When running from police becomes deadly

 

BECKVILLE, Texas –Calin Devonte Roquemore, a 23-year-old African American from East Texas, feared police and did not stop when a white trooper from the Texas Department of Public Safety attempted to pull him over for speeding on Texas 149, a two-lane country road, two hours after sunset on Feb. 13, 2016.

Instead Roquemore sped through a maze of streets to a trailer park, jumped out of his Chevrolet Impala and ran. The trooper gave chase, drew his gun and repeatedly hollered to at Roquemore to stop and put his hands up, according to a recording from the trooper’s dashcam and body-worn microphone.

But Roquemore, a former high school football player, kept running. In a recording, Trooper Daniel McBride can be heard saying: “put your hands up, hands up get down!” right before he shot Roquemore seven times – five times in the back.

That same year, 2016, Texas officers shot and killed seven unarmed black men – though Roquemore was the only one killed running from an officer, based on reports required by the state. Nationwide, police officers shot and killed 20 unarmed African-Americans in 2016, according to the Washington Post and reporting for this series.

In Panola County, a rural county which is 81 percent white and 16 percent African American, Roquemore’s shooting set off red flags for civil rights leaders and for the elected District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson. It’s a rare example of an officer-involved shooting case that the FBI was asked to formally review by Texas authorities that involved an unarmed man – though FBI spokeswoman Lauren Hagee in Dallas refused to say how many times the bureau has been asked to review such cases here. The agency took no public action in Roquemore’s case.

The Texas Rangers presentation to a Panola County grand jury included information about Roquemore’s previous traffic tickets and pending 2015 drug possession charges, though the trooper who killed him did not run Roquemore’s license plate or know who Roquemore was at the time of the fatal shooting. The grand jury did not indict the officer.

Using deadly force on an unarmed suspect who is fleeing on foot was prohibited three decades ago in a case the Supreme Court of the United States decided known as Tennessee v. Garner.

Yet case law is more nebulous on whether the officer is protected if he or she believes that the person is armed and poses an immediate danger to the officer or to others.

McBride, according to his dashcam and other records, had no reason to suspect Roquemore of any crime except speeding, but he clearly believed Roquemore had a gun.

“I did not stop firing until the threat was over, “ McBride later said. McBride, then 27, can be heard in the recording berating Roquemore, who was unarmed, for failing to show his hands as he lay bleeding on the ground. He died hours later at a hospital.

In the last five years, shootings by police officers of unarmed people who were fleeing from them have sparked both protests and prosecutions across Texas – including the recent Balch Spring officer’s shooting of Jordan Edwards, 15, who was killed as he rode in a vehicle away from a party. In that case, the officer, who was white, has been indicted on murder charges in the death of the black teenager.

FBI had no records of its probe

Under DPS standard procedure, Trooper McBride’s shooting was investigated by the Texas Rangers. The agency dug into the case for months, chasing down leads of potential witnesses, including Adam Mugan, who told officers he “did not believe Roquemore needed to die just because he was fleeing from the Trooper.”

Davidson and other local officials also requested a review by the civil rights division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Department of Justice.

“Based on the prevailing mood of everybody – with the Ferguson case and other cases – I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, here we go,’” Davidson said in a recent interview. “So I thought it’d be great to let the feds get involved, so they can’t say anything was covered up.”

But it appears that the FBI did little in probing Roquemore’s death, according to records and interviews. Only the Texas Rangers, a branch of Texas DPS, investigated the Feb. 13, 2016 shooting. In two requests for information, the FBI could not find any Roquemore-related records nor confirm a probe.

The FBI’s process followed standard protocol, but the procedure itself often leaves unanswered questions, said John M. Bales, who was U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas at the time of the review.

Since September 2015, when Texas passed a law requiring reports on all officer-involved shootings, 302 people have been shot. Fifty-three were unarmed; 22 of the unarmed were African American. Nationwide, the Department of Justice has charged 17 law enforcement officers with excessive use of force since 2014; nine incidents involved African American victims, according to FBI news releases. None of those cases were in Texas.

“The notion that a white officer shot and killed an unarmed black citizen did raise potential civil rights violations,” Bales said. “But in this instance, (the FBI) was very happy to let the Rangers take the lead on this, and that’s where it ended.”

The Texas Rangers presented their case to a grand jury that included at least two African American members. The two African-Americans and another member voted to indict after a 30-minute discussion. The white majority voted to take no action. According to a grand juror who requested anonymity due to the secrecy of proceedings, the Texas Rangers painted Roquemore as an unsavory character and McBride as a saint.

“The officer was said to be a family man and his record was, I want to say, impeccable,” the jurist said. “But when they talked about the young man, it was all negative. Well, a record is true for over half the kids here in Carthage. That shouldn’t have had any merit on him being shot, especially not that many times.”

Betty Roquemore said Calin, her middle child, had many close friends and relatives whom he loved to make laugh.

“His nickname was ‘Big Friendly’ at school,” she said. “He was a big cuddly type.”

Too scared to stop

Both McBride and Roquemore were natives of Panola County. McBride, the trooper, was only four years older than Roquemore at the time.

Instants after the shooting, McBride tried to keep Roquemore alert, quizzing him on things like his mother’s name, birthdate, and why he ran and refused to comply with his order to show his hands, according to a recording from the officer’s microphone. There are no images of the shooting itself.

Roquemore told McBride he ran because he was scared, adding, “I didn’t think you were going to shoot.”

Officers are limited in using deadly force against a fleeing person, and are legally protected in doing so only if the person poses a threat of serious physical harm.

Roquemore had no prior criminal convictions, but he was out on bail awaiting adjudication on a drug possession charge and he’d had a bad experience in a recent traffic stop, according to a friend and to court records.

In January of 2016, a Carthage policeman chasing Roquemore had opted to use pepper spray and not deadly force as the two tussled when Roquemore fled a traffic stop over an expired registration ticket. He’d spent eight nights in jail, and told friends he didn’t want to go back. Roquemore talked about the incident with Robert Lockridge, a close friend and cousin.

“I told him, ‘Bro, don’t run from these police officers. They’re scared. Don’t do anything extra to put them on edge,’” Lockridge said. “But he’s grown, and he’s going to make his own decisions.”

Soon after he was released from jail that year, McBride stopped Roquemore for speeding in the Chevrolet Impala. Roquemore was shaking, but spoke to McBride willingly for about 28 minutes while the trooper wrote two traffic tickets and searched his car. Mcbride, advised Roquemore, only four years his junior, to get a job and get his “stuff straightened out,” according to a dashcam video of the stop.

McBride, though, later claimed he did not recognize Roquemore on the night he fatally shot him.

Through a DPS spokesman and an attorney, McBride declined to comment. In a statement, DPS backed McBride: “It was dark; Trooper McBride could not see that Roquemore did not have a weapon; and Roquemore’s body movements prior to the shooting would have led a reasonable officer to believe that deadly force was immediately necessary.” The statement continues, “While it was a tragic ending, there is absolutely no evidence race played a role in the shooting incident, and unsubstantiated insinuations to the contrary are unfair and irresponsible at best.” (FULL DPS STATEMENT HERE)

He was not disciplined and an internal review found his use of force and pursuit decisions were consistent with policy.

Ozell Holland Jr., a member of Carthage’s NAACP chapter, said questions about race immediately came up after Roquemore’s death, prompting a courthouse vigil and community forums.

“We never took the approach that we were going to riot,” Holland said. “We were going to have a prayer vigil to stay peaceful and let the authorities do their work. Patience and understanding.”

They were reassured by Davidson, who wrote in his letters to the federal agencies that it was an “emotional issue” that he wanted “federal eyes on” as soon as possible.

In response, an attorney assigned by Bales and an FBI agent attended Texas Rangers’ meetings for updates. Either could have opted to open cases in their departments, but that didn’t happen. According to Bales, it wasn’t that the federal agencies dropped the ball – there was simply no evidence for a federal criminal charge.

Hagee, the FBI spokeswoman in Dallas, confirmed that if the FBI determines local agencies are handling an investigation appropriately, “We won’t necessarily interfere.”

But Dallas-based lawyer looking into the case for potential civil rights violations for the family argued the federal process was faulty, and similar to having kids checking each other’s homework.

“If he wasn’t important enough to get a full (federal) investigation, that just lends creditability to my point that he wasn’t seen as important enough to live,” Ezekiel Tyson Jr. said. “That’s why he died for evading.”

Join Point of Impact’s email list today at www.pointofimpacttx.com, and follow the series on Twitter @POI_TX. This project is sponsored by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. 


Trooper McBride’s dashcam footage from 2/13/16 incident:

Trooper McBride’s dashcam footage from 1/22/16 traffic stop:



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