Police Department missed opportunities to assist Stanley in getting the mental health treatment he needed. Officers had several interactions with Stanley in the months prior to his death and three chances the night of the shooting. According to the lawsuit, Stanley was struggling with schizophrenia and major depression.

“He was not a bad man,” John said. “He went bad because his mind went bad on him, and we needed to determine that a lot sooner than what we did. I tried, but I wasn't listened to.”

One month before Stanley’s death, on June 7, John said he received a strange package in the mail from this brother. John, who lives in California, asked for Phoenix police to do a welfare check.

Phoenix police later told ABC15 that Stanley said he did not want to harm himself or others at that point, so they left.

A Phoenix police spokesperson also said a crisis intervention team interacted with Stanley in 2020, determined he potentially needed mental health services, and gave him a referral.

On June 25, police said Stanley appeared intoxicated, but did not exhibit any behavior that could be construed as a mental health crisis. On June 26, Stewart called again to report an unwanted guest had taken his cigarettes and money.

According to John's civil rights lawsuit against the police “each Defendant had a duty to conform to the standard of care for serving citizens with mental illness.” The lawsuit notes their “failure to get Howard to a mental health counselor and/or facility," and as a result, Stanley “died at the hands of Defendants.”

“Mentally ill people have a right to be free,” said Elizabeth Tate, John’s lawyer, but she said the situation changes when someone says they are trying to hurt or kill themselves or others.

“At that point, society needs to come in and protect others and protect them from themselves,” Tate said. “When you look at that video, Stanley was saying the magic words over and over again: ‘I'll kill you... I cut myself in the spot where you commit suicide.’”

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Officer cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing. Phoenix police declined to comment about John’s allegations because the internal investigation is still pending.

John told ABC15 he also wants better police training so officers can help coax people into treatment and avoid more deadly consequences.

ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius covers policing and politics. Got a news tip? Email Melissa at and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.