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East Bay | Police State and Prisons

Oakland Police Kill Unarmed Fleeing Black Man
by Copwatch 13
Saturday Jul 18th, 2009 9:22 PM
Oakland police shot and killed Parnell Smith on Wednesday after he fled when they tried to arrest him for a crime he didn't commit.
Two Oakland police officers, Phong Tran and Scott Hewitt, shot and killed Parnell Smith on Wednesday, July 15th, near the corner of 16th Avenue and International Boulevard.

Smith, who was unarmed when he was shot, was running away from Tran and Hewitt as they fired on him. On Thursday, when grilled about why Police would shoot Smith if he was only running away, Oakland Police Spokesman Jeff Thomason initially said, "This was a gunfight...it was a gun battle that took place in the streets of Oakland." However, on Friday, Thomason acknowledged that his earlier statements were premature.

As inquiries continue, it is becoming increasingly evident that police were the only ones shooting and that they were trying to arrest a man for a crime he didn't commit.

It all started Wednesday afternoon when Tran and Hewitt incorrectly thought that Smith was a wanted rape suspect simply because they were looking for a black man with a cane and Smith was black and had a cane. When they spotted Smith, they tried to arrest him. But Smith, who ostensibly did not want to be wrongfully charged with rape and be deprived of his freedom, chose to flee.

Oakland police admitted later that Smith was not the man that they were after. Police allege that in spite of their ultimately grave error, at some point early in their foot pursuit of Smith, Smith pointed a gun at them and then tossed the gun during the chase. They said Smith also swung his cane at them before he fled.

Police are now saying that even though Smith was unarmed when they shot him, since he allegedly pointed a gun at the officers earlier, that justified them killing Smith later when he no longer had the gun because the previous threat carried over into the future. They also say that even though they shouldn't have been trying to arrest Smith as a rape suspect, he was nonetheless wanted for allegedly violating his parole from an old drug conviction. Some people believe that the reference to Smith's alleged parole violation is an attempt to legitimize his killing and to demonize him so that the killing will appear more just.

Since the initial reports on Wednesday, Police have revised their press statements and changed their story significantly, so many details are still not really clear. It should be noted that no independent sources have been investigating the police conduct, so virtually all media reports (including this one) only know what Oakland Police are telling reporters.

As the questions from the press continue, police are being more cautious. In fact, since the killing of Smith, officers Tran and Smith already have a lawyer, Mary Sansen, speaking on their behalf. Civil rights attorneys say that having an attorney speak for police so early after an incident is unusual except when allegations of police misconduct are likely.

Finally, an examination of similar cases involving police killings of unarmed civilians shows that one of the most common statements from police includes an allegation that an unarmed suspect reached toward his waistband. The officers often state in addition that a shiny object which appeared to be a gun was visible and that they decided to shoot the suspect because they believed their life was in imminent danger.

One of the first comments Ms. Sansen had for the press on Friday was, "Smith turned toward the officers and appeared to be reaching for his waistband, prompting Tran and Hewitt to fire the shots that killed him."