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Washington Post report: Black and unarmed

The Columbian
Published:

24 black men killed by police so far in 2015 who were definitely unarmed


Jan. 8 – Artago Damon Howard, 36,
was killed after a Union County, Ark., sheriff’s deputy responded to a burglary alarm at a pharmacy. The deputy found the front door broken and Howard inside. Howard was shot as he struggled for control of the deputy’s gun.


Feb. 4 – Jeremy Lett, 28,
was killed by a Tallahassee, Fla., officer who was responding to reports of a man banging on doors at an apartment complex. The officer found Lett lying on the ground, awakened him and Lett attacked. After a stun gun failed to subdue Lett, the officer shot him five times. A grand jury cleared the officer on Feb. 26.


Feb. 15 – Lavall Hall, 25,
was killed by a Miami Gardens, Fla., officer after Hall’s mother sought help getting her mentally ill son under control. The officer and his partner found Hall outside in his underwear, swinging a broomstick handle. After Hall refused orders to drop it, the officer shot him twice.


Feb. 28 – Thomas Allen, 34,
was killed after a Wellston, Mo., police officer stopped the car in which he was riding for making an illegal turn. While police spoke to the car’s driver on the roadside, Allen climbed behind the wheel and tried to flee with the driver’s 5-year-old daughter. The officer jumped into the front passenger seat and shot Allen three times.


March 1 – Charly Leundeu Keunang, 43,
was killed by Los Angeles police after trying to gain control of an officer’s gun during a scuffle on skid row. Keunang, who was homeless and had a history of mental illness, was shot multiple times.

24 black men killed by police so far in 2015 who were definitely unarmed

Jan. 8 - Artago Damon Howard, 36, was killed after a Union County, Ark., sheriff's deputy responded to a burglary alarm at a pharmacy. The deputy found the front door broken and Howard inside. Howard was shot as he struggled for control of the deputy's gun.

Feb. 4 - Jeremy Lett, 28, was killed by a Tallahassee, Fla., officer who was responding to reports of a man banging on doors at an apartment complex. The officer found Lett lying on the ground, awakened him and Lett attacked. After a stun gun failed to subdue Lett, the officer shot him five times. A grand jury cleared the officer on Feb. 26.

Feb. 15 - Lavall Hall, 25, was killed by a Miami Gardens, Fla., officer after Hall's mother sought help getting her mentally ill son under control. The officer and his partner found Hall outside in his underwear, swinging a broomstick handle. After Hall refused orders to drop it, the officer shot him twice.

Feb. 28 - Thomas Allen, 34, was killed after a Wellston, Mo., police officer stopped the car in which he was riding for making an illegal turn. While police spoke to the car's driver on the roadside, Allen climbed behind the wheel and tried to flee with the driver's 5-year-old daughter. The officer jumped into the front passenger seat and shot Allen three times.

March 1 - Charly Leundeu Keunang, 43, was killed by Los Angeles police after trying to gain control of an officer's gun during a scuffle on skid row. Keunang, who was homeless and had a history of mental illness, was shot multiple times.

March 6 - Naeschylus Vinzant, 37, was killed by an Aurora, Colo., police officer who was part of a SWAT team trying to arrest Vinzant on charges of kidnapping, robbery and parole violation. Police have not said what prompted the officer to open fire.

March 6 - Tony Robinson, 19, was killed by a Madison, Wis., police officer who forced his way into Robinson's apartment after multiple reports of a man behaving erratically. Robinson, who friends said had eaten a large quantity of hallucinogenic mushrooms, assaulted the officer, who opened fire. Prosecutors declined to file charges on May 12.

March 9 --Anthony Hill, 27, was killed after a DeKalb County, Ga., officer responded to reports of a naked man running around an Atlanta apartment complex. Hill, an Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan and struggled with bipolar disorder, charged at the officer, who fired two shots.

March 12 - Bobby Gross, 35, was killed by a Washington, D.C., Metro transit officer responding to reports of a man trespassing in a subway tunnel. Gross, who was wearing no shoes or pants, rushed at the lone, female officer with a large tree branch, and she opened fire.

March 19 - Brandon Jones, 18, was killed after burglarizing a Cleveland grocery store of cigarettes and a sack of Canadian coins. Two Cleveland officers confronted Jones as he exited the store. During a subsequent struggle, one of the officers shot Jones at close range.

April 2 - Eric Harris, 44, was killed after trying to sell a gun to an undercover officer in Tulsa. When uniformed officers arrived, Harris fled on foot but was quickly tackled by police. As he was being subdued, Tulsa County sheriff's reserve deputy Robert Bates inadvertently fired his gun instead of a stun gun. Bates has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.

April 4 - Walter Scott, 50, was shocked with a stun gun and then shot in the back as he ran from North Charleston, S.C., police officer Michael Thomas Slager. Slager said he had stopped Scott because of a broken taillight and that Scott grabbed his stun gun. A bystander recorded the shooting on a cellphone camera. Slager has been charged with murder.

April 15 - Frank Shephard, 41, was killed after Houston police began to follow his car because of what police called "suspicious activity." Shephard led officers on a brief chase, striking two vehicles before he stopped. When he climbed out of his car, officers ordered him to raise his hands. Police said they opened fire because he reached back into his car.

April 22 - William Chapman, 18, was suspected by Wal-Mart security of shoplifting. When Chapman exited the store, a Portsmouth, Va., police officer stopped him in the parking lot, and a struggle ensued. A witness said that Chapman knocked a stun gun out of the officer's hand and then appeared to charge the officer, who then shot him.

April 25 - David Felix, 24, fled New York City detectives who had gone to his apartment to interview him about the robbery of a woman's purse. When officers caught up with Felix, he struggled with them, grabbed a police radio from one and struck a detective in the head. One opened fire, killing him. Felix suffered from schizophrenia.

May 5 - Brandon Glenn, 29, scuffled with a bouncer outside of a bar in Venice, Calif., where he was homeless. When two Los Angeles police officers attempted to detain Glenn, a physical confrontation ensued. A nearby security camera recorded the shooting and showed one of the officers stepping back and firing two shots.

June 15 - Kris Jackson, 22, was climbing out a motel room window in the resort town of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., when he was fatally shot by police. South Lake Tahoe police said they were called to investigate the report of a woman screaming and crying. An officer standing outside the motel shot Jackson because he "perceived a deadly threat," police said.

June 25 - Spencer McCain, 41, was shot after Baltimore County deputies were called to an apartment in Owings Mills, Md.. to investigate a report of domestic violence. As officers were en route, McCain threatened suicide. Police forced their way into the apartment and said they shot McCain because he acted in a manner that led them to believe he had a gun.

July 12 - Salvado Ellswood, 36, was killed by a Plantation, Fla., police officer who encountered him behind an office building while on foot patrol. Police said that the officer told Ellswood, who was homeless, to leave and that he punched the officer in the face. The officer shocked Ellswood with a stun gun and, when Ellswood grew more aggressive, shot him with his handgun.

July 17 - Albert Joseph Davis, 23, was shot in the chest by an Orlando, Fla., officer after police were called to an apartment building where Davis and four others were fighting. Police attempted to arrest Davis, who fled. When the officer caught up with Davis, a struggle ensued. The officer shocked Davis with a stun gun and then fatally shot him.

July 17-- Darrius Stewart, 19, was killed as officers tried to handcuff him during a traffic stop in Memphis. Police said Stewart was the passenger in a car that police stopped because of a broken headlight. As police detained Stewart for arrest based on a warrant, he struck an officer in the face with handcuffs and then ran. The officer caught Stewart, the two struggled, and the officer shot him.

July 19-- Samuel DuBose, 43, was killed by a University of Cincinnati officer who stopped him because his car was missing a license plate. Officer Raymond Tensing said DuBose dragged him with his car after he approached the vehicle. Tensing's body camera shows the officer thrusting his gun through the window and shooting DuBose once in the head. Prosecutors have charged him with murder.

July 2 - Victor Emanuel Larosa, 23, struck a Jacksonville, Fla., police officer with his vehicle and rammed a police cruiser during an undercover drug sting. Larosa crashed the vehicle into an apartment building, jumped out and started to run. He tripped and as he got up, turned toward a pursuing officer while reaching for his waistband, police said. The officer fired eight times, killing Larosa.

Aug. 7 - Christian Taylor, 19, crashed an SUV through the front window of a car dealership in Arlington, Texas, and a security company alerted police to a burglary in progress. Arlington police confronted Taylor in the dealership showroom and shot him during an altercation.

-- The Washington Post


March 6 – Naeschylus Vinzant, 37,
was killed by an Aurora, Colo., police officer who was part of a SWAT team trying to arrest Vinzant on charges of kidnapping, robbery and parole violation. Police have not said what prompted the officer to open fire.


March 6 – Tony Robinson, 19,
was killed by a Madison, Wis., police officer who forced his way into Robinson’s apartment after multiple reports of a man behaving erratically. Robinson, who friends said had eaten a large quantity of hallucinogenic mushrooms, assaulted the officer, who opened fire. Prosecutors declined to file charges on May 12.


March 9 –Anthony Hill, 27,
was killed after a DeKalb County, Ga., officer responded to reports of a naked man running around an Atlanta apartment complex. Hill, an Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan and struggled with bipolar disorder, charged at the officer, who fired two shots.


March 12 – Bobby Gross, 35,
was killed by a Washington, D.C., Metro transit officer responding to reports of a man trespassing in a subway tunnel. Gross, who was wearing no shoes or pants, rushed at the lone, female officer with a large tree branch, and she opened fire.


March 19 – Brandon Jones, 18,
was killed after burglarizing a Cleveland grocery store of cigarettes and a sack of Canadian coins. Two Cleveland officers confronted Jones as he exited the store. During a subsequent struggle, one of the officers shot Jones at close range.


April 2 – Eric Harris, 44,
was killed after trying to sell a gun to an undercover officer in Tulsa. When uniformed officers arrived, Harris fled on foot but was quickly tackled by police. As he was being subdued, Tulsa County sheriff’s reserve deputy Robert Bates inadvertently fired his gun instead of a stun gun. Bates has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.


April 4 – Walter Scott, 50,
was shocked with a stun gun and then shot in the back as he ran from North Charleston, S.C., police officer Michael Thomas Slager. Slager said he had stopped Scott because of a broken taillight and that Scott grabbed his stun gun. A bystander recorded the shooting on a cellphone camera. Slager has been charged with murder.


April 15 – Frank Shephard, 41,
was killed after Houston police began to follow his car because of what police called “suspicious activity.” Shephard led officers on a brief chase, striking two vehicles before he stopped. When he climbed out of his car, officers ordered him to raise his hands. Police said they opened fire because he reached back into his car.


April 22 – William Chapman, 18,
was suspected by Wal-Mart security of shoplifting. When Chapman exited the store, a Portsmouth, Va., police officer stopped him in the parking lot, and a struggle ensued. A witness said that Chapman knocked a stun gun out of the officer’s hand and then appeared to charge the officer, who then shot him.


April 25 – David Felix, 24,
fled New York City detectives who had gone to his apartment to interview him about the robbery of a woman’s purse. When officers caught up with Felix, he struggled with them, grabbed a police radio from one and struck a detective in the head. One opened fire, killing him. Felix suffered from schizophrenia.


May 5 – Brandon Glenn, 29,
scuffled with a bouncer outside of a bar in Venice, Calif., where he was homeless. When two Los Angeles police officers attempted to detain Glenn, a physical confrontation ensued. A nearby security camera recorded the shooting and showed one of the officers stepping back and firing two shots.


June 15 – Kris Jackson, 22,
was climbing out a motel room window in the resort town of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., when he was fatally shot by police. South Lake Tahoe police said they were called to investigate the report of a woman screaming and crying. An officer standing outside the motel shot Jackson because he “perceived a deadly threat,” police said.


June 25 – Spencer McCain, 41,
was shot after Baltimore County deputies were called to an apartment in Owings Mills, Md.. to investigate a report of domestic violence. As officers were en route, McCain threatened suicide. Police forced their way into the apartment and said they shot McCain because he acted in a manner that led them to believe he had a gun.


July 12 – Salvado Ellswood, 36,
was killed by a Plantation, Fla., police officer who encountered him behind an office building while on foot patrol. Police said that the officer told Ellswood, who was homeless, to leave and that he punched the officer in the face. The officer shocked Ellswood with a stun gun and, when Ellswood grew more aggressive, shot him with his handgun.


July 17 – Albert Joseph Davis, 23,
was shot in the chest by an Orlando, Fla., officer after police were called to an apartment building where Davis and four others were fighting. Police attempted to arrest Davis, who fled. When the officer caught up with Davis, a struggle ensued. The officer shocked Davis with a stun gun and then fatally shot him.


July 17– Darrius Stewart, 19,
was killed as officers tried to handcuff him during a traffic stop in Memphis. Police said Stewart was the passenger in a car that police stopped because of a broken headlight. As police detained Stewart for arrest based on a warrant, he struck an officer in the face with handcuffs and then ran. The officer caught Stewart, the two struggled, and the officer shot him.


July 19– Samuel DuBose, 43,
was killed by a University of Cincinnati officer who stopped him because his car was missing a license plate. Officer Raymond Tensing said DuBose dragged him with his car after he approached the vehicle. Tensing’s body camera shows the officer thrusting his gun through the window and shooting DuBose once in the head. Prosecutors have charged him with murder.


July 2 – Victor Emanuel Larosa, 23,
struck a Jacksonville, Fla., police officer with his vehicle and rammed a police cruiser during an undercover drug sting. Larosa crashed the vehicle into an apartment building, jumped out and started to run. He tripped and as he got up, turned toward a pursuing officer while reaching for his waistband, police said. The officer fired eight times, killing Larosa.


Aug. 7 – Christian Taylor, 19,
crashed an SUV through the front window of a car dealership in Arlington, Texas, and a security company alerted police to a burglary in progress. Arlington police confronted Taylor in the dealership showroom and shot him during an altercation.

— The Washington Post

It begins with a relatively minor incident: A traffic stop. A burglary. A disturbance. Police arrive and tensions escalate. It ends with an unarmed black man shot dead.

That pattern played out in March in Madison, Wis., when police responded to reports of a man yelling and jumping in traffic.

It was repeated two months later in Los Angeles, after beachgoers on the Venice boardwalk complained that a homeless man was harassing people.

It surfaced again in Cleveland, where police were called to a burglary at a corner store. And in Tallahassee, where a man was reported banging on someone’s door. And last month in Cincinnati, where Samuel DuBose, 43, wound up with a bullet in his head after being pulled over for driving without a front tag.

Perhaps most infamously, the pattern played out one year ago Sunday in Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer searching for a convenience-store robber shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. That incident sparked a national movement to protest police treatment of African-Americans and turned 18-year-old Michael Brown into a symbol of racial inequality in America.

So far this year, 24 unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police — one every nine days, according to a Washington Post database. During a single two-week period in April, three unarmed black men were shot and killed. All three shootings were either captured on video or, in one case, broadcast live on local TV.

Those 24 cases constitute a surprisingly small fraction of the 585 people shot and killed by police through Friday evening. Most of those killed were white or Hispanic, and the vast majority of victims of all races were armed.

However, black men accounted for 40 percent of the 60 unarmed victims, even though they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population. The Post’s analysis shows that black men were seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed.

The latest such shooting occurred on Friday, claiming Christian Taylor, 19, a promising defensive back for the Angelo State University football team. Police said Taylor crashed an SUV through the front window of a car dealership in Arlington, Texas, and was shot in an altercation with responding officers. The case is under investigation.

The disproportionate number of unarmed black men in the body count helps explain why outrage continues to simmer a year after Ferguson — and why shootings that might have been ignored in the past are now coming under fresh public and legal scrutiny.

“Ferguson was a watershed moment in policing. Police understand they are now under the microscope,” said Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, which represents police rank-and-file.

Video shot by bystanders or captured on police camera, meanwhile, has served in some cases to undermine trust in police. So far this year, three officers have been charged with crimes after fatally shooting unarmed black men. All three were caught on video. One — the April shooting of Eric Harris in Tulsa — appears to have been an accident. But in the other two, the footage contradicted the officer’s initial account of what happened.

“Prior to Ferguson, police were politically untouchable. Ferguson changed that calculus,” said Georgetown University professor Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor whose book “The Chokehold: Policing Black Men” is scheduled to be published next year.

“Five years from now, every major police department in America will have officers who wear body cameras,” Butler said. “That is a change that is happening right now because of Ferguson.”

Some in law enforcement are troubled by this trend, worried that public sympathy is shifting toward suspects and away from the police who put their lives on the line every day. They are concerned that people will forget that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, was exonerated by Justice Department investigators, who found no evidence to refute Wilson’s contention that he fired in self-defense.

Most of all, they fear that the legacy of Ferguson will include a higher death toll for police.

“We are worried that police officers who should rely on their intuition and training to make a split-second decision — which could mean life or death for them — won’t do it. That their fear of being second-guessed, and maybe even prosecuted, will take over instead,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police.

Categories of the dead

So far, there is no sign of an increase in police fatalities. Still, 18 law officers have been shot and killed in the line of duty by a suspect this year, including Memphis police officer Sean Bolton, who died last weekend after a routine traffic stop.

In its ongoing analysis of every fatal shooting by police in 2015, The Post is separating the dead into four categories, based on information provided by police and other sources:

o Someone is considered armed if he or she had a deadly weapon — such as a gun, a knife or a machete — or some other object that could inflict fatal injury given the circumstances of the encounter. People who drove aggressively at officers or otherwise used a vehicle to try to inflict harm are considered armed.

o A person is considered unarmed if he or she was not in possession of a weapon at the time of the shooting or was holding an object unlikely to inflict serious injury, such as a stick or a broom handle.

o People brandishing pellet guns or other toy weapons — which often are indistinguishable from firearms — make up a third category.

o And in some cases, The Post could not determine whether a person was armed because of conflicting accounts from witnesses or a lack of information.

Four black men fall into this last category, as does one black woman: Janisha Fonville, 20, who died in February after Charlotte, N.C., police responded to a call about a domestic dispute. Police said Fonville, who had a history of mental illness, lunged at the officer with a knife. Fonville’s girlfriend, who summoned officers, said Fonville was no longer holding the weapon.

An unarmed person may nonetheless pose a threat. In April, for instance, New York City police shot and killed David Felix, 24, as they tried to arrest him for assaulting a friend and stealing her purse. Police said Felix, who was mentally ill, wrested away a police radio and battered one of the officers in the head.

In many of the 24 shootings of unarmed black men, however, the threat was not readily apparent, raising questions about the officers’ use of deadly force. In most of those cases, investigations are ongoing.

The 24 dead range in age from 18, the age Michael Brown was, to 50. Their killings took place in small towns and big cities, including Los Angeles, Owings Mills, Md., and Strong, Ark. Most occurred in the South, where blacks are more heavily concentrated, with five shootings occurring in Florida alone.

Variety of stories

The events that led to the fatal encounters run the gamut. Routine traffic stops and calls about erratic or bothersome behavior were most common. Other shootings followed reports of petty theft or attempts by police to serve a warrant. Two shootings occurred during sting operations.

In each case, the situation rapidly spun out of control. Often, police said they pulled the trigger during a struggle or because the person physically attacked them. In at least four cases, police reported that the person appeared to be reaching for a weapon.

o In some cases, police have not said why they opened fire. Naeschylus Vinzant, 37, was shot and killed in March by a member of an Aurora, Colo., SWAT team trying to arrest him on charges of kidnapping, robbery and parole violation. The case has been investigated by a special prosecutor and is under review by a grand jury, but five months later, Aurora police have yet to publicly explain why they shot Vinzant; officials rebuffed requests for additional information.

o The shooting of Kris Jackson, 22, is also shrouded in silence. Authorities in the resort town of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., have been so tight-lipped about the case that at first they wouldn’t respond to questions from Jackson’s mother.

Angela Ainley, 44, said she learned about the June 15 shooting the following day, when Jackson’s girlfriend sent her a message on Facebook complaining that the hospital was refusing to reveal his condition. Ainley, who owns a small financial-services company, drove from her home in Sacramento, about an hour away, to get answers; when none were forthcoming, it dawned on her that her son was dead.

“Nobody told me,” she sobbed in an interview. “My son died by himself.”

The family has since hired an attorney, Alan Laskin, who is conducting his own investigation in preparation for a wrongful-death lawsuit. Local authorities defended their reticence.

“There’s always those pressures in these kind of cases, but we’re going to do it right and make sure we have all the facts,” said Bill Clark, chief assistant to the El Dorado County prosecutor, who is reviewing the case.

“I’m not going to run in front of the microphones, Baltimore-like,” Clark said, in a reference to Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore prosecutor who grabbed headlines this spring by rapidly pursuing criminal charges against several police officers after Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, died in custody.

Jackson was shot at the Tahoe Hacienda Inn, where he had been living with his girlfriend. The two had been fighting, the early-morning disturbance drew the attention of other guests, and someone called police.

When police arrived, Jackson’s girlfriend opened the door while Jackson, who was wanted on a charge of possessing cocaine, ran into the bathroom and tried to climb out the first-floor window. According to Laskin, the girlfriend then heard a single gunshot.

She wheeled around to look for Jackson and found him hanging halfway out the window like “a kid dangling his legs off a bridge,” Laskin said. Jackson had been shot in the chest by a white police officer, Joshua Klinge, who had come around the back of the building.

After Klinge opened fire, according to the girlfriend’s account, Jackson had his hands up and was yelling, “Don’t shoot.”

South Lake Tahoe police have offered a similar account, up until the final moments when they said Klinge “perceived a deadly threat” — even though Jackson was shoeless, shirtless and unarmed. They have not revealed the nature of that threat, which Clark said is a focus of the investigation.

“The guy was fleeing out a window, so I don’t know. Is that a threat?” Clark said. “That is for us to decide how that works out when we get there.”

The girlfriend has not been named by police, and Laskin declined to provide her name or contact information. Klinge did not respond to a message left on his phone, and police declined to make him available for an interview.

o Tallahassee police have been more forthcoming about the February shooting of Jeremy Lett, 28. They released a stack of documents from their internal investigation, including the statement of officer David Stith, who fired the fatal shots.

But in the shadow of Ferguson, police faced intense pressure from protesters to justify their actions.

Lett, an assistant minister at a local church, had showed up around 8 p.m. at the Shadow Ridge Apartments and demanded to see a former neighbor. Her roommate told Lett to come back another time, but Lett persisted, banging on windows and doors. The roommate called police, reporting a burglary.

Stith was working a traffic accident when he responded to the call. According to documents released by police, Stith found Lett passed out on the stoop of an apartment and scanned his face with the beam of his flashlight.

Lett’s eyes shot open. He leaped to his feet, let out three loud screams and ran toward the officer, who said he sidestepped Lett at the last moment. Lett fell, but got up and charged again.

Stith says he then came under sustained attack. He said he tried unsuccessfully to subdue Lett with a Taser, then had to draw his gun. Stith said he fired once, and still Lett kept coming, knocking the officer to the ground.

Finally, Stith said, he kicked his feet up in the air to fend Lett off while firing a series of shots into Lett’s chest. Lett collapsed on top of Stith, and the officer called for medical assistance.

“Shots fired! Roll EMS,” Stith said into his radio, according to police documents. One minute and 57 seconds had elapsed since Stith had arrived.

“I don’t know what the f– was wrong with this f–ing guy, but he just started coming at me and coming at me,” a rattled Stith told officers who arrived on the scene. “I just kept firing because he wouldn’t stop f–ing coming.”

Lett was shot five times.

Although Stith is black, university students involved with Dream Defenders, a group formed after the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, contended that Lett was racially profiled. Protesters rallied outside the local prosecutors’ office demanding that Stith be charged. Photos of Lett in a pinstripe suit and clerical collar began circulating on the Internet.

The medical examiner later determined that Lett had a significant amount of cocaine in his system when he died. Since a grand jury concluded in late February that the shooting was justified, the protests have died down.

o Frank Shephard was killed on live TV. No one had to badger Houston police for information about his case. But the video footage of Shephard’s last moments has only intensified questions about why he is dead.

The 41-year-old barber sped away from a routine traffic stop in April, leading police on a high-speed chase that was covered live by local TV stations. News helicopters hovered over Shephard’s blue Chrysler 300 as it veered along the streets of Houston, crashing into two cars before rolling to a stop in oncoming traffic.

Shephard stepped out of the vehicle. Then, something happened that caused startled TV producers to cut away: As Shephard reached back into the Chrysler, two officers opened fire, and Shephard slumped motionless near the open car door.

Since then, Shephard’s mother, Cheryl, has watched and rewatched the last moments of her son’s life. She and other relatives think Shephard was probably tangled in the seat belt or was trying to grab his phone.

Moments earlier, he had dialed 911 to falsely report that he had a child in the car, a failed effort, perhaps, to save his own life. In the heat of the chase, he had also called his mother to say goodbye.

“They’re just shooting them down,” Cheryl Shephard said of police treatment of black men. “I watched my son die, and I don’t even know why.”

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, has also watched the video. In his opinion, Shephard wasn’t trapped in the seat belt. Hunt says he’s not sure what Shephard was doing.

Whatever it was, Hunt said, “it’s unfortunate that he made the decision that day to reach back into the vehicle, and the officers had to draw the conclusion that he had a weapon.”

Hunt declined to make the officers — identified by Houston police as L. Ingle, a white male, and R. Gonzalez, a Hispanic male — available for an interview. Both are back on active duty.

o Nothing was clear-cut about the death of Nicholas Thomas. As in Ferguson last year, understanding of the March shooting outside Atlanta has been confounded by conflicting witness statements, inconclusive physical evidence and the absence of decisive video footage.

In The Post’s analysis, Thomas, 23, is among the five black victims who could not be conclusively categorized as unarmed.

In early July, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Cobb County prosecutor declared the shooting justified; a county grand jury declined to pursue criminal charges. But last week, under the lingering shadow of Ferguson, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia announced that he was effectively reopening the case.

What’s known from witness statements and surveillance video is this: One day after lunch, Thomas, who worked as a mechanic at a Goodyear tire center, was preparing to service a customer’s Maserati. He grabbed the keys and photographed the car, as was his habit whenever he worked on a sports car, according to his father, Huey. Then Thomas began driving the car toward the service bay.

Suddenly, five officers from Smyrna, Ga., and Cobb County showed up to arrest Thomas for violating probation from a 2013 assault on a police officer. They blocked off the parking lot, and several officers, including one with a police dog, began chasing the car on foot.

After trying to evade officers, the car disappeared out of view of a company security camera. Shots rang out. Thomas was hit once in the back.

He did not have a weapon.

Smyrna Police Chief David Lee said the officer who shot Thomas, Sgt. Kenneth Owens, thought Thomas was trying to run down the K-9 officer. Owens described the shooting in a videotaped interview with internal affairs investigators, his voice cracking.

“The vehicle went into drive, aggressively came forward, wide open, engine revving. As I came around the building, I realized, ‘Oh, hell, you ain’t got no cover if this individual comes out with a weapon or comes at you.’ “

Owens said he “was able to get out of the way where I didn’t need to engage the threat.” But then he spotted his colleague.

“I’ll never forget his face,” Owens said. “I could see his eyes, that he was placed in a situation where he didn’t know how to act, just to get the hell out of the way, and get his dog out of the way. He had nowhere to go. The car was headed directly at him.”

Owens said the shooting is “kind of like a fog. … I think I shot three times.”

Another customer, Brittney Eustache, 26, disputed parts of that account. In a videotaped interview with detectives the day after the shooting, Eustache said police opened fire after the Maserati crashed into a curb.

“Cops were everywhere,” Eustache said. “They say, ‘Sir, step out your car.’ They say it twice, he doesn’t get out of the car. Then they open fire.”

By that point, Thomas had already been wounded, according to Owens’ attorney, Lance LoRusso. What Eustache saw, he said, were bean bags shot to break the Maserati’s tinted windows and to force Thomas out of the car.

Thomas left behind a baby daughter. His parents have notified Smyrna officials that they plan to file a wrongful-death lawsuit. Huey Thomas said he is grateful for the Justice Department review.

“I don’t think they would have taken it,” he said, “if not for Ferguson and the other cases that are happening.”

The Smyrna police chief said he, too, welcomes the federal investigation.

“If they find something that my officer has done wrong,” Lee said, “I will act accordingly.”


Alexander reported from Smyrna, Georgia. Washington Post staff writers Kimberly Kindy, Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins and Steven Rich contributed to this report.

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