Police Say No Rules Broken in Mark Capps Killing. Rules Say Otherwise

Mark Capps/ Nashville Police Chief John Drake

Friends and fellow members of the country music community continue to remain frustrated that few if any answers in the January 5th police-involved killing of 4-time Grammy winning engineer Mark Capps have been forthcoming from either the Metro Nashville Police Department, or the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) that is in charge of the investigation.

After a domestic incident at the home of Mark Capps where his wife and daughter-in-law accused Capps of kidnapping them, threatening them, and holding them at gunpoint, four arrest warrants were issued for the 54-year-old. SWAT Officers were deployed to serve the warrants at the Capps home in Nashville’s Hermitage neighborhood, but instead of attempting to serve the warrants or to get Mark Capps to surrender, three SWAT Officers were deployed to the front porch of the home to place an explosive device on the front door in what police characterize as a “covert operation.”

When Mark Capps realized someone was on his front porch and opened the door, SWAT Officer Ashley Kendall Coon opened fire, killing Mark Capps. Coon claims that Mark Capps had a revolver in his had at the time, and that his movements posed a treat. Body camera footage released by Metro Nashville police leave it undetermined if Mark Capps possessed a gun, and/or raised it in a threatening manner, while in a previous incident, Officer Coon acted completely differently (see below).

On March 15th, The Tennessean published a report on how Metro Nashville is looking into the formation of a board that would examine critical incidents like the one that involved Mark Capps. The department already has a Professional Standards Division and Force Review Board, but this new board would examine critical incidents like police-involved shootings and killings in their entirety to critique policy, training, and supervision.

Similar boards exist in Las Vegas and Albuquerque, and former Davidson County assistant district attorney Kathy Morante who leads the Professional Standards Division for Metro Nashville has been visiting those departments in an exploratory role. Though the Metro Nashville Police Department has looked into the Mark Capps incident internally, it is the TBI that handles all police-involved shootings.

However, instead of admitting to any potential mistakes made in the Mark Capps killing, while meeting with The Tennessean‘s editorial board, Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake told the paper that SWAT Officers who responded to the home of Mark Capps acted within department policy when they fatally shot him.

“I can’t say I’m happy or not, but I’m never satisfied by someone losing their life,” Drake told The Tennessean’s editorial board. “I look at each individual interaction and try and see how we can be better.” But the Metro Nashville Police Department continues to claim no department policies were violated, when this seems to be very much open for discussion.

As friends of Mark Capps continue to question, why were no de-escalation tactics used when serving the warrants? Why didn’t police announce their presence in the area? Why wasn’t Capps requested to surrender? Why did police not try to serve the warrants in a more conventional manner? Why weren’t friends or family members, mental health professionals, or crisis negotiators involved in an attempt to talk to Mark Capps? Why was the first move by Metro Nashville SWAT personnel to place an explosive device on the front door of the residence? And why did Metro Nashville not think Mark Capps would not notice the officers, either naturally, or through the home’s camera surveillance system that police had been alerted to prior?

Though Police Chief John Drake told The Tennessean that police acted within department policy, the Metro Nashville Police Department Manual clearly states:

1. In accordance with current MNPD training on use of force, and where feasible, authorized employees shall use de-escalation techniques and tactics to stabilize the situation and reduce the immediacy of the threat so that more time, options, and resources are available to resolve the situation.

2. In accordance with current MNPD training on use of force, officers shall continually assess the situation and seek to utilize de- escalation techniques in all use of force incidents, where possible.

3. De-escalation techniques may include, but are not limited to:

a. Vocal/Voice Control: Ensuring only one member addresses an individual at a time, regulating vocal tone, explaining the officer’s actions and responding to questions, avoiding repetitive command loops, using calming gestures, verbal persuasion, verbal advisements and verbal warnings.
b. Decreasing exposure: Moving to a safer distance, seeking cover, tactical repositioning, and utilizing barriers between uncooperative subjects.
c. Slowing down the pace of the incident: Slowing speech, taking deep breaths, waiting the subject out, avoiding physical contact/confrontation, calling for additional personnel, requesting specially trained officers (bilingual, negotiators, CIT, etc.).
d. Decreasing visual triggers: Avoid angry expressions or tones, avoiding unnecessary display of weapons.
e. Disengagement: While the ultimate objective of every subject encounter is to avoid or minimize injury, nothing in this policy requires an officer to retreat or be exposed to a potential physical injury before applying reasonable force. However, in some situations, disengagement may be a viable option for individuals who pose no additional threats to themselves or others and who may later be apprehended under safer conditions.
4. Employees shall reduce the degree of force used as the threat diminishes and cease the use of force as soon as reasonable.
5. Successful resolution of an encounter ultimately relies on the cooperation of a subject to provide officers with the time and opportunity to employ de-escalation techniques. Cooperation is more likely obtained by conveying respect and professionalism to the subject throughout the contact.

All of these department policies were violated in the Mark Capps situation. Ordering the three SWAT Officers armed with assault rifles to the front porch had an escalatory effect on the incident, causing Mark Capps to open the front door—possibly in a startled state—and ultimately startling Officer Ashley Coon, who shot Mark Capps fatally three or four times very shortly after saying “Show me your hands!” to Mark Capps, but never announcing himself as law enforcement.

The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department Manual also states in regards to the Use of Force:

Title 11: Use of Force
The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department recognizes and respects the value and special integrity of each human life. When investing police employees with the lawful authority to use force to protect the public welfare, a careful balancing of all human interests is required.

11.10.010 Purpose
The main responsibility of MNPD officers is to protect the life and property of citizens. In compliance with applicable law, officers shall use only the amount of force necessary and reasonable to accomplish lawful objectives and to control a situation, effect an arrest, overcome resistance to arrest, or defend themselves or others from harm.

When force is necessary, the degree of force employed should be in direct relationship to the amount of resistance exerted, or the immediate threat to the officers or others. There is a compelling public interest that officers authorized to exercise the use of force do so in an objectively reasonable manner and in a way that does not violate the civil rights guaranteed by our Constitution, the Tennessee Constitution, and applicable law. Officers should attempt to use non-confrontational verbal skills, empathy, and/or active listening to stabilize a person in crisis or when confronted with a situation where control is required to effect an arrest or protect the public’s safety. Officers who use excessive or unjustified force degrade the confidence of the community that they serve, undermine the legitimacy of a police officer’s authority, and hinder the Department’s ability to provide effective law enforcement services to the community.

Officers who use excessive or unauthorized force, fail to use authorized techniques, or fail to de-escalate, where reasonable and possible, shall be subject to discipline, up to and including termination, possible criminal prosecution, and/or civil liability. The use of force is only authorized when it is objectively reasonable and for a lawful purpose. Accordingly, the Department will thoroughly review and/or investigate all uses of force by officers to assure compliance with all legal requirements and this policy.

This policy is for Metropolitan Nashville Police Department use only and does not apply in any criminal or civil legal proceedings. This department policy should not be construed as the creation of a higher legal standard of care. Violation of this directive will only form the basis for departmental administrative sanction.

However, Officer Ashley Coon, neither the other two SWAT Officers involved—Timothy Brewer and Jason Rader—have been disciplined or reprimanded in the incident. They weren’t even placed on administrative leave pending investigation, nor is it clear who ordered the three men to place an explosive device on the front door as the preliminary action in attempting to serve the warrants on Mark Capps. As Saving Country Music has covered previously, the way the warrants were served was also against Tennessee Law, and Nashville’s Community Oversight Board has addressed further issues of how the matter was handled.

The Tennessean also reports in the March 15th article, “Capps, 54, was believed to have held his stepdaughter and wife at gunpoint before they were able to escape to a nearby police precinct. Warrants for kidnapping and aggravated assault were issued.”

But The Tennessean seems to be either unaware of, or unwilling to report the presence of a third individual in the house at the time, which can be corroborated by both the publicly-available warrants, and statements from both the Metro Nashville Public Information Office and the TBI.

On January 18th, Saving Country Music confirmed that an officer for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was in the home when the alleged kidnappings and threats occurred, and that the officer not only did not act in the situation, but was able to leave for work while the wife and stepdaughter were allegedly being held at gunpoint in an active kidnapping. When the TBI Officer left the home, he did not report the incident to either local police, or superiors at the TBI headquarters where he works.

While Police Chief John Drake was talking with the editorial board of The Tennessean, why did they not ask Chief Drake why Police Spokesperson Don Aaron did not divulge the presence of a TBI Officer in the home during the alleged kidnapping during his press conference or incident briefing, how the officer was able to leave if it was a kidnapping situation, and why the officer did not report the crime?

Another question friends of Mark Capps continue to ask is who ordered the SWAT Officers to the front porch, which ultimately led to the shooting and killing of Mark Capps, and why the TBI continues to handle the investigation when it involves one of their own officers, presenting a clear conflict of interest? Why is the Justice Department not looking into the matter like it has for other high-profile police-involved killings?

Mark Capps had no prior criminal history, police had never been called to the house previously, and he never fired a shot in the incident. However, the officer that shot Mark Capps—Officer Ashley Kendall Coon—does have a history of escalatory behavior, including an incident eerily similar to the one where Mark Capps was killed.

Nashville’s NPR affiliate WPLN first reported on February 14th that Officer Coon has filled out at least 20 use-of-force reports over his 14-year career, with each incident reviewed by a supervisor, and deemed appropriate. However, Coon was suspended eight times in the first five years of his tenure on the force for various infractions, including multiple incidents where he allegedly inappropriately touched women while in the line of duty, and another for a dangerous vehicle pursuit of a suspect. Coon has not been suspended since 2013.

Saving Country Music has now obtained the employee file of Officer Ashley Kendall Coon, and can confirm this information, including the incident similar to the Mark Capps killing. On August 14th, 2012, Officer Coon was found to have acted inappropriately during the investigation of a robbery/carjacking. While Officer Coon conducted a “knock and talk” at a neighbor’s house as part of the investigation, a man came to the door with a gun, thinking the officers were potentially intruders.

The Complaint report of the incident states:

Complainant called police and stated that officers had conducted a home invasion on his residence. Complainant stated that officers handcuffed and physically assaulted him. He also claimed that officers broke the door to his residence and damaged his pistol.

Officer Coon advised that the complainant opened the door and pointed a pistol at him. Officer Coon stated that he drew his weapon and attempted to sidestep the complainant while giving commands to drop the pistol. Officer Coon stated that the complainant then took a step out of the residence towards him while continuing to point a pistol at him. Multiple officers were pointing their weapons at the complainant and giving him commands to drop the gun. The complainant lowered his weapon, backed back into the residence and laid the gun on a table. Officer Coon grabbed the subject and pulled him out of the residence, where he was handcuffed.

Potentially similar to the situation with Mark Capps, the homeowner thought it was a home invasion, and grabbed a pistol in self-defense. But unlike the Mark Capps case where mere seconds transpired before he was shot and killed, in the 2012 incident, the homeowner not only drew his weapon, he took a step out of the residence toward the police officers, and they still did not fire.

The Complaint report goes on to state:

The protective sweep occurred immediately after the complainant was handcuffed. Officer Coon called me (Sgt. Pierpoint) and informed me what had occurred once the protective sweep was completed. Once the situation had calmed, officers spoke with the complainant and explained their actions. Officers had initially detained the complainant for arrest due to the aggravated assault on Officer Coon. However, they decided not to follow through on the arrest once they began speaking with the complainant and realized his mental state.

Officer Coon was found guilty of “Deficient or Inefficient Performance of Duties,” that he “Demonstrated inefficiency, negligence, or incompetence in the performance of duties” and “Faulty decision making or poor judgement” according to the investigation. He was suspended for four days due to the incident.

Though the situations were different—Mark Capps was considered to be potentially armed and dangerous, and the “knock and talk” incident did not involve a known suspect—Officer Coon did not extend the same courtesy to Mark Capps as he did to the homeowner, which was to give him the time to obey commands before opening fire. Even then, Coon was still reprimanded and suspended in the incident due to poor judgement. Meanwhile, no corrective action has been taken in the Mark Capps killing.

Saving Country Music has reached out to the Nashville chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police for comment about the conduct of Officer Coon in the killing of Mark Capps, but they have not returned phone calls.

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An online petition has been set up demanding answers for the killing of Mark Capps. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigations says the investigation into the killing of Mark Capps is ongoing. Saving Country Music will continue to report on the incident.

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