‘No one has to die:’ Vineland officer on body cam video before killing unarmed black man

Listen 3:35

Updated: 10:06 a.m.

Minutes before shooting and killing a 37-year-old black man Saturday who turned out to be unarmed, police in Vineland, New Jersey, told him “no one has to die.”

Authorities released footage Thursday from the body-worn cameras of Vineland police officers involved in the deadly episode at the request of WHYY and other media outlets. A few hours later, members of the man’s family and their supporters marched through the streets, calling for justice for Rashaun Washington.

Footage of the 28-minute showdown with police shows an unidentified Vineland officer pointing what appears to be a semiautomatic rifle at Washington and imploring him to relax.

Washington, whose comments are barely audible on the recording, is shirtless and wearing shorts and holding an object covered in a shirt. Authorities said he held 8-inch bladed garden shears, although some witnesses claimed it was a water bottle.

“You’re going to have to blow my brains out,” Washington tells police several times. He mentions troubles with his girlfriend, who he said recently left him. “I don’t want to be here no more,” Washington tells police during the dramatic impasse.

According to the recording, Washington told officers he had an explosive device in his hands.

“I don’t want to put officers near him,” a Vineland police officer says in the footage. “We don’t know what it is. He says if he takes off the lid, it’ll explode, and it’ll take all of us out.”

An officer suggests using pepper spray and a superior replies, “That spray isn’t going to help us at this point.”

The officer and Washington briefly discuss his two teenage children. “You’re their father. They need their father,” the officer says. “For them. For them, man. You’re not even in trouble, man.”

The whole time, Washington paces back and forth, holding the shirt-covered object that he refused to put down despite being ordered to do so.

“Listen, no one has to die. No one has to die. We can talk about this. We can figure this out,” an officer tells Washington.

“You got some stress, man. It is what it is,” the officer tells Washington. “We can work all that out.”

But then Washington moves slowly toward an armed officer, beginning to dash when he is shot three times. When he dropped to the ground, a patrol dog attacked him and an officer squirted him with pepper spray, the footage released Thursday shows. Authorities confirmed that the canine was released on Washington for 15 seconds after he was shot to “immobilize” him.

(Caution: The following video contains graphic images.)

WHYY has also requested from authorities the 911 call and radio dispatches from police leading up to the shooting. Prosecutors said they were processing those requests.

On Saturday, before noon, police in Vineland were dispatched to a quiet residential street where Washington, of Bridgeton, New Jersey, had been sitting on a porch. The caller requested law enforcement to investigate a man “acting suspiciously,” police said.

Washington’s family has said that he was recovering from a long battle with addiction and had recently been released from a halfway house not far from where he was killed.

He had recently picked up a job at a local bakery, his family said, and was beginning to rebuild his life.

Some of Washington’s family members said Rashaun had sat down on someone’s porch and taken off his shirt to cool off, since it was a blistering hot day. The occupant of the home eventually asked Washington to leave, but he refused to, and so, the person called police.

Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said in a statement that de-escalation techniques were used by officers throughout the encounter. In the footage, however, an officer can be heard telling his colleague to put away pepper spray, saying it would be of no use in the standoff. That same officer chose to subdue Washington in any other way, fearing detonation of what Washington said was an explosive.

Tiffany Harris, one of Rashaun Washington’s sisters, became emotional as a few dozen people rallied around her family in response to her older brother, Rashaun “Pac Man” Washington’s death. He was shot and killed by police on July 14, 2018. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

‘They didn’t have to shoot him’

After the video was released, dozens of supporters of Washington took the streets of Vineland Thursday evening, shouting, “justice for Rashaun.”

Some of the demonstrators carried signs that read: “Don’t Shoot an Unarmed Black Man,” while members of Washington’s family all wore shirts with a message airbrushed on the front referring to Washington’s nickname: “Justice for Pac Man.”

Georgette Washington, Rashaun’s mother, moved with the pack of marchers.

“They didn’t have to shoot him,” she said. “They could have tazed him. Or did anything. He never had no bomb. He didn’t have nothing. And in the broad daylight, they said, they’re gonna have to kill him, and that’s what they wanted to do.”

Prosecutors, though, have a different view, claiming officers attempted to de-escalate the intense confrontation over the course of 28 minutes. And since police thought Washington had a bomb, authorities suggest that officers were justified in firing at him.

That message was not convincing to Washington’s friends and loved ones on Thursday night.  

“When someone is shot down, we feel that in our community,” said Steve Young, who leads the South Jersey Chapter of the National Action Network. “We have family here. We have children here. We want to leave a legacy of peace and happiness — not mourning and not funerals. We’re tired of it.”

Prosecutors say the investigation is ongoing and the officer who shot Washington, who has not been identified, has been placed on paid leave.

Andaiye Al-Uqdah, a lawyer for the Washington family, viewed the body-worn camera videos with her clients. She said the video was a display of Washington’s struggles with mental illness.

“It was sad. A young man screaming for help,” Al-Uqdah, said. “And instead, he got shot and killed.”

Standing in front of television cameras at the end of the rally, Tiffany Harris, Washington’s sister, sobbed as another family member rubbed her back to console her.

“We asked that everybody, please, keep this up. We’re not going to let this go,” she said. “They’re not going to sweep this under the rug. I’m sorry, I’m not going to let them.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.