Phoenix police fatally shoot man in parked car, sparking new wave of protest

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Ash Ponders/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Ash Ponders/Reuters

Police in Phoenix, Arizona, fatally shot a man sitting inside his parked car, reigniting protests and outrage against a department known as one of the deadliest in the country.

The shooting took place in West Phoenix on Saturday afternoon. Witness footage published by local councilman, Carlos Garcia, showed a group of at least four officers surrounding a vehicle and quickly firing a round of bullets into the car. Onlookers could be heard pleading with the officers to put their guns down. The video captures one officer screaming, “Stop fucking moving, I will fucking shoot you!” as witnesses nearby shout, “Don’t shoot!”

The victim, identified as James Garcia, was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Police officials said the officers were responding after a 911 caller had said a man who had threatened to kill him earlier had returned with a knife. When the officers arrived, officials said, they “noticed an adult man sitting in a car parked in the driveway”. Officers instructed him to get out of the vehicle and he refused and showed a gun, according to the department’s account. One officer broke the passenger window while two officers fired a rapid round of bullets directly into the vehicle, the department said, alleging that he refused to drop the gun.

Police have declined to say if the man they killed had any connection to the original call. Asked whether James Garcia was the suspect with a knife referenced in the 911 call, a spokeswoman, Mercedes Fortune, told the Guardian: “We do not know that yet.”

On Monday, police released short body-camera footage of an officer arriving at the scene after the shooting. The footage blurs out the image of Garcia, but it captures an officer removing a handgun from inside the front of the car. Police, however, refused to release body-camera footage of the moments before and during the shooting.

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Witnesses at the scene as well as a friend of James Garcia have questioned the police’s account and said the video makes clear that the officers’ escalation was dramatic and they suddenly used lethal force.

Mayor Kate Gallego, who has promised reforms in the wake of the George Floyd protests, did not respond to a request for comment and has not issued a statement on the recent killing.

“I’m at a loss for words that this has happened again. It’s sickening,” said Jocquese Blackwell, a local attorney representing the family of Dion Johnson, another man who was recently killed by police in similar circumstances. “These officers are acting like they are on a video game. It’s not a game. These are real lives.”

Jamaar Williams, a member of the Black Lives Matter Phoenix chapter, said there was “no justification for what happened”: “This man was boxed in, in a car, by himself. He literally had nowhere to go and you’re holding him at gunpoint, for whose safety? Who is in danger?”

Activists and civil rights lawyers across Phoenix said this latest killing was part of a pattern of police unnecessarily using brutal and deadly force. Local police were already facing widespread backlash for killing Johnson, 28, who had been sleeping in his car when police shot him in May. That this latest killing occurred on camera, amid intense local and national scrutiny of police violence, was further indication of the department’s deeply rooted problems, they said.

Phoenix, the fifth-largest city in the US, has had one of the highest rates of police shootings and police killing of civilians. Efforts at modest reforms have faced intense police union and city council resistance for years. The city only adopted body cameras last year and until recently, it was the only major city to lack a civilian review board, meant to have oversight of the department. Its creation has made little difference, activists said.

“These reforms do nothing because we have to keep seeing our people murdered in the streets,” said Williams, who has been pushing for the defunding of the police department. “These reforms are shit. They are not mechanisms that facilitate the safety that we need, because police do not provide safety. They keep throwing police at social problems – and it’s getting us killed.”

In 2018, Phoenix officials blamed a rise in police violence cases on civilians’ behavior, alleging that officers were faced with increasing violence and threats. But attorneys have argued there was no evidence to substantiate those claims and have pointed to cases in which police have brutalized people and then charged them with assaulting officers.

“Phoenix has had committee after committee be formed to provide recommendations about what to do to reform this department,” said Heather Hamel, a civil rights lawyer. “But the fact of the matter is, this police department is just inherently violent.”

Hamel represented a blind man who was tackled by an officer in a public restroom after he allegedly got too close to the policeman. In the aftermath, the man said on camera that he didn’t realize his assailant was an officer and that there was no obvious reason for the officer to attack him. Yet the man was arrested for “aggravated assault” against an officer. Prosecutors later declined to file charges.

“They resort to violence as a first measure,” Hamel said.

When Phoenix police were recently forced to report every time they pointed their guns at people, the data showed the majority of civilians held at gunpoint were people of color, with Black residents disproportionately targeted.

“These officers typically go into situations with a certain amount of aggression, with guns blazing,” said James Palestini, another local attorney. “There is definitely a sense of ‘us vs them’. They are not looking to de-escalate.”

Palestini said cases like the Saturday killing have typically received minimal attention, and that the protest movement was helping expose the brutality: “A lot of these incidents happened in the past and never came to light, and these officers are still working.”

Recent protests against police violence in Phoenix have been met with mass arrests of young people and police have used teargas and other weapons to disperse the crowds, said Steve Benedetto, a lawyer representing activists. “Most people we’ve been talking to have been deeply traumatized.”

Councilman Garciawrote on Facebook that he was not surprised “Phoenix PD continues to respond violently to calls”.

”We must all continue to ask for transparency and accountability,” he said.