Residents of Vineland, New Jersey are demanding answers from authorities after police shot and killed an unarmed black man over the weekend in an encounter witnesses are calling a senseless tragedy.
On Saturday, before noon, police in Vineland were dispatched to a quiet residential street, where 37-year-old Rashaun Washington, of Bridgeton, New Jersey, had been sitting on a porch. Police say a caller requested law enforcement to investigate a man “acting suspiciously.”
Before long, Washington was surrounded by droves of officers. Shirtless and wearing shorts, he paced back and forth, as seen in footage of the incident recorded by passers-by.
“Pacing right here. He’s pacing right here in this driveway,” said Jose Pagan, who was among those onlookers who recorded the episode. “In front of everybody. All these people watching with their cell phone,” he said.
Pagan said Washington was holding an empty water bottle. He said police were screaming at him and pointing heavy rifles at Washington. After minutes of pacing, Washington then starts running. It is unclear if he was trying to flee or charge at police. As he is mid-stride, an officer shoots him three times.
“Oh my God, they just killed him,” a woman who goes by just RiRi says in a video of the shooting she posted on Facebook.
When he dropped, police allowed their patrol dog to attack Washington, and authorities administered pepper spray on him, Pagan said.
“No need for that at all,” Pagan said.
Police have not confirmed the details Pagan says he witnessed. Authorities have released precious little information about the shooting other than saying that on Saturday an incident “lasted for several minutes ending with the subject being fatally shot.”
Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said the officer who opened fire, who authorities have not identified, has been placed on paid administrative leave.
“I don’t have any additional information to release at this time,” Webb-McRae told WHYY.
Washington’s death is the latest incident involving a civilian dying at the hands of the police in New Jersey, where more than 20 people have been shot in the past year, with 14 of them dying.
Under state guidelines, police officers can use deadly force to protect themselves or the public.
Albert Alvarado, 62, a Vineland resident, has reviewed the footage and says there did not appear to be an imminent threat to anyone.
“You don’t shoot someone who is not armed. Bottom line,” Alvarado said. “They need to come up with some answers.”
A memorial has sprouted up for Washington, a father of two, with balloons and candles on a tree near where police killed him. Supporters hung letters that spell out “Pac Man” at the site, which his friends say was his nickname. Bloodstains can be seen in the pavement.
Looking on to the site honoring Washington, Alvarado shook his head in disbelief
“Every time we hear about a police shooting, it’s no wrongdoing, no wrongdoing,” Alvarado said. “Well, you know what? In this case, there’s a lot of wrongdoing.”
Pagan said he heard the police scream “bomb” before they opened fire, another detail authorities have not confirmed.
“If there was a bomb involved, you don’t think this whole block would’ve been evacuated?” said Pagan. “So I’m thinking it’s to cover their behind.”
In the absence of information, WHYY has requested body camera, dashboard camera footage and police dispatch communications. Cumberland County prosecutors are still reviewing the requests.
Police would not comment on what the officer said before opening fire, and it is hard to tell by watching the chaotic videos captured at the scene. Still processing the incident himself, Pagan said he feels like Washington was “treated like he was not human,” he said. “Like he wasn’t human.”
Andaiye Al-Uqdah, a lawyer for Washington’s family, said the shooting violates state guidelines for the use of force since officers made no attempt to de-escalate the standoff before firing.
“The officer who shot Washington must be held accountable,” Al-Uqdah said. “The brave police officers around the nation will continue to be tarnished and subjected to suspicion and distrust if the officers who kill unjustifiably go protected and unchecked.”