Surrounded and shot

Witnesses question initial descriptions of U District killing.

SOME EYEWITNESS accounts of Monday, Feb. 18's fatal U District encounter between an as-yet-unidentified African-American motorist and a circle of Seattle police officers are raising troubling questions about the shooting.

Most key aspects of the incident seem beyond dispute. An African-American man in his 30s initially fled from a routine traffic stop. After a brief chase, he pulled over on Seventh Avenue Northeast, the street that runs parallel and next to the east side of I-5.

He took off on foot with officers in pursuit. He ran into a nearby alley only to emerge a few minutes later; he was surrounded quickly by what eyewitnesses variously describe as between 10 and 12 white officers.

At this point, according to police and media accounts, the man was brandishing "a small sword" at officers. After an initial shot from a Taser—a nonlethal stun gun—failed to subdue him, the man "moved toward officers in a threatening manner" (different accounts say he walked or lunged) and was shot at least four times by two different officers. The man later died at Harborview Medical Center from his wounds.

Several of the closest civilian witnesses have been refusing to talk with the media or the police. Both the house immediately across the street from the site of the shooting and its neighbor are occupied by what resident Justin Pogue self-describes as "anarchist punk kids." Pogue's housemate, Matt Leonard, says when he arrived home Monday afternoon, he thought that the huge police presence meant his own house was being raided. But it was far worse.

Pogue is the only one of these six or seven eyewitnesses who is willing to talk on the record, though all say they are willing to testify to what they saw. And while their accounts largely match the police's, they differ in several critical ways.

The weapon brandished by the suspect, says Pogue, was "not a 3-foot sword . . . it was definitely no longer than a foot; it looked like a crowbar or a machete."

Pogue says he and other witnesses heard what sounded like a pop, followed by four gunshots in rapid succession. The first, Pogue thinks, was the Taser, though he concedes that it could have been a fifth shot that "sounded odd." Regardless, they and other neighbors agree that almost no time elapsed between the failed attempt to subdue the man with the Taser and the fatal shots.

Most importantly, all accounts agree that the officers closest to the suspect were "six or seven yards" away, with the officers forming a 180-degree semicircle around the suspect; an I-5 sound wall was behind him. (A Taser's effective range is 21 feet.) Pogue and others are adamant that, in his words, "I didn't see him advance toward [the] cops with that weapon." Pogue allows that from his angle, he could have failed to see a small motion toward police but adds that the victim fell exactly where he had been standing during the confrontation.

And even more critically, says Pogue (with other witnesses agreeing), "His back was turned to the cops. He was shot from a rearview angle when they began to shoot."

Much still is not known or is in dispute. According to other media reports, at least one neighbor may have videotaped the shooting.

Regardless, in the wake of past controversial police shootings of black men by white officers—and of the current Police Officers Guild no-confidence vote on Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske over the disciplining of an officer for (among other things) racial profiling—the circumstances of Monday's death are likely to spur renewed calls for greater police accountability. Pogue acknowledges that he and the other young witnesses weren't " . . . very fond of [the police] before, like from the stuff they did at WTO, but it shocked me to see how easy it is to be shot and killed by SPD [Seattle Police Department]. I really fear the SPD now."

He wonders why, given that the man was cornered, officers could not have tried the Taser again or some other method to subdue the suspect short of lethal force. "It seemed like a really unjust death. I hope not only that they lose their badges but that they are criminally charged for the murder of that man."

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