A man threatened to kill himself. Juneau police shot at him, and hit two nearby homes instead.

A cat looks out the window
A cat named Milo looks out the window of Maggie Watson’s Mendenhall Valley home on Feb. 23, 2022 in Juneau. Watson said she was glued to the window the night before, when Juneau police officers showed up to reach a 65-year-old man who had threatened to hurt himself. An officer ended up firing at the man, missing him and hit two nearby homes instead. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Some residents of a Juneau neighborhood in the Mendenhall Valley are rattled after a Juneau Police officer shot at a 65-year-old man, missed him, but struck two otherwise uninvolved trailer homes nearby on Tuesday evening.

Police say there was one injury: someone inside a trailer got a minor cut from broken glass after a bullet went through a bedroom window.

State and local authorities are investigating the shooting, which originated with a call about the 65-year-old man threatening to harm himself. Some details from early accounts of what happened are already hard to reconcile.

Maggie Watson was at home on Tuesday night when she heard several men outside her window yelling a man’s name over and over again.

“I was just glued to the window,” she said.

She said she didn’t hear the men identify themselves, though she has some difficulty hearing. She said it sounded like they were trying to convince someone to come outside. She couldn’t see who from her window.

“And one officer made it to the snow berm,” she said from her home in Kodzoff Acres near the Mendenhall Glacier. She pointed out a snow berm across across the street, a few doors down, where investigators later marked a few spots with bright orange paint.

“… And, took out his long gun, and pow! Pow! Pow! Pow!” Watson said. “And I knew exactly what that sound was. And I remember, just, I mean, my jaw dropped. … What the f— just happened?”

More police officers showed up, working the scene for hours. She didn’t get many answers that night.

On Wednesday evening, the Juneau Police Department held a news conference and put out a written account of the incident. Police said they reached the 65-year-old man on the phone before arriving on the scene, and he said he was going to hurt himself and he had a gun.

When they arrived, police said they announced themselves and “started a dialogue” with the 65-year-old man. In a written account, they said that during this brief exchange, “one or more of the officers believed the subject was pointing a gun at them.” That officer then shot at the man. 

Police Chief Ed Mercer described what happened just before the officer fired his gun a little differently.

“When officers attempted to contact him outside his residence, one of the officers received a threat from the man,” Mercer said.

After the shooting, the written account said the 65-year-old man “went to the ground.” They checked him for injuries and handcuffed him, and took him to the hospital for evaluation.

Mercer said police recovered a gun, but would not say who it belonged to. Mercer cautioned that the investigation is ongoing and that information was emerging as he spoke. He said recordings from officers’ body cameras will be part of the investigation.

He said two officers with the Alaska Bureau of Investigations, which is part of the Alaska State Troopers, arrived in Juneau on Wednesday morning to investigate the shooting. Mercer said it’s important that an independent party work the case.

“We take these things seriously,” Mercer said. “We want another set of eyes to look at the case, and provide input to us – and (The Office of) Special Prosecutions – a conclusion on what is decided based on our officer’s actions.”

Mercer said these investigations can take three to six months.

“We’ll try to get through this as fast as we can,” he said. “We would like to see some closure on this and at least, we’ll provide information to the public and continue to be transparent with what happened after yesterday.”

Mercer said the police officer who fired his gun was put on administrative leave. He didn’t identify him by name, but said the department would by the end of Thursday.

This is the third police shooting in Juneau since 2016. Officer James Esbenshade killed 34-year-old Kelly Michael Stephens in December 2019 when Stephens advanced on the officer, yelling threats.  State officials concluded the shooting was justified. The family sued, and eventually dropped its case.

And in December 2016, Sgt. Chris Gifford shot at a man who pointed an axle as if it were a long gun at the police. The man survived wounds from debris, and the shooting was deemed justified.

“I can tell you, in my 22 years working for this police department, we haven’t had many officer-involved shootings in our community,” Mercer said. “It’s mostly, within the most recent last five years that we’re seeing a little bit more of this happen in our community, unfortunately.”

Deputy City Manager Robert Barr said police shootings affect more than the immediate parties.

“You know, I think the important thing to note here is that anytime one of our officers feels the need to discharge his or her weapon in the course of their duties, that is a tragedy,” Barr said. “It is tragic for all of the individuals involved, it’s also tragic more broadly for our community.”

If you’re in a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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