QUEENS — The Queens District Attorney has cleared NYPD officers of any wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of George Tillman, a black man at a family barbecue in South Ozone Park after a lengthy investigation concluded that he pointed a gun at police.
“The evidence clearly shows that Mr. Tillman pointed the pistol in the direction of a police officer and failed to heed police directions to drop the weapon,” said DA Richard Brown. “The officers had no choice but to fire in order to stop Mr. Tillman from firing his weapon at them.”
But Tillman's family members claim he never had a gun and are preparing to take the case to court and sue the city.
Police told the DA's investigators that they stopped the 32-year-old Maryland man who carried an open bottle of Smirnoff vodka outside of his Ford SUV on 135th Street and 116th Avenue in South Ozone Park around 1:30 a.m. on April 17, according to the 71-page report.
When two plainclothes officers in an unmarked police car told Tillman he was not permitted to carry an open bottle of alcohol in the street, Tillman handed the bottle to a friend who walked away from the car, the report shows.
This is when police said they saw a gun tucked into Tillman's waistband.
The officers asked Tillman to stop but he tried to run down 135th Street toward 116th Avenue with the .40-caliber Hi-Point handgun in his right hand and ignored commands to drop the weapon, police said.
Three officers on the corner of 135th Street and 116th Avenue saw Tillman turning onto the 116th Avenue and joined the pursuit, police said.
When Tillman appeared to swing his right arm toward one of the officers, the officer shouted, "He's going for it," and began to fire his weapon at Tillman.
The five officers fired 64 rounds and hit Tillman 13 times, once fatally in the left temple, according to the findings.
Tillman's family came running when they heard the shots, which they said sounded like firecrackers, and found him lying on the ground in the fetal position, according to the report.
A black .40 caliber Smith & Wesson Hi Point pistol was found near the body that investigators found was stolen in 2013 in Virginia, where Tillman had applied to carry a concealed weapon in 2012, the report said.
Civilian witnesses and video surveillance substantiates the officers' account of the approach and conversation outside of Tillman's Ford Expediton, prosecutors say, but the Tillmans' attorney Jeffrey Lichtman argued that the investigation of the actual shooting relied too heavily on police statements.
“You can drive a Mack truck through the holes in their evidence,” said Litchman, who has filed a notice of claim to sue the city and called for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to conduct an independent investigation. “I don’t buy it.”
Four videos with surveillance footage published on the Queens DA's office website show officers approaching Tillman and later firing their weapons, but did not capture the pursuit or Tillman arming himself with a pistol.
Tillman’s wife admitted that he owned a black gun that he kept in their Maryland home, but she and six witnesses at the barbecue told investigators they never saw Tillman carrying it that night.
Police also said they found the pistol in Tillman’s hand after he was shot then kicked it away from him, but another witness, identified as a neighbor and a retired West Indies police officer, told investigators he saw a group of men searching for the weapon around Tillman’s body.
“F--- it, I know he had a gun. It’s somewhere around here,” the witness heard them say, according to the report. "I seen he had a gun.”
Lichtman updated the Tillman family on the report's findings, the result of a six-month investigation that includes more than two dozen witness interviews, police records and ballistics reports, on Friday, he said.
The family was "not shocked" that the police officers had been exonerated, but expressed their desire to seek justice in civil court, Lichtman said.
“It strongly defies logic how George Tillman — a licensed electrician with a career, five young children he cared for and a follower of the Christian faith — can end up being shot 13 times in front of his wife by officers who were investigating an open container of alcohol,” Lichtman has said previously.