Inglewood Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks did the right and smart thing. She headed off an almost certain demand from outraged family members and community activists for a federal investigation into the killing of 19-year-old Michael Byoune.
Seabrooks expressed condolences to Byoune’s family and promised a full and vigorous investigation into the killing of Byoune by Inglewood police officers. Seabrooks got ahead of any possible call for federal intervention for two good reasons. The killing for some observers evoked instant memories of the gunning down by NYPD officers of Sean Bell in 2007. The would-be bride groom, Bell, like Byoune, was a young African-American male. Bell and Byoune were unarmed. There is no indication that he, as Bell, was involved in any gang or criminal involvement. From tapes and news clips, Inglewood police officers riddled the car that Byoune was with bullet holes. The car Bell was in was also riddled with gunfire.
There is no indication whether the officers issued any warning to Byoune before opening fire. Byoune was killed when he attempted to flee for his safety after shots had been fired from unknown shooters in a block adjacent to the parking lot where he was killed.
Now that Seabrooks has promised a full probe into the killing, the questions that she and Inglewood city officials must answer are: did the officers follow standard procedure and give a warning before opening fire? Did they attempt to find out where the shots were coming from and if indeed Byoune was involved in the shooting? Was there any evidence that the car that Byoune was in was a car that fit the description of a car or cars that the shooters were driving? Did eyewitnesses corroborate the officers version of the shooting, namely that they thought Byoune might have been involved in the shooting? Did the vehicle that he was in actually endanger the officer’s lives as he attempted to exit the parking lot?
Were the officers involved in the shooting removed from their street assignments pending the outcome of the investigation? And if, any officer (s) involved in the shooting are found guilty of violating department policy and procedures on the use of force, what of any punishment will the chief impose on them?
This is an especially crucial and sensitive point for in nearly all officer involved shootings, even the most questionable ones, and even where officers are found to have used excessive force, the punishment has often been minimal or totally lacking. This reinforces the deep suspicion that police officials look for ways to exonerate officers rather than to hold them accountable for violating department policies and procedures. This in turn deepens the fear and distrust that many African-Americans and Latinos have toward the police.
There are many more questions that Inglewood officials must ask and answer about the Byoune killing. It’s even more important that accurate answers be given especially given that Inglewood police have been hammered in past years for incidents involving excessive force and charges of misconduct.
They include the videotape beating of Donovan Jackson in 2002, followed by a series of questionable shootings of unarmed suspects, and the allegation that of some Inglewood officers engaged in shakedowns and trading sexual favors. This is yet another prescription for a full blown crisis of confidence in the methods of policing and the professionalism of the department.
The shooting of Byoune by any standard was a bad shooting. And though there is yet no evidence that Inglewood police officers acted with reckless endangerment in killing Byoune, the Byoune family and others will be watching closely to see what if anything Inglewood police officials and city officials ultimately do about his death.
– Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).