Community questions Kentucky officer's use of deadly force

AP News
|
Posted: Jun 14, 2015 10:00 PM
Community questions Kentucky officer's use of deadly force

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The surveillance video shows a man stagger away from a police officer and out of the frame. He charges back into view seconds later, a 7-foot flagpole reared over his shoulder, and he swings it wildly at the officer.

The man, a 35-year-old African immigrant, was shot twice by the Louisville Metro Police officer Saturday afternoon and died, sparking a debate over officers' use of deadly force and the simmering racial tension between the police and the communities they serve.

Community activists gathered Sunday to lament that the officer turned first to his gun, rather than use non-lethal force like a Taser or pepper spray.

Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad on Sunday defended the shooting, and promised a thorough and transparent investigation. He identified the officer who fired the fatal shots as Nathan Blanford, a patrol officer in the 4th division who has been with the department since 2005, and released the video of the incident, captured on a surveillance camera from a nearby store.

The man killed was identified by the coroner's office on Sunday as 35-year-old Deng Manyoun.

His friend, Nick Holiday, told The Associated Press Saturday that he emigrated from Africa several years ago. He lived in an apartment building around the corner from the busy intersection where he was shot dead Saturday afternoon. Neighbors said he was a familiar presence in the neighborhood.

The video shows him staggering across the street, in gray pants and a white T-shirt. A car nearly hits him.

Moments earlier, a woman called from one block away to say she'd been assaulted by a stranger, Conrad said Sunday. She told police she was talking on her phone when she noticed a man lumbering toward her. She tried to ignore him, Conrad said. But he attacked her: he grabbed her purse and phone, threw them down the street then started punching her, Conrad said.

A man saw the attack and intervened.

Conrad did not know Sunday whether Blanford, responding to the assault, recognized Manyoun as fitting the alleged assailant's description or if he just noticed him stumble into traffic and decided to stop him.

Blanford pulled his cruiser up to the curb and confronted Manyoun on the sidewalk.

Witnesses told various media on Saturday that the officer approached the man aggressively, his hand already on his gun, and alleged that Manyoun never swung the pole at him. But the video released Sunday refutes that: the officer stands still, his arms at his sides, as Manyoun waves his hands around. Manyoun turns and storms away, out of the view of the camera. Blanford starts to follow, talking into his radio, then stops suddenly and takes two steps back. He draws his gun as the tip of the flag pole emerges in the corner of the video. The pole had been propped outside a store, with a flag attached reading "open."

Manyoun sprints into the frame, the pole cocked back over his shoulder. The officer cowers back against his police cruiser as Manyoun swings the pole down toward him.

Conrad described it as a "sledgehammer-like motion." The pole appears to snap in half. But Conrad said it was two poles jointed together that split apart as he swung.

It is unclear if it actually hit Blanford. The officer was not taken to the hospital to be treated for injuries, Conrad said.

It is also unclear in the video, which has no sound, exactly when the officer fired two shots. Manyoun falls backward, stands up, still clinging to the pole, then falls again, out of view of the camera.

He was taken to the University of Louisville Hospital, where he later died.

The woman initially assaulted was treated by medics and released, Conrad said. Manyoun is believed to be the man who attacked her, he added.

Manyoun did not speak English. Neighbors worried that his struggle to communicate led to the shooting, and the chief acknowledged it likely had a hand in how the incident unfolded.

"I get that, but a full uniform, police car, blue lights, that should transcend a language barrier," the chief said.

Chanelle Helm, a board member of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression, organized the community meeting Sunday where two dozen people gathered to question why a police officer needed to use deadly force to subdue a man believed to be drunk and wielding a pole.

Manyoun's arrest record shows a number of alcohol-related offenses dating back to 2008, WHAS-TV reported. Manyoun was arrested on June 2 for disorderly conduct, but released the following day.

The group of activists attributed the shooting to ingrained racial bias and invoked the phrase "Black Lives Matter," a call to action that grew out of high-profile police shootings across the county over the last year.

Conrad stopped short of saying the officer was justified to shoot, and said instead that the department's Public Integrity Unit will complete an investigation and turn it over to the Commonwealth Attorney for review. Blanford will be questioned this week, he said. The department released his personnel jacket, which includes a number of commendations and a handful of minor reprimands, all for missing court appearances.

But the chief vocalized his support for the officer's decision to use a gun rather than non-lethal force.

"I think the officer felt like he was in danger of being killed or suffering serious physical injury, which would allow him under the law and under our policies to go to that option," Conrad said. "And quite frankly, when you've got somebody coming at you with a dangerous instrument, I don't know that the officer had an opportunity to transition to a less lethal option."