It’s a pattern that by now has now become familiar. An officer confronts a man he believes is behaving suspiciously. The man runs. A struggle ensues.
The result, shown again this week in the killing of Rumain Brisbon, has been another death of an unarmed African American man at the hands of a white police officer. And now, as protesters deluge the streets of Chicago and New York to condemn what they describe as a failed justice system, some say his name deserves a spot next to those of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Many facts about Brisbon’s death, however, remain sketchy. To police, Brisbon was a man with a criminal record who may have been in the middle of drug deal when a lone police officer confronted him. To friends, 34-year-old Brisbon was a gentle father of four who was dropping off fast food for his kids at his family’s apartment.
One matter beyond dispute: He was not armed when a police officer fired two bullets, killing him in the presence of his girlfriend and 15-month-old child. “What happened here is a police officer murdered my client,” attorney Marci Kratter, who represented Brisbon in a prior DUI case, told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “And what the police say happened, it doesn’t make any sense at all. There’s something not right with it.”
Police said the officer responded appropriately under the circumstances, and investigators did find a gun and marijuana inside Brisbon’s black Cadillac. Maricopa County court records show Brisbon pleaded guilty to felony burglary and possession of marijuana in 1998, and to driving under the influence in 2009.
The events that led to Brisbon’s death began with a tip, Phoenix police spokesman Trent Clump told reporters on Wednesday. The tipster said that a drug deal was going down inside a black Cadillac SUV parked near a 7-Eleven. So a nearby 30-year-old officer, who wasn’t named by police, responded to the call, later approaching the car, reported the Arizona Republic.
Clump claimed the officer saw Brisbon exit the car and remove something from its rear. When the officer asked Brisbon to show his hands, the man allegedly put them in his waistband. That prompted the officer to draw his weapon, and Brisbon took off running. “Witnesses indicated to us that the suspect was verbally challenging to the officer,” the Arizona Republic quoted Crump saying.
When the officer caught Brisbon, there was a scuffle. What happened next is a little confusing.
According to reports, Brisbon somehow made it to the house of his girlfriend, who had opened the front door — and the cop and Brisbon literally stumbled inside. Clump said the officer thought he felt the butt of a gun jutting from Brisbon’s pocket. “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 spokesman said. “The officer believed he felt the handle of a gun while holding the suspect’s hand in his pocket.”
Two shots were fired, killing Brisbon. And only afterward did the officer discover what had been inside Brisbon’s pocket: a prescription pill vial containing Oxycodone pills. The original label had been scratched off. There was no gun.
Crump said, as the Phoenix New Times reported, the officer was in the right. Investigators did discover a semiautomatic handgun and some marijuana inside the SUV. “Let’s be very clear: The officer was doing what we expect him to do, and that is, investigating crimes that neighbors are telling him are occurring in that apartment complex. This one went bad, from the standpoint of how it ended, but the officer was doing exactly what we want him to do.”
To neighbors and Brisbon’s attorney, what happened was a little more complicated. They say there was no drug deal — but a fast-food delivery. And indeed, according to the Arizona Republic, french fries were strewn outside the apartment door. To them, it’s also unclear why the officer acted alone.
“I’m not sure why a lone police officer would have felt the need to go in there,” Kratter told The Post. “If the officer felt a pill bottle and believed it was a butt of a handgun, it calls into question his competence because I don’t know anyone who can mistake a plastic bottle for a butt of a gun. How much larger is a gun than a pill bottle?”
The officer was said to be distraught after the killing. Kratter, who launched an investigation into the killing, said she spoke to one neighbor who heard what had happened that night. “He didn’t near any screaming or anything like that,” she said. “He heard what sounded like scuffling, then gunshots, then the officer screaming, ‘F–k! F–k! F–k!’”
But it was too late. Brisbon died there. “Who’s gonna argue with police?” friend Brandon Dickerson, who had been with Brisbon, told the Arizona Republic. “He had no death wish.”
*Originally published on the Washington Post.