Fatal police shooting of Native American man in Billings heads to jury Monday

Sister: ‘My brother had no face. He was shot that many times in the head’

By: - January 29, 2022 5:02 pm

A coroner’s jury is set to decide Monday whether two white Billings police officers will face criminal charges for shooting and killing a Chippewa-Cree man on Indigenous People’s Day in 2020.

“We had to have a closed casket,” said Tasheena Duran, sister of the man who died, Coleman F. Stump. “We didn’t want his kids to see that my brother had no face. He was shot that many times in the head.”

On Oct. 12, 2020, Officers Ryland Nelson and Justin Bickford shot 29-year-old Stump after a 911 caller reported suspicious activity in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Billings, according to the Billings Police Department. Police to date have not said the number of shots officers fired, but the information is expected to be part of the evidence presented during Monday’s inquest.

Stump grew up on the Rocky Boy Reservation, Duran said. He was a father of five kids. Records show he’d faced misdemeanor charges and one felony criminal mischief charge in Hill County, but received a deferred sentence for the latter.

After the killing, Stump’s family, Chippewa Cree tribal leaders and the advocacy organization Indian People’s Action called for a federal investigation into the Billings Police Department’s use of violence, “particularly against persons of color.”

The U.S. Department of Justice has not announced a plan to intervene in the Billings case and did not immediately respond to questions Friday about the possibility of investigating the Billings Police Department. 

Since gaining oversight of local and state police in 1994, the DOJ has launched about 70 investigations into departments, including the Missoula Police Department in 2012 for the way it handled sexual assaults.

In a May 2021 letter to Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Chippewa Cree Tribal Chairman Harlan Baker said Billings officers appear to injure people out of anger rather than a need to protect. In 2018, the Billings Gazette reported Billings had one of the highest rates of fatal police shootings among U.S. cities of its size. 

“Distrust of the police, especially amongst communities of color, grows as a result,” Baker wrote. “And it becomes harder for the Billings Police Department to do its job.”

What was reported

In a press conference the day after the shooting, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John gave an initial description of what led officers to fire at Stump.

According to St. John, four officers drove to an apartment complex’s alley parking lot after someone reported suspicious activity. The caller said three people arrived in the alley in two separate cars. 

When officers arrived, Stump was standing outside the cars. Officers detained him and tried to handcuff him, though St. John did not explain why Stump was detained. Stump struggled, according to St. John, and an officer used a stun gun, which had no effect.

While on the ground, St. John said Stump pulled a semi-automatic handgun from his waistband and pointed it at the officers. St. John said officers then fired shots, killing Stump. 

Officers later found out one of the cars was stolen, but not until after Stump was shot, St. John said.

Native Americans in Montana and across the country are killed by police at a disproportionate rate, said Courtney Smith, criminal justice lead for the Montana Racial Equity Project, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that “advocates equity and justice for historically marginalized, disenfranchised and oppressed peoples in Montana,” according to the organization’s website.

Between January 2013 and December 2021, Montana law enforcement killed 58 people, Smith said, citing data from mappingpoliceviolence.org. About 14 percent of those victims were Native American, though Native Americans make up just 6 percent of Montana’s population, Smith said.

“This disproportionate violence is part of the broader long-standing history of racial discrimination against the Indigenous people of this country,” said Smith, who spoke with Stump’s family and plans to attend the inquest. 

Stump’s death occurred about five months after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, killed George Floyd, a Black man, by kneeling on his neck. Floyd’s death prompted national protests over police violence against people of color. Convicted in 2021, Chauvin is serving a 22 ½ year prison sentence for Floyd’s murder.

Like many law enforcement agencies across the country, the Billings Police Department received heavy scrutiny in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing. About three months before Stump’s death, St. John wrote a Facebook post explaining the department’s policies in response to questions about whether the Billings Police Department needed reform.

“I am aware of the current climate of frustration and resentment related to abuse of authority, including the indefensible and unforgivable killing of George Floyd,” St. John said in the post. “I am listening to community conversations and making sure that our policies, procedures, and practices reflect the best in policing and reflect community values and an atmosphere of public trust.”

Duran, however, said the department can do more to reduce how many people in its jurisdiction are killed by police. She also said she doubts a lot of what the Billings Police Department has said about the night her brother was killed. Stump wasn’t a fighter, Duran said; it was far more likely he would run from police, not engage with them.

Stump’s family had asked for an outside agency to investigate Stump’s death, but the investigation was led by Billings Police Captain of Professional Standards Neil Lawrence. Already, Duran said she believes the inquest will favor the officers involved because she sees the prosecutors and police as on the same team.

Inquest in question

Officers have routinely been found justified in police shootings during coroner’s inquests in Montana, Smith said. An investigation by the Billings Gazette of 39 fatal law enforcement shootings from 2012 to 2019 showed the officers to be justified in every case even as the investigations differ, according to a July 2019 story.

“The fact that state actors pick and choose the evidence presented during the coroner’s inquest should give anyone pause on the impartiality of the process,” Smith said.

Ed Zink is the chief deputy of criminal litigation for the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office and will present evidence of what happened between officers and Stump during the inquest. His job is to present what happened based on all available evidence, and nothing is held back, he said.

“I don’t take an advocacy position,” Zink said. 

After the shooting, the Billings Police Department put officers Nelson and Bickford on leave while it investigated Stump’s fatal shooting. Nelson is still employed by the department, though Bickford now works for the city in a different role, said Capt. R.D. Harper, who works in the Billings Police’s Office of Professional Standards.

In 2021, Billings Police officers began wearing body cameras, though they did not have body camera equipment when Stump was killed. Since Stump’s death, the department has pointed to data to show it uses force against suspects of all different races

The coroner’s inquest is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday, Jan. 31, in room 608 of the Yellowstone County Courthouse. Stump’s family plans to hold prayers outside the courtroom at 8:15 a.m.

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Ashley Nerbovig
Ashley Nerbovig

Ashley Nerbovig is a journalist whose previous stops include the Missoulian, The Billings Gazette and the Detroit Free Press, where she covered the 2020 election and the topics of misinformation and disinformation. She went to the University of Montana's school of journalism.