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‘Are we going to let that be OK?’
Community reacts to videos of teen’s shooting by police

In the wake of manslaughter charges filed Wednesday against five Oklahoma City police officers in the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old robbery suspect last November, police reform advocates praised the move but expressed skepticism that justice in the case would be served.

Stavian Rodriguez was shot Nov. 23 after he dropped a gun outside Okie Gas Express at 7917 S Western Ave. An affidavit shows the boy had been struck by gunfire 13 times.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater filed charges against Bethany Sears, Jared Barton, Corey Adams, Jonathan Skuta and Brad Pemberton. The officers remain on paid administrative leave.

“I’m slightly relieved to see that Prater did the right thing in charging these cops, however, we have to get through convicting and sentencing, and make sure the sentences handed down are adequate for the crimes they committed,” said Adriana Laws, co-founder and president of the Collegiate Freedom and Justice Coalition.

Previous cases

Rodriguez’s shooting death followed a summer of heated protests across the nation over people of color dying in police custody, and occurred just weeks before the Dec. 11 police shooting death of Bennie Edwards, a Black man with a history of mental health problems, in Oklahoma City.

Sgt. Clifford Holman faces a first-degree manslaughter charge in that fatal shooting, and an alternative second-degree manslaughter charge.

Local police reform advocates remain skeptical that justice will be served in officer-involved shooting cases, despite recent cases in which officers have been charged and sentenced to prison.

In December 2019, an Oklahoma County District Judge sentenced former Oklahoma City police officer Keith Sweeney to 10 years in prison after a jury convicted him of second-degree murder in the shooting death of a suicidal man.

In 2020, a Walmart security guard was charged in Oklahoma County District Court with assault and battery with a deadly weapon for shooting a fleeing shoplifting suspect on the Fourth of July.

In 2014, former Del City police officer Randy Trent Harrison was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison for fatally shooting an unarmed fleeing suspect in the back.

Police tactics

Police reform advocates say there are far too many high-profile cases of misconduct to believe the system is improving.

Laws, a vocal proponent of police reform who faces a misdemeanor charge and is accused of illegally posing with a handgun during a protest last year, pointed to the U.S. Department of Justice declining to bring criminal charges in the 2014 shooting death of Tamir Rice, who was 12 when he was shot and killed.

There was not enough evidence to prove Cleveland police officers used excessive force against the boy, officials said.

“The DOJ did their whole investigation and said there was no wrongdoing in that case,” Laws said. “And he was three years younger (than Stavian Rodriguez).”

Other police reform advocates said Wednesday police departments are refusing to change practices and training techniques, which results in unnecessary killings.

“This was absolutely an unnecessary and preventable homicide of a 15-year-old child,” said Sara Bana, a civil and human rights advocate. “The Oklahoma City Police Department has refused to take any necessary steps to reduce the pattern and practice of police brutality and police violence.”

Bana called on Police Chief Wade Gourley to resign.

Bana also criticized Mayor David Holt, saying he has failed to use “the power of the mayor’s office to lead and protect this community,” and his “lack of leadership” on the issue of officer-involved shootings is “alarming and concerning as a resident and taxpayer.”

Neither the police department nor the mayor’s office responded to requests for comment late Wednesday.

'Look for accountability'

When it comes to officer-involved shootings, one law enforcement expert said bodycam video — which was released to the public Wednesday in the Rodriguez case — may not tell the whole story.

“It appears that Mr. Rodriguez has dropped his weapon and was no longer armed and was subsequently shot by the police,” said Robert Pusins, a 35-year law enforcement veteran in Florida who provides expert testimony at trials. “We’re looking at a video, so we are not seeing everything that the officers may be seeing. We’re seeing what the video captured.”

There may be other perspectives, not revealed through video, that caused the officers to react the way they did, Pusins said.

In Oklahoma City, some who have followed the Rodriguez case said they were relieved the officers were charged, but still shocked over what they saw on video.

Chad Whitehead, operating partner for Tower Theatre, said the officers should be held accountable.

“As a society, we have to create and look for accountability when it comes to our kids,” he said. “And if we don’t, I don’t know what it means to have a society, and what it means for this place being the Bible belt of the Midwest. ... Are we going to tolerate an overly violent, overly targeting police force to the point where a teenager who looks like every other student in junior high, who looks like every other student at youth group is targeted? Are we going to let that be OK?”