Mimesis Law
21 October 2017

Gregory Frazier: What We Don’t Know Is Everything

Sept. 13, 2016 (Fault Lines) – At around 10 p.m. Friday, September 9, deputies from the Broward County, FL sheriff’s office were dispatched to the backyard of a home in Pompano Beach, where a man named Gregory Frazier, who had a knife, was eating chicken wings. The cops shot him. And for a long time, that’s all anybody knew.

But that didn’t stop reporters, activists and anyone else interested in using the shooting for political ends from holding forth on what they thought happened and why. The result is a morass of misinformation, where reporters from different publications disagree on the most basic facts, and widespread kneejerk condemnation of the cops. Let’s see if we can set the record straight.

On September 10, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright released not one, but two 911 calls from the Frazier residence. It seems five people were at the house that night: Gregory, his sister Deborah, Deborah’s son Quartaze Woodard, her daughter Keneisha and Keneisha’s baby. Both Deborah and Keneisha called the cops on Gregory. Deborah’s call, the first one, is the only one that was widely reported. In it, she tells dispatchers that her brother, who was holding a knife, was demolishing her home and had hit and tried to hurt her son and daughter.

Keneisha’s call adds more detail. You can listen to it here; according to what she told dispatchers, she barricaded herself in a room with her baby after Frazier, who was drunk, assaulted her and threatened her with the knife. (She would later use milder language, telling investigators her uncle had merely gotten “a little rowdy” with her.) Some reports tried to downplay the significance of Gregory owning a “rusty pocketknife,” but it’s clear that going in, the police were told they were dealing with a drunk, aggressive man who was armed with a knife and prepared to use it.

The family told reporters that by the time the police arrived, Frazier had calmed down and was sitting in a lawn chair, eating chicken wings and fries from a Styrofoam tray. Keneisha was still in the house; it’s unclear what Deborah and Quartaze were doing.

According to Quartaze, three deputies showed up and ordered Frazier to get on the ground. (Coleman-Wright, the police spokeswoman, says only two deputies were dispatched to the house.) Frazier allegedly responded by telling the cops to “leave him alone.” The cops repeated their order, and Frazier again told them to leave him be. Then the cops shot him. Keneisha, who heard the gunfire but didn’t see the actual shooting, claims the whole encounter took less than two minutes. Deborah told reporters the deputies “just came in and started shooting right away.”

Everyone agrees that Frazier had a knife in his possession, but it’s unclear what he was doing with it during his standoff with police. Some reports say he was eating chicken with the knife in his hand, but that appears to be a misunderstanding of Deborah’s claim to dispatchers that her brother was holding the knife at the time of her 911 call. The sheriff’s office report is fairly unambiguous; according to the cops, Frazier “produced” the knife in their presence.

If Frazier pulled a knife on the cops, and in light of what was known about him from the 911 dispatchers, the deputies likely have more than enough to justify their resort to deadly force under Graham v. Connor. All the same, they may have jumped the gun. Frazier may or may not have been sitting at the time of his death; he was killed in sufficient proximity to his chair to splatter it with blood, and given what they knew, it seems unlikely the cops would’ve approached any closer than necessary. And Frazier’s family has challenged the decision not to try tasing him.

On the other hand, the cops may be lying. The very first report on the shooting, from the New Times Broward-Palm Beach, makes the claim that unidentified “neighbors” told the newspaper they saw the deputies shoot Frazier in the back. This allegation, which the New Times rather laconically calls “not yet confirmed” by the cops, was widely repeated and is the basis of much Twitter outrage over the deputies’ conduct.

Video would obviously be nice; some Broward County sheriff’s deputies already wear body cams, so it’s possible something will be released. In the meantime, a coroner’s report would help.

As is normal, the deputies who shot Frazier have been placed on administrative leave while the sheriff’s office investigates. Black Lives Matter activists, undeterred by the lack of facts, were quick to show up and protest the cops’ use of force. In the meantime, most commenters chose to imply the killing was racist. For several days, the media described the deputies as two (or three) white men, and the usual simplistic explanation was proffered to explain why white cops shoot black suspects.

Unfortunately, on September 11, the sheriff’s office revealed that one black and one white deputy were sent to Frazier’s home. That will hopefully be enough to stop a lot of thinkpieces in their tracks; race is a poor predictor of whether a cop will violate somebody’s constitutional rights, and hiring a more diverse police force can actually be counterproductive if it comes at the expense of things like education which provably help cops keep within the bounds of the law.

All in all, we know very little about this killing, but that hasn’t stopped us from using it to confirm our bias. This time, it might be wise to take a step back and let the facts emerge.

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  • Nick Selby
    16 September 2016 at 8:27 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for providing this excellent context. This is in fact the more common dynamic in the post-Guardian America, in which the only facts relevant to most observers are “race” and “killed by police”. Your analysis is spot on: we just don’t know, and video would be nice. Police must release more information, faster, and use more video in all circumstances.