A White Cop's Killing of an Unarmed Black Man Catapults Phoenix Into America's New Civil Rights Movement

A White Cop's Killing of an Unarmed Black Man Catapults Phoenix Into America's New Civil Rights Movement
Graham Smith

Righteous rage fills the air as a young African-American demonstrator yells through his bullhorn.

"We are fed up!" cries Jarvis Johnson, his face filled with emotion. "We are done! We want justice, and we want it now!"

Johnson's walking back and forth in the middle of the intersection of Seventh and Roosevelt streets in Phoenix on Friday, December 5, as fellow demonstrators (about 40) stage a "die-in," blocking traffic by lying in the street in protest over a wave of police killings of unarmed black men from New York City to Phoenix.


COMMENTARY

"This ain't no black thing," shouts another African-American man. "It ain't no white thing. It ain't no brown thing. It's a justice thing."

What began earlier as a smaller protest, spearheaded by some in the local activist community who may or may not refer to themselves as "anarchists," quickly grew to about 300 people.

One woman held the sign "I can't breathe, Eric Garner, RIP," referring to the July 17 killing of an unarmed black man in Staten Island, New York, as he was arrested by members of the New York Police Department.

Garner, 43, suffered from asthma and was confronted by the cops for the misdemeanor offense of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.

Video taken by a friend of Garner's shows NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo's taking down Garner with an illegal choke-hold.

Garner repeatedly complains that he can't breathe in the video, and we see Pantaleo pressing Garner's head into the sidewalk.

Garner passes out, later suffering a heart attack and dying.

The New York City Medical Examiner's Office ruled the death a homicide, caused in part by "the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police."

And yet, on December 3, just a couple of days before First Friday, a Staten Island Grand Jury declined to indict Pantaleo, causing outrage across the country, and spurring massive demonstrations in such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Oakland.

There already had been demonstrations nationwide to protest the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9.

There had been violence and looting in Ferguson, with the National Guard called in to restore order and a curfew imposed by Missouri's governor.

On November 24, two weeks before the Garner decision, the prosecuting attorney, leading an inquiry by a grand jury into Brown's shooting death by Ferguson cop Darren Wilson, announced that Wilson would not be indicted.

Dozens of U.S. cities erupted in anger. But in greater Phoenix, the response to the Brown grand jury decision was muted.

Rumain Brisbon, 34, in a family Christmas photo.
Rumain Brisbon, 34, in a family Christmas photo.
Courtesy of the Brisbon family

Bridges in New York were shut down, buildings burned in Ferguson, demonstrators took over freeways in Oakland, but in Tempe, a protest of the Brown grand jury decision seemed to sputter as soon as it began.

Even Tempe police paid little attention to the about 30 demonstrators who showed up to Tempe Beach Park.

A few days later, the local anarchist group Wave of Action Phoenix organized a march through Old Town Scottsdale on a Saturday night, when the bars and restaurants normally are filled with revelers.

A single smashed window at an Old Town gallery garnered a lot of attention from the local press, as did a fist fight with the marchers instigated by two drunks, one of whom, it later turned out, was connected to an infamous rape case in Steubenville, Ohio involving an inebriated 16-year-old and members of a high school football team there.

What was happening in Ferguson had yet to make a real impact in Phoenix.

The shooting of a mentally ill African-American woman by a Phoenix Police Department cop in August had drawn the ire of some here. But too many in the Phoenix area shrugged it off.

In that incident, Phoenix police were called to Michelle Cusseaux's Maryvale apartment August 14 to take Cusseaux, 50, to a mental-health facility.

Cusseaux was shot dead by Phoenix police Sergeant Percy Dupra after cops say she opened her door wielding what the PPD and the media called a "claw hammer."

As intimidating as that may sound, do a Google image search of "claw hammer," and you will find that it is just an ordinary hammer. The "claw" is the part of the hammer with which one may extract nails.

I believe the Cusseaux investigation was on its way to a knee-jerk exoneration of Dupra until Cusseaux's mother, Frances Garrett, along with other family members and supporters, marched Cusseaux's casket to Phoenix City Hall, demanding that the PPD hand over its investigation of her death to an outside agency.

That macabre procession took place on a hot Friday in August. The following Monday, PPD Chief Daniel Garcia, with Mayor Greg Stanton and City Manager Ed Zuercher in tow, called a press conference to announce that the PPD was turning over the criminal investigation of the matter to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Garcia's move effectively put a sock in the anger over the death of yet another mentally ill person at the hands of a law enforcement officer.

It was a good PR move on the city's part, though until the First Friday protest, which came four months afterward, I wouldn't have wagered dime one on anything changing when it comes to investigations of such fatal shootings by law enforcement.

Now, I'm not so sure.

Because according to state law, if a police officer reasonably can claim that he or she was in mortal fear or feared for the safety of a third party, then the cop probably will escape legal trouble. State law calls such killings "justified."

But the week of December 5 saw a confluence of events, merging national outrage over the lack of justice in the Garner killing with localized anger over the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white PPD officer.

This was the untimely death of Phoenix resident Rumain Brisbon, whose name already has been placed alongside that of Eric Garner and Michael Brown by the national media.

Brisbon's death has propelled Phoenix into the roiling waters of a new civil rights movement, one that holds promise of real reform -- as long as the energy behind it does not ebb.

 

Phoenix police donned riot gear for a recent First Friday demonstration, where protesters decried the shooting death of Rumain Brisbon as well as the grand jury decisions in the Garner and Brown cases
Phoenix police donned riot gear for a recent First Friday demonstration, where protesters decried the shooting death of Rumain Brisbon as well as the grand jury decisions in the Garner and Brown cases
Benjamin Leatherman

The Brown case was bad enough, with its biased prosecutor, a remorseless cop, and the racial disparity between Ferguson's mostly African-American citizenry and its largely white police force.

But the lack of an indictment in the Garner case seemed far more egregious, given the viral snuff film we all saw of Garner's pleading his inability to breathe, and nonplussed cops allowing him to die.

The night before the announcement in the Garner case, Rumain Brisbon was gunned down inside an apartment he shared with his girlfriend near 25th Avenue and Greenway Road in Phoenix.

Brisbon, 34, was unarmed. In his hands instead were bags of food from a nearby McDonald's, as his girlfriend Dana Klinger told the press later.

"Rumain came to bring me McDonald's for the kids because I was sick and couldn't cook," she explained during a press conference with Brisbon's mother, Nora.

Brisbon left Klinger's Cadillac Escalade running, about a dozen feet from their ground-floor apartment.

Still in the car was Brisbon's friend Robert Brandon Dickerson. According to Dickerson, Brisbon had told him he would be right back.

"No police ever got behind us," Dickerson told me in an interview. "[There were] no lights, no, 'Hey, sir, could you pull over,' none of that."

Dickerson said he "heard no conversation at all," but then, a startled yell followed by a rumbling sound. He turned around and saw "garbage cans laying by the stairs," and then he heard a pop.

"I saw the cop come out, saying, 'Fuck, fuck, I told him not to move,' and beating on the wall," Dickerson said.

Dickerson spent the next two hours in handcuffs, detained by the Phoenix police, getting fingerprinted and answering questions.

"They killed my friend," he said sadly. "He was taking McDonald's to his baby."

According to Klinger, Brisbon and Klinger's 18-month-old baby witnessed the killing, along with her. At least one other child, hers by another relationship, was in the apartment as well.

A police report on the incident has not yet been made public, but police claim in a press release that Officer Mark Rine was responding to a noise complaint at the Cobblestone Apartments, where Klinger and Brisbon lived.

The PPD says Rine had received two separate tips about the occupants of the black Cadillac SUV selling drugs. When the noise complaint was canceled, Rine approached the SUV, which he saw backed into a parking space.

According to the PPD account of events, Brisbon got out of the vehicle, and Rine "gave several commands for Brisbon to show him his hands."

Brisbon "fled to the corridor near the apartment," according to this account, continuing to ignore Rine's orders, while putting his hands "in his waistband area."

A struggle ensued, and Rine grabbed Brisbon's hand, which Brisbon had in his pocket. Klinger opened the door to the apartment, and the two men fell through it.

"The officer was unable to maintain his grip on the suspect's hand during the struggle," the release stated. "Fearing Brisbon had a gun in his pocket, the officer fired two rounds striking Brisbon in the torso."

But Brisbon didn't have a gun in his pocket. Instead, it was a "pill vial containing oxycodone tablets."

After the shooting, cops found pill bottles containing 118 oxycodone tablets, $16,000 in cash, and another $831 in Brisbon's right front pants pocket, say court documents describing the results of a search warrant on the apartment and the SUV.

The same warrant shows that for the SUV, police confiscated some marijuana and a stolen Ruger handgun.

Phoenix police spokesman Trent Crump told the media that the names on the pill bottles had been scratched off.

The results of the search warrant were not revealed until the week following the shooting.

And it's important to note that none of it changes the fact an unarmed black man was killed by a white officer.

The timing of the shooting, coinciding with the news in the Garner case in New York, set in motion several protests in Phoenix, like the one on December 5.

Jarvis Johnson recently told me that he had been to protests before, demonstrating against Arizona's anti-immigrant legislation, Senate Bill 1070, several years ago.

But Brisbon's shooting spurred him to lead a demonstration.

"When Rumain got killed, it made me feel, enough is enough," he said.

Brisbon's death "added fuel to the fire," he explained. He and others did not expect the crowd to get so large that night, for people to "come together for a great cause."

Police in riot gear blocked the demonstrators. One cop read the proverbial riot act, ordering the crowd to disperse.

Instead, demonstrators marched to police headquarters at 620 West Washington Street, chanting such slogans as, "No justice, No peace, No racist police" and the popular (in the wake of the Brown killing), "Hands up, don't shoot."

Though local anarchists organized the event, they ceded control of it to the African Americans present. This, according to videographer Dennis Gilman, who captured the protest for New Times.

Demonstrators carried signs bearing Rumain Brisbon's name. Black-clad anarchists wearing bandannas walked arm-in-arm with non-anarchists, hands raised, in the way that some say Michael Brown faced Officer Wilson before Wilson shot him down.

On December 8, Brisbon's 9-year-old little girl, Aiyana Rains, one of Brisbon's four daughters, led another march through downtown, again to police headquarters, where riot cops lined the sidewalk.

The Reverend Jarrett Maupin shushed the crowd, telling them the little girl had something to say.

"Who shot my dad?" the little girl whispered into the megaphone, referring to the fact that the officer's name had not been released at the time. "I want to know who shot my dad. They really hurt me."

Sobs could be heard coming from adults nearby. Maupin repeated the girl's words, and addressed the crowd in a preacher's cadence.

"We're not out here for violence, y'all," he said. "We're not out here to seek revenge, y'all. We're out here because of this little girl's tears; she's crying . . . this is a baby who's daddy is not coming home. She's crying up here, y'all."

One Phoenix cop broke ranks during the event to tell the little girl he was sorry. Online, supporters published a letter purportedly written by the little girl, addressing her father's killer, reminding him that Brisbon's daughters faced the immediate reality of a Christmas without their father.

News outlets published family photos of Brisbon with his daughters. In one, they stand next to a Christmas tree. In another, Brisbon kisses his baby girl, the child he had with Klinger.

On December 9, protesters blocked light-rail trains and obstructed Jefferson Street in front of Talking Stick Resort Arena as a Phoenix Suns game let out.

Maupin, who was on hand, let it be known that demonstrators would shut down other parts of Phoenix if Chief Garcia did not reveal the name of the officer involved.

That same night, Garcia released the name of Rine, a seven-year veteran of the department who had been decorated for intervening in a young woman's threatened suicide and saving her.

In an interview with Fox 10 News, Garcia mentioned that demonstrators were peaceful and expressed their emotions over Brisbon's death without destruction of property or arrests.

Rine's name is a matter of public record, but typically police do not release the name of an officer involved in a shooting for several weeks or months after the fact.

The nearly daily local protests have ground to a halt, at least for now.

 

On First Friday, December 5, protesters in Phoenix are mobilized by the failure of grand juries to indict killer cops in the Garner and Brown cases, as well as by the local shooting death of an African-American man by a white Phoenix cop.
On First Friday, December 5, protesters in Phoenix are mobilized by the failure of grand juries to indict killer cops in the Garner and Brown cases, as well as by the local shooting death of an African-American man by a white Phoenix cop.
Benjamin Leatherman

Victims of police shootings often lack halos, a point made ad nauseam by police apologists.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Eric Garner had a rap sheet with "more than 30 arrests dating back to 1980 on charges such as assault, resisting arrest, and grand larceny."

In the case of Michael Brown, there is the video, released by the Ferguson Police Department, of Brown allegedly robbing a local convenience store of a box of cigarillos before his encounter with Darren Wilson.

Even Rodney King, the poster boy for police violence after he was viciously beaten and Tased by Los Angeles Police Department cops in 1991, was no saint, having done time for strong-armed robbery. The night King was videotaped being beaten, he had been driving drunk and speeding, leading LAPD officers on a chase.

Brisbon fits this mold. Court records state that he had been arrested numerous times during his 34 years on Earth for offenses such as burglary, driving under the influence, and marijuana possession.

In 2012, he did six months in state prison for an aggravated DUI.

But a probation violation report for Brisbon on file with the court gives ample evidence that he was more than his criminal record.

The report notes that he had been shot during an altercation five times, including once in the jaw, losing a finger in the process.

His original probation officer commends Brisbon in the report for "being able to continue with probation after being shot in the jaw, hospitalized for two months, and unable to work for a year while being rehabilitated."

The report also states that Brisbon had completed mandatory alcohol/drug education, and "continued to be a good father to his daughters by showing attention to their needs."

In the same report are 16 letters to the judge from friends, family, co-workers, employers, and others attesting to Brisbon's character. Many remark that he was a doting daddy to his kids.

"An exceptional father," wrote one co-worker. "He would often bring in pictures of him and his . . . daughters to show everybody what they did that weekend."

Another letter-writer called Brisbon "a very good son, brother, father, cousin, and friend to many" and avowed that Brisbon went "to work every day" at a call center "to support his little girls, and [he does] a great job of that."

His boss at the Mesa call center, where Brisbon worked for about five years, described him as a model employee, "consistently producing above the expected quota," and "a rock of the company," who motivated others to do their best.

True, these were people pleading for leniency for someone they cared for.

Still, these letters and the remarks of the probation officer back up what people have said after Brisbon's death about the man.

"He was no rough, tough dude," his friend Dickerson told me. "He was a comedian, a ladies man. He loved his kids . . . everybody liked him."

Dickerson continued:

"Even if he was in a bad mood, he was going to make you smile . . . he was going to say something to make you laugh. He was just that guy, know what I'm saying?"

Dickerson denied knowing anything about his friend's allegedly dealing drugs, but he said Brisbon would take oxycodone for the pain that accompanied his wounds from that time he was shot up years back.

Why was Brisbon shot five times? Dickerson and other sources say it had something to do with his sticking up for a family member. But that's as detailed as it gets.

Martin Rangel, whose apartment was directly above Brisbon's in the tree-lined middle-class apartment complex, recalled Brisbon as a friendly neighbor.

"He'd always be dropping his kids off or picking them up," Rangel told me. "We'd bullshit and talk about the [Chicago] Bulls. You know, he was a Bulls fan. He was a good guy."

The night Brisbon was killed, Rangel heard what sounded like one shot. He could feel the vibration beneath his feet.

He went outside and looked down to see McDonald's food scattered all over the ground, and he witnessed Rine's upset reaction.

"I think [the officer] realized he screwed up," Rangel told me, "that he did something wrong. He was just like, 'Fuck, fuck, I shot him!'"

He said he later saw Rine "shaking his head, rocking back and forth, kind of like, shocked at what he did."

One of Klinger's children, a little boy Rangel's daughter went to school with, had to be taken to the hospital because he was so upset. While the family was away, Rangel cleaned up the French fries and other fast food from the ground outside Klinger's door.

"I didn't want that to be the first thing the family saw when they came back." he explained. Rangel called the shooting "unnecessary," saying things might have ended better if the officer "had approached [Brisbon] differently."

Let's be honest, it's far too easy for police officers to kill someone and get away with it.

If a suspect has something in his or her hand, if hands are in the wrong place -- or the suspect does not comply like a martinet to an officer's commands -- he or she could end up dead.

Do cops have a dangerous job? Yes, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lumberjacks, commercial fishermen, and airline pilots have more industry-related deaths per 100,000 full time workers.

Of course, these jobs are different from facing down bad guys with guns willing to kill, as cops do.

I should emphasize that I'm not anti-cop. In the past, I've praised the Phoenix Police Department for going after murderous white supremacists and other criminals. There are a number of local police officers whom I know and admire.

However, I have encountered too many in-custody deaths at the hands of local cops and too many questionable killings by them.

Guess what? The Phoenix Police Department, like many law enforcement agencies, does not keep records related to in-custody deaths.

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which reviews officer-involved shootings, recently reported that the numbers for this year could end slightly down for law enforcement county-wide.

This office says there have been 45 officer-involved shootings in the county so far this year. In 2013, there were 60; in 2012, 47; in 2011, 43.

Fatalities for these shootings, according to the MCAO, are as follows: 2011, 22 out of 43; 2012, 22 out of 47; and 2013, 39 out of 60, a staggering leap over the previous year.

For 2014, the final numbers of those killed has yet to be determined, as many of the cases are still under review, according to MCAO spokesman Jerry Cobb.

According to the Phoenix PD, it has had 50 officer-involved shootings since the beginning of 2013 -- 31 of them fatal.

Of the fatalities, 14 Hispanics, 14 Caucasians, and three African-Americans died.

And yet, USA Today reports that, as with law enforcement agencies across the nation, blacks are far more likely to be arrested than non-blacks in Phoenix and surrounding cities.

The local anarchist blog Down and Drought was the first to point to these numbers, observing that in 2011 and 2012, per 1,000 residents, Scottsdale and Tempe's police departments have arrest records for blacks far exceeding the rates of arrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

In Ferguson, blacks are arrested nearly three times more often than non-blacks.

In Tempe, blacks are arrested 3.4 times more often than non-blacks. In Scottsdale, blacks are a staggering 6.3 times more likely than non-blacks to be arrested.

Keep in mind, the "West's Most Western City" has a population according to the last census that's 89.3 percent white (including Hispanics), and 1.7 percent black.

By contrast, Ferguson is about 30 percent white and 67 percent black.

What about Phoenix? It at least scores better than Tempe and Scottsdale. In Phoenix, blacks are 2.8 times more likely than non-blacks to be arrested.

Both Hispanic and so-called non-Hispanic whites make up about 66 percent of Phoenix's population, according to the 2010 census. Blacks make up 6.5 percent.

So when the Arizona Republic and Chief Garcia and County Attorney Montgomery intone that "Phoenix is not Ferguson," I would reply with the message from one protester's sign in New York:

"Ferguson is everywhere."

 

Brisbon's 9-year-old daughter Aiyana Rains outside Phoenix police headquarters, demanding to know the name of her dad's killer.
Brisbon's 9-year-old daughter Aiyana Rains outside Phoenix police headquarters, demanding to know the name of her dad's killer.
Erika Ovalle

Since the Garner decision, the United States has been deluged with demonstrations decrying the militarization of police, racial inequality, and trigger-happy cops.

More than 25,000 rallied in Washington, D.C., listening to the mothers of both Garner and Brown. Thousands have marched in such cities as New York, Chicago, Boston, and St. Louis.

In Phoenix, there are upcoming demonstrations planned for December 19, 20, and 22.

I hope they continue until there are serious policy changes and a genuine attempt to make police shootings far rarer.

That's for the sake of law enforcement officers as well as for the general public.

Much was made by PLEA, the Phoenix police union, and some commentators of the recent suicide of ex-Phoenix police office Craig Tiger.

Tiger was fired by Chief Garcia as part of a strict no-DUI policy, but Tiger's supporters claim he suffered from post-traumatic-stress disorder following a 2012 incident where Tiger and another officer shot and killed a mentally ill man swinging a bat at a local swimming pool.

PLEA president Joe Clure, who appears to almost never believe an officer-involved shooting was not justified, blamed Garcia for Tiger's suicide.

Subsequent reporting by the Arizona Republic shows that Tiger long struggled with depression and alcohol abuse.

Still, Tiger's wife told the media that the shooting of the man with the bat contributed to her husband's decline.

I suspect there are not many police officers who can live easily with having killed someone.

So wouldn't it be a good thing for law enforcement if there were fewer officer-involved fatalities, if cops were more likely to go for their pepper spray or a Taser or a baton - instead of a gun?

There's plenty of room for improvement.

Suggestions from critics and pro-cop advocates alike include: body cameras for all officers, more training in non-lethal options and dealing with the mentally ill, and a true civilian review board instead of the Phoenix PD's semi-secret Use of Force Board.

The PPD claims there are three civilians on the board, though, as this article goes to press, they were still researching for me just who these civilians are. You would think, given current events, that the PPD would have that information at the ready.

Most importantly, for the PPD and other law enforcement officers in jurisdictions across America to regain the trust of all citizens, there must be accountability.

I'm hardly an anarchist, but a local member of that unusual tribe, Beth Payne, echoed my feelings on the subject when we spoke recently.

"The problem is pervasive everywhere and the outcome is always the same," she said. "The police officer is never held accountable in the way that a citizen would be held accountable for the death of a person."

I'll grant you that we expect more of cops than average citizens, but this does not mean they should get a free kill every time a suspect has something in his or her hands that could be deemed a weapon. Or if they make the wrong movement. Or if they will not remove a hand from a pocket quickly enough.

I've written at length about the 2013 death of Zachariah Pithan, a mentally ill 22-year-old shot and killed while struggling with four police officers in his Phoenix apartment.

Pithan was shot dead by PPD Officer Clint Brookins as three other cops wrestled with Pithan on the floor.

Brookins says Pithan was wielding a wooden stick, a table leg of some kind.

Unlike Brisbon, Pithan was white and his case did not draw much attention.

The PPD refused to release Brookins' name to me. Even the police report had his name redacted. I only learned his identity after his family filed suit in federal court.

The shooting was ruled "in policy." This, despite Brookins having been involved in a separate, in-custody death - also ruled "in policy," and despite violent comments Brookins, a former military sniper, left on his Facebook page.

I find the Pithan case sickening, and it makes me cynical about the PPD's ability to police itself.

Reminds me of the line from the film Serpico, where the title cop character (played by a young Al Pacino) says of the police: "The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry -- it just gets dirtier."

Rarely does a police department prove the Serpico character wrong. But the PPD did in the case of the 2010 shooting death of unarmed South Phoenix resident Danny Rodriguez.

Officer Richard Chrisman ultimately was fired, charged, tried in the shooting, and is now serving seven years in prison.

But this has a lot to do with then-PPD Chief Jack Harris and then-acting County Attorney Rick Romley having been willing to go to the wall, and in Romley's case, to a grand jury, which indicted Chrisman.

And it has a lot to do with PPD Officer Sergio Virgillo, the other cop present when Rodriguez was killed, being willing to tell investigators that Chrisman was the aggressor and that the use of deadly force was not justified.

Chrisman is another reason Phoenix cops need to change how they do things - so they do not end up on the wrong side of the law themselves.

It is also an argument for having two officers per vehicle, though that, like body cameras, would cost money.

Additionally, the Chrisman case unfolded as it did because of pressure for justice from the community.

For any policy changes to be made here in Phoenix, or in law enforcement departments nationwide, such pressure must be vigorous and unrelenting.

We have an opportunity to make the deaths of Rumain Brisbon and others like him count for something.

But that will not happen if the demonstrations die out and the old cynicism of the status quo creeps back into dominance.

Meaning: Demonstrators must disrupt our everyday lives and keep disrupting them with fierce nonviolence and calls for greater accountability.

Otherwise, Garner, Brisbon, Brown, and all the rest will have died in vain.

E­-mail stephen.lemons@newtimes.com.


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