BuzzFeed News has obtained video footage of two police officers in Alabama fatally shooting an unarmed black man, 26-year-old Cameron Massey, in the passenger's seat of a car in October 2013. An attorney for the slain man’s family says the footage refutes the officers' claims that they were facing imminent danger when they opened fire.
The video, which has not been previously released publicly, contains five minutes of footage from the body camera of one of the officers involved in the shooting, Eufaula Police Chief Ralph Conner. Massey died after being shot five times.
“Officers cannot just shoot people based on absolutely irrational perspectives about a scenario,” Mario Williams, the lawyer for the Massey family, told BuzzFeed News. “This was an absolutely unreasonable shooting.”
Massey’s family filed a civil suit against the officers and the department in July 2015. The suit is ongoing. Both officers claim that they fired because they feared Massey was going to injure one of the officers.
Officer John Phillips told investigators that he stopped the car, a black Infinity with a Georgia Disabled Veterans tag, because a confidential informant had told him that a vehicle fitting that description was carrying a load of marijuana through town. Phillips said that he pulled the car over after it made an improper lane change. Later, officers found seven pounds of marijuana in the trunk.
Conner, who fired the first shot, stated in a police report that he pulled the trigger after he saw the car dragging Phillips, who had reached in through the driver’s side window to grab Massey. Phillips, who fired four times, told the Alabama Bureau of Investigation that he feared for his life because he did not know who fired the first shot and because he worried that he would get run over by the car if it continued to roll forward.
“The gun shot, I thought that’s him gonna kill me,” Phillips said in a taped interview with the Alabama Bureau of Investigation three days after the shooting, which BuzzFeed News has obtained.
The release of the footage comes at a time of heightened scrutiny for police officers over the issue of lethal force. Protests have followed in the wake of videos showing officer-involved fatalities in Staten Island, Cleveland, Beavercreek, North Charleston and Chicago. As in those cases, and many others, officers in this case claimed that they acted because they feared for their lives or the lives of their colleagues. And as in many other cases of police shootings, a grand jury declined to indict the officers involved in Massey’s death.
“The officers fired upon Mr. Massey to stop the imminent deadly threat posed by Mr. Massey’s actions, which halted his continued ability to accelerate the vehicle and seriously injure or kill the officer being dragged,” Mayor Jack Tibbs said in an April 2014 statement following the conclusion of the grand jury hearing, which had been led by a special prosecutor and lasted two days.
Massey’s family has argued that the officers exaggerated the danger they faced because Massey was unarmed, and both officers were standing beside the car, rather than in front or behind it. One witness, Garrick Hall, stated in a court declaration, "Phillips had control of his body the entire time as the car was moving forward. At no time did I see Officer John Phillips fall to the ground or appear as if he was falling to the ground." And the car, which had stopped in the dirt driveway of the auto body shop, had no clear path to escape, the family’s suit states: the road ahead led into the auto body shop’s parking lot and police cruisers blocked the exit behind.
“It was the officer who was reaching inside the the car,” said Kenneth Glasgow, a spokesperson for the family. Massey “was on the passenger's side even up to his death. He was still in his seat belt with both feet on the floor.”
Footage from Conner’s body camera shows Conner pointing his gun at Massey before the car moved and then firing when it rolled forward.
The video begins shortly after Conner arrived to back up Phillips, who had pulled over the car for a traffic stop at around 5 p.m. on October 15, 2013.
According to Phillips’ statement to investigators, the driver, 30-year-old Joshua Kelly, stepped out of the car. Massey, who was 6’8” and nearly 300 lbs., remained in the passenger's seat. Phillips told Kelly to get back in, and he did. Phillips then called for a back-up unit. Kelly again stepped out of the car. He asked Phillips why he had pulled him over, and Phillips told him he pulled him over for an improper lane change and because his registration tags were obscured. Kelly became “loud, boisterous, aggressive,” Phillips later told investigators, and he handcuffed him.
As they spoke, Conner arrived. According to Williams, lawyer for the Massey family, the black Infiniti's engine was still on.
At the start of the video, Conner approached the driver's side of car and, through the open window, told Massey to put his hands on the dashboard.
But as Conner walked around to the passenger's side of the car, he shouted, “On the dashboard! On the dashboard! Put your hands on the dashboard!” Conner drew his gun and pointed it at Massey.
Massey leaned over toward the driver’s side floor. Conner later said that he believed Massey was trying to escape through the driver’s side door.
“Watch this guy he’s getting out! He’s getting out!” Conner shouted to Phillips.
Phillips went to the driver’s side of the car. He reached in and grabbed Massey, he told investigators. Phillips said that Massey shifted the car to "drive" and hit the gas pedal with his hand. The car jolted forward a foot or two and Conner fired, the video appears to show. Williams asserts that Conner fired before the car moved.
“Everything was so quick, so instantaneous,” Phillips told investigators. “At that time, I didn’t know if [Massey] had shot and he’s trying to stay down to keep from us returning fire.”
Phillips, who said he was still leaning in through the driver’s side window, fired four shots, as the car kept rolling, slowly up the dirt road for about fifteen yards before crashing into a row of parked vehicles in front of the auto body shop.
“When the car started to move, it was such a jolt,” Phillips told investigators. “I thought the back tires was gonna get my leg and snatch me under the vehicle.”
The Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Massey’s death a homicide from multiple gunshot wounds.
The shooting sparked protests in Eufaula, a town of around 13,000 residents that sits near the Georgia border and has a population that is around 50% white and 45% black. Conner and Phillips are white. A spokesperson for the department, who declined to give his name, told BuzzFeed News that “35 to 39” officers are currently on the force and around 75 percent of them are white. When asked whether the department had identified any missteps by Conner and Phillips in the incident, the spokesperson declined to comment.
Phillips, who had been with town’s police force for two years at the time of the shooting, told investigators he had never before been involved in an officer-involved shooting.
Conner, who was hired as Eufaula’s chief in early 2013, had shot an unarmed black man three decades before, when he was an investigator with the Montgomery Police Department. In 1983, Conner shot 22-year-old Bobby Joe Sales in the back after Sales fled from an attempted police stop, the Associated Press reported at the time. Sales survived. Montgomery locals protested the shooting.
Conner said he believed that Sales had been reaching for a gun, and Conner was not charged. He left the department two years later.
Following two decades working for federal immigration authorities, and then a few years investigating cold cases for the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, Conner returned to local policing, becoming chief of police for the Hamilton, Alabama, Police Department in April 2011. Less than two years later, he applied for the job in Eufaula.
“It’s an example of that revolving door where officers do wrong at one department, then end up at another,” Glasgow, the family spokesperson, said. “He ended up in this small-town department, where nobody knew what he had done years ago.”
Mo Erkins, president of the Barbour County NAACP, said that 31 people sent in applications for the Eufaula police chief job. Erkins and several other local officials were tasked with selecting the top five candidates for the city council to choose from. Conner was among the finalists because “he had the prerequisite experience,” Erkins said.
Erkins said that he did not know about Conner’s previous officer-involved shooting at the time, and that other local officials likely did not know either. “It surprised me,” he said.
Conner retired in September. Phillips remains with the department.
Officer John Phillips fired four shots. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that he fired three shots.
Updated to include a witness statement from Garrick Hall.