California police fired dozens of shots into a car full of people, killing the driver and injuring passengers, earlier this month in an incident blurred by official opacity and crowded with echoes of ugly, preventable police killings elsewhere.
Barstow Police Department officers shot and killed 26-year-old Diante Yarber on April 5 in his cousin’s black Ford Mustang. Yarber and three others were parked outside a Walmart in the southeastern California city when, police say, he and his vehicle were deemed suspicious.
Police say that Yarber tried to pull his car out of its parking space when officers approached, colliding with a patrol car then shifting gears and striking a second car. It was only then, the police narrative states, that officers opened fire. But the city has yet to release any video footage to support those claims or verify that officers were in harm’s way.
It is unclear if the original police attention was prompted by a 911 caller or simply by officers’ observations, but the department says officers thought Yarber looked like a suspect in a recent car theft.
“I would love to hear that call,” said Lee Merritt, an attorney for Yarber’s relatives. “They weren’t doing drugs, there was no reports of loud music, it’s a car sitting in front of a Walmart as cars often do. But with black people in it.”
The nature of the information conveyed to officers before they engage a civilian has huge influence on how they approach a situation. When that information is wrong or incomplete, the consequences can be deadly. Officers in helicopters helped induce a sense of danger ahead of the killings of Terence Crutcher in Oklahoma and Stephon Clark in California. The cops who killed Tamir Rice and John Crawford III in Ohio didn’t know the subjects in each case were holding toy guns — in Crawford’s case, one he’d picked up in the toy aisle of the Walmart where he was killed.
Merritt added that police had not spoken with Yarber before they approached him in his cousin’s car, which had not been reported stolen.
Extensive video of the encounter almost certainly exists, somewhere. Barstow officers have worn body cameras since April 2014 and vehicle-mounted cameras are standard in almost every law enforcement agency.
A spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s office, which is investigating the shooting but referring all further press questions to the city police, told reporters at the scene two weeks ago that she did not expect to release surveillance video from the Walmart. She was not asked about video captured by police cameras or about audio from the dispatch or 911 interactions that prompted officers to approach Yarber.
Although police departments often share official video with family members even when they decline to release it to the public, Merritt couldn’t cast any fresh light either. They won’t answer his calls.
“I’ve been working on this since Friday but I haven’t been able to get a call back,” the lawyer said.
The circumstances of Yarber’s death resonate with a number of other police shootings around the country involving moving vehicles. In Texas last year, an officer fired a rifle into a car full of teenagers and killed one of them. That officer was eventually charged with homicide in part, Merritt said, because body camera footage released later contradicted the initial police narrative that the teens’ vehicle had been moving toward officers dangerously when the cop decided to start shooting.
The question of whether a car moving near officers constitutes an urgent deadly threat to those officers has popped up elsewhere too. A pair of U.S. Park Police officers shot and killed 25-year-old Bijan Ghaisar in Virginia last year after he began to roll his car away from pursuing vehicles for a third time, though video indicates no officer was in his path and he was moving slowly. Other examples highlight how officers’ perceptions of reality can warp and diverge in tense situations. A notorious police shooting outside a St. Louis-area Jack-in-the-Box in 2000 produced no prosecutions, even though 10 of the 13 officers present said the car involved was not moving forward when two others decided it was rolling toward them and opened fire.
Many police departments bar their officers from firing on or from moving vehicles because it is usually ineffective and tends to make a situation more dangerous rather than less. Whatever the policies on paper, though, cops aren’t altogether shy about shooting at cars. At least 193 of the fatal police shootings tracked by the Washington Post since the start of 2015 featured officers firing into a moving vehicle.
“The general exceptions that have been recognized by use of force experts is when someone in the car is shooting out at you,” Merritt said. “The danger to the public here was minimal at best. If what they say is true, he was suspected in the theft of a car. The danger to the public was created when they riddled a car with three other pedestrians in it with bullets in a crowded parking lot at 11:00 in the morning.”
The Barstow PD use of force policy is not available online. Barstow PD officials did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment and declined to release the policy.
They have, however, released the black Mustang back to Yarber’s family, Merritt said — an odd move as the car itself is one of the key pieces of evidence in the case. A family member shot a brief video showing the exterior of the car pockmarked with bullet holes. A scrape and small dent are visible on the driver’s side fender in the clip, though there’s nothing about the marks that clarifies how or when the damage was sustained.