Crime & Courts

Charlotte man had arms raised when police shot him in September, new videos show

Newly released video of the September police shooting of Rueben Galindo shows the Charlotte man exiting his apartment with his hands raised above his head seconds before officers fatally shot him.

Between three and four seconds elapse from when Galindo appears at his doorway, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers begin to shout orders for him to drop his weapon, and a series of gunshots ring out, the videos show.

The 29-year-old then slumps to the ground outside his northeast Charlotte apartment, 13 seconds after one of the approaching officers first called out his name.

Chief Kerr Putney on Friday continued to defend his officer’s decisions to shoot Galindo. But a national expert in police shootings who viewed the videos at the request of the Observer called the footage “troubling,” and said that Galindo appeared to be trying to comply with two separate police orders – put it down and throw it down – when he was shot.

“In and of itself, the video does not show that the officers are legally justified to shoot,” said Phil Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University and a former law enforcement officer who tracks police shootings around the country.

“Without legal justification you’re left with either murder or manslaughter. This one, I’ve watched it a dozen times and I question whether a murder has been committed.”

Putney told the Observer on Friday that videos never tell the whole story of what officers perceived at the time.

Officers have limited options when facing a lethal threat, the chief said, and have to think about saving their own lives and the lives of other people.

“I'm not going to second-guess how (officers) perceive a lethal threat,” he said.

However, a Charlotte activist described the video of Galindo’s death as “horrific,” and called on city leaders to provide justice to the dead man’s family.

“We have a man who had his hands up for a full four or five seconds before police shot him,” Hector Vaca, Charlotte director of the nonprofit Action NC, told the Observer. “It is obvious he was complying with directives from police. What we need now is justice. We need CMPD to take responsibility for their officers’ actions.”

Galindo’s widow, Azucena Zamorano Aleman, said in a statement that the videos confirm what the family already knew. “This is a tragic loss. This was avoidable ... Rueben was seeking help ... Despite prior statements, Rueben’s hands were in the air,” she said. “We will work with authorities to ensure a thorough investigation is concluded so that justice can be achieved for Rueben.”

Per department rules, the two officers who shot Galindo remain on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. They have been identified as Courtney Suggs and David Guerra.

The shooting remains under investigation by the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office. In a statement Friday, an office spokeswoman said the videos were shown to Aleman and a family friend before they were released to the public. Prosecutors only received the full investigative case file this week, the statement said. Prosecutors said they hope to complete a review of the shooting within 90 days. The spokeswoman would not answer Observer questions.

Guerra’s attorney, George Laughrun, said Galindo posed a direct threat to his client and the other officers, and that he had pointed his gun in the officers’ direction.

Asked if he thought Guerra had done anything wrong, Laughrun said, “Knowing what the law is, knowing what he was faced with, the answer is no, emphatically no.”

Earlier on the night of Sept. 6, Galindo had called 911 to say in Spanish that he had a gun and wanted to turn himself into police for an upcoming court date. He also said repeatedly that his gun was unloaded. “No tengo balas,” Galindo said, meaning, “I have no bullets.”

But recordings of the 911 call and other communications reveal Galindo declining several dispatcher requests to put the weapon away before police arrive.

Recordings also reveal that the dispatcher told responding officers that Galindo did not want to put the weapon down but that he maintained it was empty. Police also knew of Galindo’s arrest in April when he was accused of assault by pointing a gun.

CMPD says Galindo had the weapon in his left hand when he exited the apartment. The handgun is not clearly visible in the series of released videos. Putney later said the gun recovered at the scene was empty.

One of the body-camera videos released Friday reveals the emotional aftermath of the shooting. A woman and several children leave the home through a line of police. All appear to have their hands raised.

Inside the apartment, an officer, gun drawn, climbs the stairs to find a toddler in a second-floor bedroom. The child raises his arms then begins to shriek. A female officer appears to take the child in her arms and carry him out of the house.

Reasonable threat?

According to the U.S. courts, officers are allowed to use deadly force under a guideline known as “objective reasonableness.” In other words, would reasonable officers confronting the same circumstances perceive an imminent threat of death or serious injury to themselves or others?

Given the nature of police work, the standard is a broad one. Only one Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer has been criminally charged with an on-duty shooting in more than 30 years. Officer Wes Kerrick was charged with voluntary manslaughter after the 2013 fatal shooting of Jonathan Ferrell, who was unarmed. The charges were dropped after Kerrick’s trial ended in a hung jury, with the majority of the jurors voting for acquittal.

Stinson, the police shooting expert, says between 900 and 1,000 Americans are fatally shot by police each year. Only 30 officers have been convicted of shooting-related crimes since 2005, he says.

The existence of shooting videos have raised questions about police versions of events, he said.

“I would imagine in this case that police said they were confronted by a man with a gun, he wouldn’t put it down, and they shot him. But then you look at the video,” Stinson said. “Dead men can’t talk. Police own the narrative. But we’re finding in these cases that the police narrative doesn’t always match up with the video.”

Suggs’ attorney, Michael Greene, said Friday that his client and Guerra “perceived an imminent threat to themselves and the other officers on the scene” while also being concerned “for the hundreds of individuals in the apartment complex.”

Nothing from the officers’ knowledge of Galindo or his 911 calls led police to think Galindo would be cooperative, Greene said. “There was also no way to verify that Mr. Galindo’s gun had no bullets as he would not voluntarily surrender it. The body worn camera captures only a piece of the whole story.”

Charlotte has been embroiled in a debate over police use of deadly force for more than a year.

In September 2016, the city erupted in angry and sometimes violent protests over the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a case that still reverberates across the community. District Attorney Andrew Murray later announced that the shooting was justified because Scott was armed and did not heed police commands to drop his gun.

In the aftermath of the subsequent violence and with a goal of greater transparency, the police department has become less resistant to releasing videos of police-involved shootings.

About three weeks after Galindo died, the Observer and Action NC asked a judge to release police videos of the shooting under a new North Carolina law. CMPD did not oppose their release. However, the District Attorney’s Office and the lawyers for Guerra and Suggs said widespread public viewing of the footage could taint witnesses and future jurors.

Superior Court Judge Todd Pomeroy ruled that the videos should be made public under state law. His decision marked the first time footage in a police shooting had been released to the public while an active investigation of the incident was still underway.

The release comes as the police department has been in contact with Charlotte Latino leaders, seeking their help in pulling together two potential workshops ostensibly connected to Galindo’s death.

One would teach residents the proper way of turning in a firearm to police, according to Vaca, who says he was one of the leaders contacted. The other would instruct the community on police tactics and procedures, “in order to show that police are justified in what they do.”

Word of the police events has surfaced since Galindo’s shooting, Vaca said. He described the workshops as “horribly timed and offensive.”

Reporter Jane Wester contributed.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS