PHOENIX – The deadly shooting of a black, unarmed drug suspect by a white Phoenix police officer who mistook a pill bottle for a gun demonstrates the challenges law enforcement agencies face at a time of unrest over police tactics.
Phoenix police say the officer feared the suspect was armed during their struggle, but some critics say the officer went too far. Despite the department’s efforts to be transparent with information, protesters marched Thursday night against the fatal shooting of Rumain Brisbon, 34.
About 150 marched through the streets of downtown Phoenix to police headquarters, while calling for an end to what they say is a nationwide epidemic of police brutality.
The police chief and top prosecutor in metro Phoenix met with the president of the NAACP’s Maricopa County Branch and other civil rights leaders in the hours after the incident, which came as emotions are running high in New York, Missouri and elsewhere over what protesters call heavy-handed law enforcement efforts.
The NAACP official, the Rev. Oscar Tillman, said Brisbon’s friends and family members are devastated. He cautioned them about channeling their anger as the investigation into the shooting unfolds.
“I told them not to be openly explosive or whatever because the fact is … as you can see what happened to Michael Brown’s (stepfather) now. They’re talking about going after him. I said, ‘Just be very careful,’ ” Tillman said.
Sgt. Trent Crump said the officer responded Tuesday to reports of someone selling drugs out of a Cadillac SUV. The officer ordered Brisbon, the sole occupant, to show his hands.
Authorities say Brisbon ran inside an apartment building and then got into a struggle with the officer. Brisbon put his hand in his pocket, and when the officer grabbed the hand, he thought he felt the handle of a gun through Brisbon’s pants, police said.
Police say the officer repeatedly told Brisbon to keep his hand in his pocket, then shot him twice when he didn’t.
Brisbon, an ex-convict, was hit in the torso and later pronounced dead at the scene. Investigators recovered a semi-automatic handgun and a jar of marijuana from his SUV.
An internal investigation is underway, Crump said Thursday. Prosecutors will determine whether the officer will face criminal charges. Police did not identify the 30-year-old officer but said he is a seven-year veteran of the department.
Marci Kratter, an attorney representing Brisbon’s family, said she was unable to immediately comment when reached Thursday.
Days after the shooting, police in a Phoenix suburb postponed a “Run From the Cops 5K” fun run scheduled for Saturday. Tempe Police Chief Tom Ryff says the annual event is intended to bring police and the community together but the event’s name could be misinterpreted to mean the opposite.
The Phoenix shooting occurred the day before a grand jury in New York City decided not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man. Dozens of protesters were arrested on New York streets Wednesday, police said.
It followed a grand jury decision Nov. 24 not to indict Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old. The decision sparked violent protests, lootings and the destruction of several businesses.
Gerald Richard, an assistant to the Phoenix police chief who oversees police-community relations, said he began reaching out to community leaders after Brisbon was killed, but not because of the events in Missouri, he said.
“It is better for individuals to know the facts as opposed to be going off of rumors and hunches,” Richard said.
Tillman said he appreciated getting a meeting with Chief Daniel Garcia and a call from Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.
“That says something in a community when you’re able to, bright and early less than 12 hours after it happened, sit down with the police chief and his top staff and communicate with the county attorney,” Tillman said.
However, he called on the Phoenix mayor and other officials also to start a dialogue with black community members. He said he is hoping to speak with witnesses to decide whether he thinks the shooting was justified.
“That’s what needs to be done, because the fact is, as we can see across this country, if we don’t deal with it, we’re going to keep dealing with it,” Tillman said.