The death of 21-year-old William DeBose on May 1 in a Denver Police Department shooting initially received only modest attention from the media. But between then and now, America changed, with the in-custody murder of Minneapolis's George Floyd sparking ongoing protests nationwide, including in Denver. On June 12, a local demonstration focused on DeBose's death and the city's failure to release either an autopsy report or body-camera footage of the incident.
On June 18, shortly after the autopsy report was finally issued, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann shared the video. At the same time, she said that her office would not file criminal charges against any of the officers involved in the DeBose incident under the theory that DeBose had pointed a gun at DPD Corporal Ethan Antonson before the latter pulled his trigger four times, resulting in a mortal wound.
The timing could hardly have been worse, but officials tried to mitigate the damage. McCann released a statement affirming her support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Governor Jared Polis, who'd dodged a question about the tardy release of the DeBose body-camera footage at a press conference earlier that day, is about to sign a police-reform bill that aims to prevent unnecessary tragedies like this one. But these tokens hardly diminished the anger of DeBose supporters, who'd already planned to stage a downtown rally before the no-criminal-charges news broke. They promptly settled outside McCann's office to denounce her actions — or inactions — as DeBose's father took to local television to suggest that his son had been running for his life and trying to throw away his weapon when he was killed.
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The decision letter on the DeBose shooting that McCann sent to Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen is a model of its form, presenting the law enforcement viewpoint about what happened — and the same can be said of the videos and images released by the DA's office. Largely unaddressed is the matter of whether the pursuit of DeBose, who was originally targeted for speeding, was in itself an example of excessive force, needlessly escalating a minor offense in ways that ultimately ended with a young man dead and a populace incensed.
At around 10:20 p.m. on May 1, according to the decision letter, Antonson, a member of the gang unit, received a call from a colleague "requesting the assistance of 'Air-1,' the DPD helicopter, to track a blue and white Chevy Caprice traveling at a high rate of speed on I-25."
This video shows footage from Air-1.
Antonson intercepted the Caprice after it exited the highway and ultimately followed it to the parking lot of the Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Public Library, located near the intersection of Colfax and Irving Street. There, DeBose left the vehicle, as did passenger Sierra Martinez-Griego, his common-law wife, and began walking away while Air-1 hovered overhead. The letter stresses that Antonson, who had been joined by Officer Blake Bishop, didn't immediately take out his weapon. Instead, he told the couple, "Stay right there for me, both of you, hands up in the air. Just stay right there for me."
Instead, DeBose took off running, and Antonson gave chase. Here's the key paragraph in the subsequent account:
About five seconds after Mr. DeBose began to run, Corporal Antonson passed the last vehicle in the row of cars. There he saw Mr. DeBose as he was about to enter the parking lot. Corporal Antonson moved towards him in an effort to close the distance between himself and Mr. DeBose. At this point, Mr. DeBose reached across his body, pulled a handgun and rotated his arm towards Corporal Antonson. Corporal Antonson yelled "On the ground!" and quickly drew his firearm. Corporal Antonson fired his gun four times until Mr. DeBose fell to the ground.
A body-camera clip, enhanced by the DA's office, emphasizes the moment when Antonson believes DeBose turned and pointed the gun in his direction:
This video offers body-camera footage from Bishop's point of view.
DeBose was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was declared dead. The autopsy showed that he had been shot in the chest and the leg from the front, which McCann sees as evidence that he'd turned and faced Antonson. In addition, a gun was found near DeBose's body — another factor in McCann's conclusion that he had indeed trained his weapon on Antonson, despite the video of that moment being rather indistinct.
These various elements persuaded McCann that she would be unable to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Antonson's actions had been illegal. "The chase and shooting lasted less than ten seconds," she writes. "Corporal Antonson had to make a split-second judgement while running at full speed. His judgement that Mr. DeBose was pointing a handgun at him and about to kill him was reasonable; therefore, it was reasonable and lawfully justified for Corporal Antonson to defend himself with deadly physical force under Colorado statutes."
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Buried inside the decision letter are the last words that DeBose said to Martinez-Griego before running: "Fuck this, I did not do anything wrong." And indeed, any violations he committed appear to have been minor. After the shooting, Martinez-Griego told investigators that she, DeBose and another acquaintance had been sitting in the Caprice in the Globeville neighborhood when they feared this simple act might draw police scrutiny — and sure enough, a police car wound up circling behind them shortly after they drove away. When the officer activated his overhead lights, DeBose drove onto the highway and accelerated, eventually reaching speeds of up to 110 miles per hour.
Would any of this have happened if DeBose had lived in a world where he didn't have to worry that merely hanging out in a car at night might lead to him being rousted by cops? Probably not. But on May 1, George Floyd was still alive, and thousands of protesters had not yet poured into the streets denouncing the sort of racially suspect policing that appears to have been at play during the sequence of events that ended DeBose's life.
Now, Denver waits to see how protesters will react to McCann's choice. It could be a long weekend.
Click to read the William DeBose decision letter.