A former Mesa, Arizona police officer who fatally shot and killed an unarmed father of two was cleared of second degree murder charges on Thursday.
Philip Mitchell Brailsford, 27, was also cleared of criminal liability in the death of Daniel Shaver. It took the Maricopa County jury approximately 12 hours over a span of two days to find Brailsford not guilty.
The tragedy unfolded nearly two years ago in January 2016 when Shaver, 26, was staying at the Mesa La Quinta Inn. Shaver invited two acquaintances up to his room for drinks and proceeded to show off his pellet gun, which he used in his job as a pest control worker. At that point, a couple in the hotel hot tub below reported to staff that they thought they’d seen the silhouette of a man with a rifle in a window. In response, the hotel staff promptly called police.
Harrowing body-cam footage of the shooting shows Brailsford and five other heavily-armed Mesa officers proceeding through the hotel to confront Shaver and one of his acquaintances. As they exit the room, police scream at the pair to get on the ground. “Apparently we have a failure for you to comprehend simple instructions, I gotta go over some of them again,” one officer says. “If you make another mistake there is a very severe possibility that you’re both going to get shot…. I’m not here to be tactful or diplomatic with you. You listen. You obey.”
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The officers then proceed to give the two civilians a convoluted series of instructions, including interlocking their fingers on their head and crossing their left and right legs, before asking them to crawl toward the officers. They take the female acquaintance out of the way and attempt to do the same with Shaver, who is sobbing and can be heard saying “please don’t shoot me.” Shaver then moves his right hand downward momentarily, prompting Brailsford to shoot him several times with his AR-15. In his testimony, Brailsford maintained that he reacted correctly and believed “100 percent that [Shaver] was reaching for a gun.”
Brailsford was fired from the Mesa Police Department three months after the shooting for alleged “performance issues”, including having “You’re Fucked” engraved on the dust cover of his AR-15. The judge ruled this evidence as inadmissible.
The president of the Mesa police union, Nate Gafvert, said on Thursday that he was “extremely relieved with the verdict, although not surprised” and added that the union felt charges should never have been filed to begin with.
In contrast, Shaver’s widow, Laney Sweet, simply shook her head as the verdict was announced. She is reportedly planning to file a $35 million lawsuit against the city of Mesa for her husband’s death.
“My girls want their daddy home,” she wrote on a GoFundMe account for legal expenses. “I want their tears to stop and for their sweet little delicate hearts to have never experienced this traumatizing and completely unfair loss.”
The Shaver case is another grim reminder of how common it is for police officers involved in unarmed shootings to avoid any sort of punishment for their actions. Even officer firings like Brailsford’s are something of a paper tiger: an August investigation by the Washington Post found that, of the 1,881 officers fired for misconduct since 2006, more than 450 were reinstated after union appeals.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A study compiled by Bowling Green State University, for instance, found that police officers were arrested almost 8,000 times between 2005 and 2012 for misconduct. As there is no reliable centralized federal data on police crime, it is possible that these numbers could balloon further.
Then there’s the fact that police officers are given tremendous flexibility within their departments’ standard operating procedures, which allows them to respond with deadly force based on their own perception of dangers. Naturally, this creates tremendous leeway for police to say, as Brailsford did, that they believed they were under imminent threat and were forced to react the way they did.
“At the end of the day, officers in their badge and uniform enjoy the benefit of the doubt,” Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told CNN.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is looking to roll back tentative steps the Obama administration took towards criminal justice reform within the Justice Department, allowing police departments greater access to militarized kit like the AR-15 used to kill Shaver. That, in turn, translates into greater leeway for local departments to use them as they see fit.
The move has already been celebrated by law enforcement.
“This critical policy change — something I personally spoke to the president about,” Chuck Canterbury, National President of the Fraternal Order of Police, said when the policy was announced in August. “[It] demonstrates how much respect he and his Attorney General have for our members and all the men and women in law enforcement.”