Police killed a man in Juneau this week, the first fatal police-involved shooting since 2007

Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer during a press conference on Sunday, December 29, 2019, at the Juneau Police Department headquarters. A Juneau police officer shot and killed a man early Sunday morning. It is the police department’s first fatal officer-involved shooting since 2007. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

A city police officer shot and killed a Juneau man in the early morning on Dec. 29. 

Kelly Michael Stephens was a 34-year-old tattoo artist whom Juneau police said threatened to kill the officer. Police said he swung a chain at the officer who then fired one shot, hitting Stephens in the stomach.    

This is the second police-involved shooting in Juneau this year, but the first fatal one since 2007.

During a press conference later that day, City Manager Rorie Watt stood at a podium at the Juneau police station and said it was a tragic day for the community. 

“Obviously a tragedy for the man who lost his life, a tragedy for the officer that felt the need to use his weapon, a tragedy for the community as our sense of security has certainly eroded today,” Watt said.

At the Chinook apartment complex, where the shooting happened, several residents said the same thing. Many stood on their porches Sunday evening, quietly talking while watching their children run along a nearby ditch where bits of bright yellow crime scene tape fluttered in the wind. Some cried when they talked about what had happened. 

But, a handful of people — including Georgianna Joseph — did. She and her neighbors rolled up their sleeves, pulled up their shirts and showed off tattoos that Stephens had done. 

Georgianna Joseph shows her tattoo at the Chinook apartment complex in the Mendenhall Valley on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019 in Juneau, Alaska. The tattoo was done by Kelly “Rabbit” Stephens. Stephens was killed during an early-morning altercation with Juneau Police. Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Joseph’s is a blue and black skull on her forearm with a pink bow on top. She rubbed it while she talked about Stephens. She said he was a good friend. She said that he had been in her apartment on Saturday night. 

“There was no alcohol, no drugs or anything,” she said.

But, Stephens got into a fight with the nextdoor neighbor. Joseph said during the fight, there was a lot of yelling. But, she said, that’s not abnormal in the neighborhood. She said no one pulled a weapon, and she doesn’t remember hearing a gunshot.

Then, Stephens took off to walk his puppy, headed down Cinema Drive and carrying a dog leash.    

Joseph said “never in a million years,” did she think she’d later watch him lay on the ground, dying from a gunshot wound.

The officer who shot Stephens was responding to a 9-1-1 call. Police said a woman called at 12:28 a.m. saying she heard yelling and a gunshot near Cinema Drive.  

Juneau police haven’t identified the officer who shot Stephens. They said they’ll withhold his identity for at least 24-hours. But, during a press conference on Sunday, Chief Ed Mercer described what he knows of the shooting.

Mercer said when the officer got to the apartment complex and out of his patrol car, he heard yelling. Mercer said the officer saw a man approaching him swinging a chain. 

“The man yelled at the officer that he was going to kill him several times,” Mercer said. “The officer repeatedly gave the man verbal commands to stop.”

When Stephens didn’t stop, Mercer said the officer shot him once in the torso.

It’s not clear exactly what happened after that. 

Mercer said several other JPD officers got the scene. They handcuffed Stephens and called the paramedics. They also picked up the object Stephens had swinging and kept it as evidence.

“The weapon that was recovered was on a rope and at the very end was a chain that appears to be a motorcycle chain with a carabiner attaching it,” Mercer said. “It could look like a leash, but it was a rope with a carabiner and a chain.”

Georgianna Joseph and and other witnesses, including Thomas Austin, said they tried to help Stephens. But, they were kept back by police. They said, no one helped Stephens while he lay on the ground — his puppy, hiding under a nearby police cruiser. 

Mercer said he’s not sure how long it took the paramedics to get there, but he thinks an officer on scene gave Stephens medical attention. 

“We had multiple officers that arrived on scene, so it may not have necessarily been the officer involved in the shooting,” he said.

Stephens was taken to Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Joseph said she went to the hospital to check on him; that’s where she found out he had died.

“We all thought he was OK,” she said.  She paused and shook her head. “They destroyed multiple lives. He was really loved.”

This isn’t the first violent encounter Stephens has had with Juneau police.  In 2018, he was charged with assaulting an officer along with three other charges that were eventually dropped. According to court records, he pleaded guilty to that misdemeanor. 

The officer who shot Stephens has been placed on paid administrative leave, per department policy. Juneau Police spokesperson Erann Kalwara said it’s not clear how long that leave will last. 

Investigators from the Alaska State Troopers are headed to Juneau to help with the investigation. 

Juneau Police officers are equipped with BodyWorn, an audio and video recording system. Mercer said there are also mobile video systems in police cars.