On Saturday, July 4, a man named James Garcia was shot and killed by police while sitting in the front seat of a car parked on a driveway in Phoenix, Arizona. Details surrounding the incident were extremely murky, but this did not stop demonstrators from turning out en masse the very next day to protest police brutality and demand the department’s defunding. The event comes in the midst of a series of such incidents that have stirred the nation into protest in the last weeks.
The event was caught on camera by witnesses, whose video was made available to the public. The video was taken from a distance and does not clearly show what was going on inside the vehicle at the time of the shooting. It simply shows the officers ordering the man in the vehicle to comply, after which an officer smashes the passenger window and multiple gunshots are fired by officers on the driver’s side of the car. Little else was known of the incident before Monday, July 6, when the Phoenix Police Department released some post-shooting body cam footage.
Despite the lack of reliable information about what had transpired, protesters, impatient to demonstrate, came out in the hundreds on Sunday, July 5, demanding “Justice for James” as they marched to the police precinct. “Black Lives Matter” banners abounded, as did “Defund the Police” signs.
Garcia’s sister addressed the masses at a vigil on Sunday night, calling for justice for her brother. An activist led the crowd, demanding that the police department release all the body cam footage from the incident.
The mob’s indignation may have been premature, though, as the Phoenix Police Department has demonstrated exemplary transparency throughout the incident. The very next day, on Monday, the department promptly released body cam footage of an officer who arrived on the scene just after the shooting — footage whose publication poses no threat to the department’s investigation. However, the department is resolved in withholding the other officers’ body cam footage for a period of 14 days, in accordance with police protocol, so as not to compromise their investigation of the incident.
Police Chief Jeri Williams announced Monday that a three-part investigation is underway, saying, “The Phoenix Police Department Professional Standards Bureau will conduct an internal investigation, Homicide will conduct a criminal investigation and the FBI will conduct their independent civil rights investigation.” Herself confident in the police department’s integrity but aware of the public’s distrust, she told the press, “I hope this step will allow our community to feel confident in the findings.”
On Monday, July 6, the department released their statement on the facts of the incident, based on their investigation thus far. According to the Phoenix Police Department, a man who had been stabbed by an assailant earlier in June dialed 911 on Friday to inform the police that his assailant was in the area and was trying to kill him again. Upon arriving on scene, officers made contact with the caller, who informed the officers that his assailant had a knife and another man had a gun and both were in the vicinity. The caller showed the officers to a house where they came into contact with a man sitting in a car on the driveway. After a 10-minute exchange with the man, the officers asked him to step outside of the vehicle, but he refused. He rolled up the window and pulled out a handgun. He refused to drop the gun as the officers ordered him to drop it, instead lifting his gun toward the officers. This is when two officers fired at the man, killing him. The body cam footage of an officer who arrived on the scene immediately after the shooting shows the officer reach into the driver’s seat and retrieve the handgun.
As if in ignorance of these facts, protests persisted through Tuesday, July 7, as activists continued to demand that the department release all the body cam footage immediately, rather than after the two-week time interval required and promised by the department.
Several state legislators, in all their wisdom of the intricacies of police investigations, likewise called for the immediate release of the footage. “Why should we not believe now that 14 days still isn’t unreasonable to release this footage? Why can’t it be released now?” State Sen. Martin Quezada asked in a news conference.
Thus far in the investigations, no evidence has come up that would suggest that the police officers involved acted inappropriately. Neither has the Phoenix Police Department been anything but transparent in all the questioning that has ensued. This storm of protest, like that following the shooting of Rayshard Brooks last month in Atlanta, seems to have arisen out of nothing more than the impulsive, natural shock over a graphic video and the emotion of an impatient public.
When the protests started on Sunday, nothing was known of the shooting other than that two police officers had shot and killed a man. Protesters had no idea if the victim was armed, refused to comply with the officers’ orders, or pointed his weapon at the officers. They did not think to praise the police for putting themselves at risk and potentially saving the life of the man who dialed 911 in the first place. These protesters assumed from the outset that this was a case of police brutality and marched on the precinct to showcase that sentiment, calling for the department’s defunding.
It is unhelpful to assume the worst of anyone, particularly those charged with enforcing the law. The readiness with which these activists condemned police officers without evidence is an indicator that many involved in protests across the country are motivated less by an awareness of injustice than by a desire to be an advocate for justice, whether injustice is actually present or not.
It is right to desire justice. But before exacting one’s righteous retribution, in the form of protest, cancellation, or otherwise, let one be absolutely certain that injustice has in fact been done, for to punish an innocent man is to oneself commit an act of injustice.