The Invisible Gun
DeKalb Police shot Christian Dewayne Smith dead in the back of a patrol car after he "produced" a handgun. After looking at bodyworn camera video, I have questions.
Officer Kiarra Maffett backpedaled as she emptied her gun into the back of her cruiser, into the body of a man she had patted down for a gun a few minutes earlier. Maffett swore under her breath, tripping as she retreated.
She called out to another cop — Marcel Williams — who had just dropped an empty magazine and was reloading. “I swear I patted him down,” she said, anticipating the question people around her would be asking later.
Police killed Christian Dewayne Smith, 33, on a temperate Saturday morning in September, after driving him to a Shell gas station on Candler Road to get him off the highway. Up until about a minute before he died, everything seemed … normal.
The circumstances of Smith’s death bear examination, because it seems ludicrous for police to just miss a gun on a man after searching for one. It is a death that probably could have been avoided. I asked for bodyworn camera footage shortly after the September 25 incident. I received it today.
DeKalb County police did not release the continuous bodyworn camera footage from the incident. It’s broken into two segments. The first is Maffett’s initial interaction with Smith.
Maffett picked Smith up as he was walking on I-20 eastbound near Panthersville. Smith appears out of it. He’s not immediately responsive when asked what he’s doing on the highway. He asks for water, and says he’s afraid that people are chasing him. Maffett asked Smith if he had a mental health problem. Police appear to have edited his answer from the recording, without explanation or legal justification.
Maffett called his aunt to see if he could be picked up. She replied that she was out of town at a funeral, but would try to find someone else. Maffett took Smith to the Shell station to wait, over his objections.
Three additional clips begin some minutes later, after Maffett spoke with other officers in the parking lot of the Shell station. There, they discovered that Smith was wanted on an active arrest warrant for a simple assault.
Smith served about eight years in jail and state prison on a burglary charge. Smith State Prison released him in March last year. The Ellenwood man was on parole when picked up on the street by the police.
He seemed incredulous when police approached him in the back of the cruiser to tell him that he was going to be returning to a jail cell. He fished his wallet out of his pocket and pleaded with them to double check his identity.
He mutters “I ain’t goin’.”
The events begin at about a minute into the video. You can see Smith start to fumble in his pants. An officer asks him “what have you got going on man …”
And then everyone draws their guns and starts shooting. The gun itself is not visible in the video, in part because he is backlit by the rising sun. But whatever three different officers saw all at the same time was enough for them to open fire without hesitating.
Police recovered a handgun after pulling Smith’s body out of the car.
A few minutes after the shooting, an officer approaches Maffett to talk about it. He assures her that the shooting itself is justified. She is inconsolable: for missing the gun, mourning the death of her charge and that of her own vulnerability. “He could have shot me while I was driving,” she said, her hands on her face, frustration in her voice.
Maffett is an African-American college graduate from the Atlanta area — exactly who police departments have been struggling to recruit — and has been a police officer for about three years. She has some minor disciplinary citations, but nothing that has drawn more than a day or two of suspension.
There will be no hue and cry for her head, or those of the others involved. I will not begin one: there’s no big argument to make when police kill someone pointing a gun at them.
But there’s a similarity to another police-involved shooting in the Atlanta area that bears notice. Police shot Alexia Christian dead in 2015 after she managed, handcuffed in the back of a patrol car on a street downtown, to slip the cuffs, pull a gun from somewhere and start shooting at them.
A full video accounting of the incident has never been made. Police released dash cam video, which shows police demanding that she drop the weapon. We hear but do not see her say that she doesn’t have one before the police shot her. Police held on to that video for 14 months before releasing it, under pressure from the family and transparency activists. Then-Fulton County district attorney Paul Howard declined to prosecute police for the shooting.
It is uncommon but not unheard of for a police officer to miss a weapon in a search. It should always raise a question about training and competence. I think it’s tawdry to talk about a person’s death in terms of the career impact on a police officer. But I also don’t want to be in the business of calling for discipline from the cheap seats.
That said, there’s a distinction to be made between a death that is legally justified from one that is preventable with effective processes. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that Maffett probably should have been able to find a gun with an effective pat down. Do we chalk that up to extremely bad luck, a lack of training, or something else?
The question for me is what the process of reviewing this death looks like. Will it be fair? Will it be transparent? I’ll follow up when we know.