March 10, 2019

Weapon Man Pointed at Police Before Being Shot Was Air Pistol


Photo Credit: Blake Aued

Chief Cleveland Spruill briefs reporters on Sunday. Behind him is a photo of the airsoft gun Thomas Swinford brandished at police.

The weapon a man pointed at police officers before they shot and killed him Friday was an airsoft gun, authorities said Sunday.

While the investigation is ongoing, Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Cleveland Spruill released more details on Sunday.

Friday evening police, initially responded to a call that Thomas Wayne Swinford, 34, of Grovetown, who was in Athens visiting relatives, was "behaving erratically" and was suspected of stealing a vehicle. After speaking to him initially and noticing that he had what appeared to be a gun, officers discovered he had "an extensive criminal record," Spruill said. Possessing a gun is illegal for a convicted felon, so they returned to the home to speak to him again.

Swinford left, and police followed him to a parking lot a short distance away, on the 800 block of Westlake Drive. Swinford got out of a vehicle with the weapon. About 15 officers arrived on the scene, and a trained negotiator spent about 20 minutes trying to get Swinford to put down the weapon, Spruill said.

Body-camera video released by ACCPD shows Swinford walk toward officers and raise his right hand, which was holding the weapon. At that point, seven officers opened fire. Those officers are on paid administrative leave while the Georgia Bureau of Investigation investigates the shooting.

While the GBI and District Attorney Ken Mauldin will make the final determination, Spruill said the footage "suggests officers reasonably feared for their safety and their lives, and their actions were likely justified."

Although the weapon was not an actual gun, airsoft guns—which shoot pellets and are used in a sport similar to paintball—are made to be virtually indistinguishable from real guns. Most have orange-tipped muzzles, however, but Swinford's did not.

"You be the judge, if you saw that, whether you would think it's a real gun or not," Spruill said. 

While some might question the officers' judgement, "the reality is, you're making a decision in a split second, and if you're wrong, it could cost you your life," he said.

Spruill said he couldn't speak to Swinford's state of mind, but the GBI and DA would be able to give more information on why he acted the way he did when the investigation is complete. That could take up to 30 days, Mike Ayers, head of the GBI's Athens bureau, said Friday.

Spruill said he's offered his condolences to Swinford's family, and his thoughts are with the officers as well.