Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: A questionable South Florida police shooting that we ignored too long

Outrage over the killing of Jermaine McBean has been late coming.

Nearly two years have passed since a Broward County sheriff’s deputy shot the 33-year-old computer technician. At the time, troublesome aspects of the police shooting didn’t raise much concern.

Three officers had followed McBean as he walked into his Oakland Park apartment complex carrying an air rifle. The deputies claimed that when they called out to McBean to drop what they supposed was a hunting weapon, he turned and pointed it in their direction. One of the officers, Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputy Peter Peraza, opened fire, hitting McBean twice.

As McBean died, he protested, “It was just a BB gun.”

Just a BB gun. An unloaded BB gun as it turned out. That should have been enough to get the media digging. And the Broward State Attorney’s Office. Surely, BSO’s version of the shooting warranted some tough questions, this notion that McBean -- someone with no criminal record, who had earned a master’s degree in computer science and held an IT engineering job with a prominent advertising agency -- had decided to menace three deputies with an unloaded BB gun. Three deputies with drawn pistols.

But the state attorney’s office seemed to shrug it off. And we in the press gave the shooting only cursory regard. Even when Broward Sheriff Scott Israel pinned medals on the three deputies three months later, while the shooting was purportedly still under investigation. Deputy Peraza received the BSO’s Gold Cross citation for an action described as “selfless, honorable and brave.” He was praised for placing himself “in harm’s way.” It seemed a peculiar commendation to juxtapose against McBean’s dying words.

But times have changed since Jermaine McBean died on a Wednesday afternoon, July 31, 2013. Since, the nation has become hyper-vigilant after what seems like an epidemic of black men killed by police in questionable circumstances. Incidents in Cleveland, Baltimore, New York, Ferguson, Mo., North Charleston, S.C. and other cities have created a kind of synergistic outrage. If the Oakland Park shooting had occurred in 2015, Jermaine McBean’s name would have contributed to the simmering exasperation with these police actions.

At least the case has received some belated attention. Last month, my former Herald colleague Frances Robles, now with the New York Times, reported a disturbing discrepancy between the BSO version of the shooting and a photograph snapped that afternoon in 2013 by one of McBean’s neighbors. BSO has asserted that McBean simply chose to ignore the deputy’s warnings to drop the weapon. That, as Peraza claimed in his sworn statement, it “didn’t appear that he had anything obstructing his hearing.”

But the photo of the dead man, taken just after the shooting from a second-story balcony, clearly shows small white headphones inserted in McBean’s ears.

Another witness identified as Michael Russell McCarthy told Robles, Channel 10’s Bob Norman and NBC News that McBean had not pointed his air rifle at the deputies, that he had carried the rifle behind his neck, slung across his shoulders. McCarthy had been one of three people who called 911 that afternoon to report that they had seen a black man walking along the sidewalk on Dixie Highway carrying some kind of rifle. “He’s not acting crazy or aggressive with it,” one of the callers had told the 911 operators. “I’m not going to say he’s waving it [around], he’s just walking along with it.”

Two of the three callers noted that the rifle might well have been a toy or a pellet gun. A woman’s voice on the 911 tape said, “He’s carrying what looks like some kind of BB gun, shotgun, I don’t know what it is [but] it’s camouflaged, and he’s screaming really loud to himself. It could be a fake gun, but it looks like it could be real, too.”

It was a Winchester model 1000 air rifle that McBean had purchased from a nearby pawn shop, about a 10-minute walk from his apartment in a well-maintained, two-story complex off Dixie Highway in Oakland Park. One might think that if two 911 callers expressed doubts about whether it was a real gun, similar thoughts would have entered the minds of the veteran police officers who had shadowed McBean for about 10 minutes along Dixie Highway before the fatal confrontation.

A federal lawsuit against BSO filed by McBean’s family asserts that the medical examiner’s report contradicts the BSO claim and Peraza’s sworn statement that when Jermaine McBean was shot, he had turned far enough toward the deputies to aim the air rifle in their direction. The lawsuit also claims that BSO investigators had insisted that they had found the earbuds in McBean’s pocket, not on his head. According to the lawsuit, a BSO investigator wrote McBean’s mother assuring her that the “deputies who were on-scene when the shooting occurred confirmed that he did not have anything in his ear.” Of course, the BSO officers didn’t know at the time that their credibility would be undermined by that neighbor’s photo, which surfaced last month.

Just as bothersome, the lawsuit claims that the Broward State Attorney’s office allowed the case to languish for 20 months without pursuing key witnesses or taking the case to a grand jury. The suit notes that the state attorney’s office only seemed to emerge from its disinterested languor last month after the New York Times started asking discomfiting questions.

BSO’s lawyers, filing a response to the lawsuit, “allege and assert that it was the Jermaine McBean's conduct that is the sole cause of his alleged injuries.” A spokesman for the police union told the Times that McBean, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, might have intentionally provoked the shooting: a suicide by police. Though the dying man’s protestation, “It was just a BB gun,” hardly fits a suicide scenario.

But at least someone’s asking the tough questions. Finally, reporters and prosecutors have begun to examine the bothersome contradictions around the killing of Jermaine McBean. After all, it was just a BB gun.