Gulfport police killed a man after he pointed a gun at them. It was actually a toy.

·13 min read

When two Gulfport police officers shot and killed Henry Leo “Hank” Frankowski III in a Dollar Tree parking lot last November, he held a black and brown toy gun in his right hand. To the officers, it looked like a Glock.

The officers had responded to a 911 call about an individual “causing a disturbance.” As Officer Adam Dye approached the man near the entrance to the store, he saw him crouching behind a baby stroller. Then he saw the dog just in front of him, and realized he recognized her owner: a homeless man whom Gulfport police had talked with just hours before at the scene of a car fire.

“Hank,” Dye called out. “What’s going on?”

That was when Frankowski said, “Here we go,” and stood up. He withdrew the gun from his waistband and aimed it straight at Dye.

“Uh-uh,” Dye said.

“Hey, put it down,” shouted Officer Lee Seymour, who was approaching Frankowski from the western side of the parking lot.

At almost the same time the officers spoke, within two seconds of Frankowski pulling out the gun, they opened fire. At least five shots rang out in the parking lot.

By the time Frankowski died at Gulfport Memorial Hospital a few hours later, the Gulfport Police Department had issued a press release claiming he “pointed a firearm at the officers.”

At the time, police declined to answer the Sun Herald’s questions about what type of firearm Frankowski had held, citing the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation’s ongoing investigation of the incident.

An initial incident report prepared by a Gulfport police officer said that Frankowski “attempted to murder two law enforcement officers.” His weapon, the report said, was a “semi automatic handgun.”

The investigative documents exclusively obtained by the Sun Herald through a public records request show for the first time that what Frankowski held was not a semi-automatic handgun, but a toy. No bright orange tip or other marker identified it as a toy, and it looked so much like a real weapon that Dye and Seymour believed it was one.

The MDPS didn’t identify the make and model of the rubber gun.

‘I thought it was a real gun’

Gulfport has never corrected its public claims that Frankowski carried a firearm, even after MBI finished its investigation and a grand jury cleared the two police officers involved of any criminal wrongdoing in July.

An independent policing expert who reviewed footage of the shooting for the Sun Herald agreed with the grand jury, and with Gulfport Police Chief Chris Ryle, that the shooting was justified.

At the scene, Ryle said the man killed by officers had a firearm.

Henry Leo “Hank” Frankowski III was armed wth a fake gun when two Gulfport police officers shot and killed the man in a store parking lot.
Henry Leo “Hank” Frankowski III was armed wth a fake gun when two Gulfport police officers shot and killed the man in a store parking lot.

Ryle sat down with the Sun Herald in November to explain some of his actions in the aftermath of the shooting.

When Ryle first saw the gun at the crime scene and for some time after, he said he thought the gun was real.

“At the crime scene, I walked over that gun several times and I thought it was a real gun,” he said. “It wasn’t until our crime scene tech called us over later and said it was not real that we knew that.”

He said he didn’t release the information about the fake gun afterward because he didn’t want to taint any of the evidence that would go before a grand jury to determine if criminal wrongdoing occurred.

“Before we release anything, we are going to wait for the grand jury results to make sure there is a fair and impartial hearing for both the offices and the victims of those shootings,” he said .”I don’t want to taint the grand jury with preconceived notions, so that’s why.”

Ryle couldn’t address why that information wasn’t released after the grand jury cleared the two officers, but said he will examine the department’s policies regarding release of information and consider making changes to ensure better transparency in the future.

“We want to do a better job of getting information out upfront,” he said, “but only that information that would not interfere with or complicate the investigation.”

MBI releases footage months after grand jury rules

Three videos from officers’ body and dash cameras were released to the Sun Herald by MBI, which conducts an independent investigation of every officer-involved fatality in the state.

The agency also released seven pages of documents consisting of a basic incident report, summaries of the investigator’s interviews with the two Gulfport officers, and single-paragraph descriptions of interviews with other witnesses.

MBI Special Agent James M. Westbrook interviewed both officers four days after the shooting. Dye’s interview lasted 21 minutes, and Seymour’s interview concluded after 17 minutes.

At the time of the shooting, Dye had worked his entire 18-year career in law enforcement as a Gulfport patrol officer. Seymour had 12 years of service under his belt, with 10 years as a Gulfport patrol officer.

In Mississippi, public record laws prohibit the release of personnel information, including whether any complaints had been filed against an officer during their time in service.

Not released to the Sun Herald but referenced in the documents: the crime scene report produced by Biloxi police investigators and recordings of witness interviews.

Historically, the agency has rejected nearly all requests for records relating to investigations of cases where police officers have killed or injured someone, citing exemptions in the Public Records Act for “investigative” material.

But this summer, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell told the Sun Herald that he wanted the agency to be more transparent, and to apply a consistent standard for releasing information.

“I believe that if you ...maintain a cloak of secrecy, then it lends itself to conspiracy theories and incorrect assumptions,” Tindell said. “I believe the public should have a right to view the footage and understand exactly what happened.”

Tindell played a lead role in the Sun Herald obtaining the camera footage and documents in this case.

Currently, a policy regarding the release of such information is not in writing.

But Tindell’s office has been working on formal written guidelines that address the release of information in incidents involving use of force. He expects a written policy to be finalized in the next few months.

“For so long, many of these state agencies have released information based on guidelines and traditions and I’m trying to change that,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is to have these written policies in place so that they will survive administrations and remain intact.”

Tindell’s office has had a round table discussion about the move toward transparency with top law enforcement brass and prosecutors from across the state.

“While not everybody necessarily agrees with all of the aspects for releasing information, I think they were glad that there was going to be a set protocol in place that dealt with the disclosure of these type of records and footage so that it can be uniform across the state,” he said.

There are still some issues the department is trying to address, including whether to release camera footage in use of force incidents where relatives of those involved don’t want the footage released.

“I think that is something that we have to consider,” he said.

Who was Henry Frankowski?

Frankowski, 49, was from Saucier. He frequented the soup kitchen Feed My Sheep for lunch, always bringing along his black Labrador retriever mix, Lucy. The dog was so protective that she would bark and snarl at anyone who came too close to Frankowski.

His friend Mike Oneil, who is also homeless, called Frankowski uncle.

“He was real good,” Oneil said. “He gave me money when he had it to spare.”

Henry Leo Frankowski III
Henry Leo Frankowski III

Frankowski’s first interaction with Gulfport police came in 2002, when he was arrested on U.S. 90 for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and cited for reckless driving and driving with a suspended license.

A decade later, he was arrested on U.S. 49 and charged with public drunkenness, begging, possession of drug paraphernalia and providing false information.

Then, from 2017 to January 2020, he was arrested on misdemeanor charges a half-dozen times, mostly on U.S. 49, near the homeless encampments where he often stayed. The last four times, the charge was the same: failure to appear in court.

In the weeks before Nov. 12, Gulfport police had at least two interactions with Frankowski.

On October 20, a Gulfport officer named Zachary Shore pulled him over because he was driving a car without a license plate. He told the officer he had recently bought the car, and that he was living in it. While looking around the car, the officer saw a gun, which turned out to be a BB gun.

“Officer Shore advised Frankowski to get rid of the gun because it looked real,” the MBI report says.

Shore gave Frankowski a warning for the traffic violation.

Just before 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 12, officers encountered Frankowski at the scene of a fire. His car — a white 1998 four-door Infiniti — had gone up in flames in the parking lot of a club downtown. He told the officers he had been smoking a cigarette in the car earlier. Firefighters ruled it an accidental fire.

A little more than 13 hours later, Gulfport police approached Frankowski in the Dollar Tree parking lot.

A routine disturbance call

Shortly before 3 p.m. on Nov. 12, 2020, the Gulfport Police Department got a 911 call from the Dollar Tree on 25th Avenue and 25th Street, a busy intersection of chain stores and fast-food restaurants.

According to the interview summaries created by MBI investigators, a Dollar Tree employee called 911 after a customer walked inside and said a man was beating his dog outside the store.

That same afternoon, Frankowski had come into the store and accused an assistant manager of following him. He “had a look in his eyes like he wanted to kill her,” investigators reported.

But also, she explained that “Frankowski was nice on previous encounters she had with him.”

An officer-involved shooting occurred outside of a Dollar Tree store of U.S. 49 before 33 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.
An officer-involved shooting occurred outside of a Dollar Tree store of U.S. 49 before 33 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.

When Dye and Seymour pulled into the parking lot in separate cars, they were responding to a routine disturbance call.

Their body and dash camera footage shows they parked near the entrance to the store. Both followed the department’s body camera protocol by turning on their cameras before exiting their vehicles.

MBI did not provide recordings or transcripts of the 911 calls made from the store, but the documents it did turn over indicate that no one who called police reported seeing Frankowski with a gun of any kind.

Dye’s dash camera shows him walking slowly toward Frankowski, with both hands raised above his head while he adjusts a face mask over his mouth.

“God Bless you guys,” a woman off-camera says to him.

“Thank you,” Dye says as he continues in the direction of Frankowski.

Seymour got out of his car shortly after Dye and started walking parallel to the sidewalk, toward Frankowski.

The Sun Herald shared the three videos it received from MBI with William Terrill, a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University

Terrill, who began his career as a military police officer at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi in the mid-1980s, has published research on police culture and use of force.

“What appears to me is they go to a general type of disturbance call that police officers answer on a regular basis, and are very casual on the approach because they have no indication of firearm danger,” he said.

A split-second decision to shoot

Dye walked parallel to the sidewalk where Frankowski was sitting, then turned to face him. Frankowski was crouched behind his baby stroller, with his dog Lucy in front of him.

No more than three seconds after Dye called out “Hank,” Frankowski was aiming the gun at him.

Terrill said that the term “split-second decision making” doesn’t apply to many police shootings, when officers have information about possible weapons and time to strategize to minimize the risk to themselves and others.

In the case of the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, for example, officers thought they were responding to a call about a person armed with a gun. (The 911 caller said the gun was “probably fake,” but that information was not relayed to officers.) Still, the officers sped right up to Rice in their squad car, taking a position that did not allow them to take cover if necessary or talk to the boy from a distance. Within two seconds of arriving, Officer Timothy Loehmann shot Rice in the abdomen at point-blank range.

But this case was different, Terrill said: The Gulfport officers actually did have only seconds to react to what they thought was a real gun, suddenly drawn and pointed at one of them.

“It really appears that there literally was no alternative here than to use deadly force,” Terrill said.

A screenshot from a video provided by the Mississippi Department of Public Safety shows two Gulfport police officers, Adam Dye and Lee Seymour, moments before they open fire on Hank Frankowski, a homeless man who pulled out a toy gun when the officers arrived.
A screenshot from a video provided by the Mississippi Department of Public Safety shows two Gulfport police officers, Adam Dye and Lee Seymour, moments before they open fire on Hank Frankowski, a homeless man who pulled out a toy gun when the officers arrived.

The officers could have waited to see if Frankowski put down the gun, “but by the time you did that, if it was a real gun, you have the potential of being shot yourself.”

In the moments after shooting Frankowski, Seymour radioed for AMR.

“He pulled a gun,” he said.

When the officers approached Frankowski, unconscious on the sidewalk, the gun was still in his right hand.

They each placed a foot on Frankowski’s right arm to prevent him from moving it.

“Get the gun,” one of the officers shouted.

Seymour handcuffed Frankowski.

Afterward, the report said, Seymour and Dye tried to provide “life-saving efforts” for Frankowski.

Why not correct the record?

It was not until later that the crime scene tech told Ryle the gun was a toy.

As for the shooting itself, Ryle called it a “tragic situation” for all involved.

“I’m sorry that Mr. Frankowski lost his life, and I’m sorry for the victim and his family,” he said. “I feel bad but the officers acted appropriately.”

Ryle reviewed the camera footage after the shooting.

“They perceived a threat and whether that threat turned out to be a fake gun, they cannot wait to make that decision, especially in the short time they had to make a decision,” Ryle said.

“We like to sit back and analyze stuff all day after it happens, but if the officers wait, they could lose their lives and civilians could lose their lives.”

Gulfport Police Chief Chris Ryle
Gulfport Police Chief Chris Ryle

Terrill said he saw no reason Gulfport couldn’t have quickly corrected their initial press release about the incident, claiming that Frankowski had carried a gun.

“The way they handled it reeks as if it’s a cover up... which is so strange,” Terrill said, because he thought the shooting was clearly justified.

In other jurisdictions around the country, like Phoenix, police departments take a different approach to releasing information. Within a few weeks of a police shooting, Phoenix police generally release video and audio recordings on the city website. Police narrate the video and explain what happened from the officers’ perspective.

As citizens record interactions with police on their phones and officers wear cameras of their own, he said, people have come to expect greater transparency from law enforcement.

“I don’t know if they’re fearful that there will be public backlash,” he said of Gulfport. “But that’s where you engage in education. The leadership should be educating: ‘Yes, we get it, we got it wrong, it was a toy gun, but the officers at the time wouldn’t have known that.’”

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