Deanna Dent / Reuters

Fatal shooting flags concerns of discriminatory policing in Arizona

Killing of Rumain Brisbon recalls less-publicized shooting of Quintine Barksdale by a white transport officer in 2013

PHOENIX — Hundreds of activists chanting "I can't breathe" and "No justice, no peace" marched through Phoenix this week to urge justice for black father of four Rumain Brisbon, who was shot dead by a white city police officer in a disputed incident that flagged concerns over what critics say is a history of discriminatory policing in the Arizona capital.

"He was a good friend, a devoted father, a loyal community member … and did not deserve to be killed like he was in front of his family," Brisbon's friend Jenee Polk said as protesters carrying placards reading "Justice for Rumain" and "What happened to peace officers?" gathered in the parking lot of an Elks Lodge in central Phoenix before a recent protest rally.

While black people account for just 1 in 15 residents of Phoenix (less than half the proportion nationally) they were arrested at a rate nearly three times as high as for nonblack people in 2011 and 2012, according to research collated by USA Today. In three cities in the metro Phoenix area — Tempe, Mesa and Scottsdale — that ratio was even higher.

Police suspected Rumain Brisbon of dealing drugs from his sport utility vehicle, but supporters said he was simply bringing McDonald’s Happy Meals to his girlfriend and their children.
Officer Calbert Gillett Maricopa County Sherrif's Office Media Relation Unit / AP Images

Police say Brisbon, 34, was unarmed when he was shot by officer Mark Rine, 30, a seven-year veteran of the department, who was investigating a tip that Brisbon was conducting a drug deal in a black Cadillac sport utility vehicle in the parking lot of his apartment complex.

According to the police account, Brisbon failed to obey the officer's commands and fled to his nearby apartment, where a scuffle turned deadly. Rine said he mistook a bottle of pain tablets that Brisbon was clasping in his pocket for the butt of a gun. Rine shot Brisbon multiple times in the torso. A semiautomatic pistol that had been stolen and a jar of marijuana were later retrieved from Brisbon's SUV, police said. Rine, who has since been reassigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of the investigation.

But Marci Kratter, a lawyer for his family, said Brisbon had simply been returning with food to the apartment where his girlfriend, Dana Klinger, lived with their 15-month-old daughter, Skylar, and Aiyana Rains, 9, her daughter from a previous relationship.

"Dana was sick, and she didn't feel like cooking dinner, so he went to pick up McDonald’s for the children," Kratter said. "They say that he shoved his hands in his waistband, but according to all the witnesses, he had Happy Meals in his hands … and the french fries are still on the sidewalk." 

Polk said Brisbon had back problems stemming from an injury from working in a warehouse and had a valid prescription for the oxycodone found in his pocket and a medical marijuana registry card for the pot retrieved from his SUV, although Al Jazeera America was unable to verify the claims. 

A search warrant subsequently revealed Brisbon had $831 in his pocket at the time he was shot, while $16,000 in cash was found in the apartment. Bottles containing 118 oxcodone pills were also recovered, police said. The black Ruger pistol police found on the driver's side floorboard was stolen.

Brandon Dickerson was in the truck with Brisbon moments before he was shot multiple times in the torso by Rine, who has since been reassigned to non-enforcement duties pending the outcome of the investigation. Dickerson disputed the police version that the officer gave Brisbon several commands to show his hands and that Brisbon instead fled toward the apartment. Dickerson said that he heard no verbal commands and that Rine “ambushed” Brisbon.

"Don't lie and try and cover up … The bottom line is the police murdered my friend," Dickerson said, clearly stunned and angry a week after the Dec. 2 shooting. "The way that the media is lying and portraying Rumain to be some type of a kingpin drug dealer is not right … We are not talking about a murderer or rapist or criminal but a regular person like you or me." 

Brisbon's death was the most recent in a spate of killings of unarmed black males by white police officers in Cleveland, New York and Ferguson, Missouri, that have triggered nationwide protests over what community activists say is long-running, systematic violence by police against black Americans.

The Phoenix Police Department swiftly released its detailed account of the shooting at the apartment — which became the site of an impromptu memorial with candles — in what the department said was an effort to promote transparency.

"I would like to think that in our officer-involved shootings, that we are transparent as we can be as an organization," Sgt. Trent Crump told reporters last week. "We always have been and always will be concerned about what it is that our residents think about our role in this community and the levels of force that we use."

The department was backed by The Arizona Republic, the state's newspaper of record, which said in an editorial last week that the department had a "good reputation" for dealing with officer-involved shootings openly and candidly, including punishing uniformed officers when the facts merited it. If the "officer involved in this week's shooting crossed a line, he should be held accountable," the newspaper wrote.

But critics, including two former lawmen from Arizona, this week pointed to a case in which a white police officer with a history of misconduct and integrity issues shot and killed an unarmed black man in the city in January of last year — which Phoenix police found justifiable and the county attorney declined to prosecute.

In that case, then–Arizona Department of Transportation Officer Joseph Mackenzie shot dead Quintine Barksdale, a neighbor, in what Mackenzie said was self-defense after Barksdale allegedly threw gasoline on him and reached for what Mackenzie feared was a gun tucked into his waistband.

Only days before the killing, Barksdale, a local barber, named Mackenzie as a suspect in a burglary at his apartment at the complex where they both lived, in which a safe containing thousands of dollars was stolen. After an investigation, Phoenix police ruled the killing a justifiable homicide and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office found no basis for criminal prosecution.

Barksdale's family complained that the probe was biased because Mackenzie was a police officer. At their request, a private investigator and consultant on criminal cases, Weaver Barkman, a 25-year veteran with the Pima County Sheriff's Department in Tucson, conducted his own investigation. It found the authorities' handling of the case was biased, incomplete and inadequate. The case was subsequently taken up by the U.S. Attorney's Office and is being reviewed by the FBI.

"They have had the opportunity to do it right before, and they chose not to," said Bill Richardson, a retired detective from Mesa, a Phoenix suburb, of the police and county attorney’s handling of that case.

"I have to wonder, are there two sets of rules? Does Phoenix have a rule for if you're prominent and you're a police officer and you're shot and a different response if you're poor and black and not politically connected?"

A Phoenix police officer grasps Aiyana Rains’ hand and apologizes during a Dec. 8, 2014, protest over the fatal police shooting of her father, Rumain Brisbon.
Nick Oza / The Arizona Republic / AP Images

Jerry Cobb, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, said homicide prosecutors interviewed Mackenzie, walked the crime scene and were briefed by the case agent. They determined that the office did not have a "reasonable likelihood of conviction for a homicide charge."

"As parents, we've been teaching our kids about it forever," local businesswoman Yvette Blackmon said of policing she feels is discriminatory and risks violence. "We've had to get our kids prepared for teenage years, to say, 'If you're stopped by a cop, don't make any quick moves … Stay very still and follow the rules. Do exactly what he says.'" 

The criticism of the local force was not lost on Gerald P. Richard, a black assistant to the Phoenix chief of police who attended four protest rallies in the week after Brisbon was shot dead by Officer Rine.

"This isn't my first rodeo, as far as incidents with any community," he said as protesters gathered at a church in central Phoenix late on Tuesday to march once again through the city. "As a result, it's time to take a look to see … have we got complacent? Is it now time that we step up and look at more training, more communication, more meetings?" He added, "There’s always room for improvement, whatever the relationship."

A raw need to mend the damaged relationship between the police and the city’s black community was captured at a protest march on Monday when a white police officer in riot gear reached out and took Aiyana Rains' hand outside the city's police department and told her simply, "I'm sorry."

But for some in the community, the breech between police and black residents will not be healed until Brisbon's shooting is thoroughly and impartially investigated to determine if Rine should face criminal charges.

"There can't be peace until we have justice," said the Rev. Jarrett Maupin, a Phoenix pastor and civil rights campaigner. "You can't heal a wound until you have cleaned the wound … In order to clean it, we have to wash away everything that is dirty. Everything that's infected, everything that is diseased has to be cleaned away first. One day we will be able to heal."

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