Here's a story that's going to sound depressingly familiar — yet another unarmed black man has been fatally shot by a police officer, under cloudy circumstances which have provoked concern and outrage on the parts of protesters and activists across the country. On Tuesday night, 34-year-old Arizona resident Rumain Brisbon was killed by Phoenix police, and rest assured, you'll be hearing more about this story as events unfold. With the large-scale intersection of protests against the non-indictments of Officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo over the last couple weeks, the issue of police use of lethal force, particularly against people of color, is squarely in the news.
While the circumstances of Brisbon's death are nowhere near as cut-and-dried right now as they were in the Eric Garner case — there's no footage of the lethal moment, for example — the Phoenix Police Department has already released a detailed account, some of which has already been disputed.
Here's the gist of the police department's account: After being called in on a burglary investigation, the responding officer received a report of a drug deal in progress in front of an apartment building, allegedly being conducted out of a black Cadillac SUV. When the officer — who hasn't been named — approached the SUV to question the men inside, the police say Brisbon left the vehicle, and looked as through he'd removed something. After refusing to comply with police orders to drop to the ground, a brief chase ensued. According to Phoenix Police Department Sgt. Trent Crump, the lethal moment occurred after the officer caught up at a nearby apartment complex, and a struggle over Brisbon's pocketed hand ensued.
During the struggle, Brisbon put his left hand in his pocket and the officer grabbed onto the suspect's hand, while repeatedly telling the suspect to keep his hand in his pocket. The officer believed he felt the handle of a gun while holding the suspect's hand in his pocket.
It wasn't a gun, however — the police say the contents of Brisbon's pocket was in fact a pill bottle filled with oxycodone, a prescription painkiller. Crump also stated that during the struggle, the pair fell through an apartment door after a tenant opened it to see what the commotion was. He mentioned that two children were sleeping inside the home, although whether this is a relevant detail to the case or merely a way to retroactively justify the shooting isn't clear — it's impossible to know how or whether the officer would've been aware of such a thing in the heat of what he allegedly perceived as a life-threatening struggle.
The other man in Brisbon's SUV, Brandon Dickerson, tells a different story, however — he claims no drug deal was going on, and that Brisbon was delivering some fast food to his children when the incident took place. He denied police reports that Brisbon was verbally confrontational with the officer, saying his friend didn't have a "death wish."
At this point, obviously, virtually nothing is clear or tidy about this case. One the one hand, it's been laid rather undeniably bare in recent weeks (and over the course of many decades) that police shootings are terribly difficult to prosecute, especially as police departments tend to defend their membership vigorously, and have close relationships with local prosecutors. On the other hand, it's by no means impossible that Brisbon was involved in a drug deal like the police allege, or was involved in a subsequent confrontation.
But in an assessment of whether Brisbon should've been shot and killed, what he was doing in that parked car isn't the important thing — it's whether he posed a reasonable threat to the officer, whether the officer truly felt the outline of a pill bottle and mistook it for the handle of a gun.
Whether or not Brisbon's personal legal history is clean or marred — Megan Cassidy of The Arizona Republic reports that he had a criminal record, including a DUI and a conviction for burglary — that doesn't license his killing. Countless people with dangerous criminal histories are apprehended alive and sent to trial each and every day. And, as recent protests like #BlackLivesMatter argue, it's not only the so-called "perfect victims" who deserve protection or restraint from police violence, everyone does. Make sure to keep an eye on this case going forward, because you can rest assured its far from over.