By Laila Kearney
(Reuters) - A white Ohio policeman responding to reports of an armed robbery fatally shot a black 13-year-old boy after he pulled out what appeared to be a weapon that was later determined to be a BB gun, police said on Thursday.
The teen was shot multiple times when he drew what appeared to be a handgun from his waistband during a confrontation with officers in an alley on Wednesday in Columbus, the state capital, police said.
"We consider it a tragedy when something like this happens," Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs told a news conference. "This is the last thing any police officer wants."
Jacobs identified the officer who shot King as Bryan Mason, a nine-year veteran. Mason was placed on temporary administrative duty, pending an internal investigation.
Police identified the victim as Tyree King, although a family lawyer said the boy's first name was Tyre.
The family said in a statement released by a Columbus law firm that it retained to investigate the shooting that "numerous witness accounts are in direct conflict with the officer's version of events."
The family also said reports of King's actions before the shooting were allegations only at this point and called for an independent investigation.
“The family is obviously distraught by the murder of Tyre," attorney Chanda L. Brown said in the statement, which described him as a typical 13-year-old boy who was active in football, soccer, hockey and gymnastics.
"They are shocked and indicate the actions described by the police are out of his normal character," she said.
More than 150 people, including some of King's family members, gathered for a prayer vigil on Thursday near where he was shot, the Columbus Dispatch reported.
"My eyes are still swollen and my head still hurts," King’s 13-year-old sister Marshay Caldwell said. "He’s really not coming back."
King's death comes nearly two years after the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was black, by a white Cleveland, Ohio police officer who was responding to reports of a suspect with a gun in a city park.
An investigation revealed that Rice, who died a day after the shooting, had been seen holding a replica gun that shoots plastic pellets.
Rice's death became a rallying point for the Black Lives Matter movement and was one of a number of deaths that led to nationwide demonstrations against the use of excessive and sometimes deadly force against minorities, especially young black men, by police officers.
On July 5, police shot dead 37-year-old Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while 32-year-old Philando Castile was fatally shot by police in St. Paul, Minnesota, a day later.
GROUP OF SUSPECTS FLED
In King's death, detectives retrieved the weapon from the scene of the shooting and later determined it was a BB gun, which shoots small round pellets, with an attached laser, police said.
"It looks like a firearm that could kill you," Jacobs said, as she held up an image of the same type of BB gun.
The incident began just before 8 p.m. EDT on Wednesday when police responded to reports of an armed robbery. The victim told officers that a group of males had demanded money, threatening him with a gun, police said.
A short time later officers found three males, including King, matching the descriptions of the suspects, police said. While attempting to question them, King and another male fled into an alley.
Police followed and Mason shot King after he pulled what appeared to be a handgun from his waistband, police said. King was transported to the Nationwide Children's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The second male who ran into the alley was interviewed by police and released. Additional suspects were being sought.
The Columbus Dispatch newspaper identified the second male as Demetrius Braxton, 19, who told the newspaper in an interview that he was with King for both the robbery and the shooting.
"I was in the situation. We robbed somebody, the people I was with," Braxton said, according to the Dispatch.
Braxton told the paper that, following the robbery, the suspects were chased by police.
"The cops said to get down. We got down but my friend (King) got up and ran," Braxton said. "He started to run. When he ran, the cops shot him."
Braxton told the paper that King was shot four or five times, asking "Why didn't they tase him?"
A grand jury will ultimately decide whether the officer should face criminal charges, police chief Jacobs said.
The hashtag #TyreeKing was among the most used on Twitter in the United States on Thursday morning and Columbus officials called for calm during the investigation.
"These are crushing circumstances for everyone," Columbus Councilman Mitchell Brown said. "Let the process work."
(Additional reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Amy Tennery in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Laila Kearney and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Diane Craft and Paul Tait)