TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — A prosecutor has legally cleared a Tacoma police officer of wrongdoing after he fatally shot a man.
Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett said in her decision Tuesday that the police officer acted lawfully when he fired 11 shots at Bennie Branch, hitting him seven times.
Branch, a Black man, was shot and killed after a struggle with police in Sept. 2019. Branch was with three women and a man in a car when a patrol officer spotted the vehicle idling and pointed in the wrong direction. The officer contacted the driver after recognizing the vehicle as one associated with previous gun-related crimes, The News Tribune reported.
Branch promptly left the car and entered his mom’s vehicle, then told her to drive away. The officer notified dispatch about Branch’s actions and told them Branch may have been armed.
Officer Ryan Bradley and his partner were responding to a different call when they heard the officer on the dispatch and decided to help because that officer was working alone.
When Bradley and his partner responded to the scene, they ordered Branch to exit the vehicle. Police say they heard a woman shrieking in the car and thought it might have been a carjacking. Police say Bradley’s partner tried to pull Branch out, but he tried to escape. Police say they shocked Branch twice with Tasers, which caused him to fall to the ground.
Bradley’s partner then hit Branch in the head and chest up to eight times. Police said the officer then called out that Branch was going for a gun and moved away from him.
Bradley fired 11 shots, hitting Branch three times in the front of his body and four times in the back, according to the autopsy report.
Branch’s family and attorneys say the shots in the back are proof he was running away from officers rather than trying to fight them.
Bradley and the two officers say Branch made a full turn as shots started and took three steps before falling on his side and rolling onto his back.
“Considering all the facts and information known to him, PPO Bradley’s use of deadly force was necessary,” Robnett wrote in her decision letter to Tacoma’s police chief. “Mr. Branch was violently and desperately intent on resisting capture. He initially resisted commands at gunpoint, he was able to overcome the effects of a Taser and the efforts of two trained patrol officers who were struggling to physically control him.”
The letter says Branch, 24, was high on methamphetamine, had a warrant out for a probation violation and carried an Airsoft gun that resembled a handgun. The letter also says that during six interactions with law enforcement between 2015 and 2019, Branch was suicidal, made attempts to flee or was “highly aggressive.”
Branch’s mother, Brendelin, told police her son used meth, had an outstanding warrant for violating a court order and sometimes talked about dying, according to a transcript of the interview.
Some people have cited Branch’s killing as an example of police brutality against Black men. More than 6,700 people have signed a petition on Change.org asking that Bradley be charged in Branch’s death. They argue Branch wasn’t armed when he was shot and say the gunshots to his backside prove he was trying to run away.
Branch’s mother, Brendelin, believes the Airsoft gun Branch was holding during the incident was kicked to the ground and swept aside by officers before they began opening fire.
She filed an excessive force claim in U.S. District court asking for more than $1 million. The claim precedes a lawsuit that she is expected to file later this month.
Robnett says in her letter that investigators think Brendaline Branch believes her son wasn’t armed when he was killed, but that they disagree with her.
Bradley used his Taser and dropped it to the ground shortly before shooting Branch. Prosecutors say that the taser resembles the Airsoft gun carried by Branch.
“Given the stress of the event, the time of night and only fleeting glances, Ms. Branch understandably could have confused the Taser on the ground for the pistol the officers were yelling about,” Robnett wrote.
The Police Department will review the case internally to determine whether Bradley followed protocols.
“For many, this news will be deeply troubling and difficult to bear. At the same time, for others, this news will be welcomed,” Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said in a statement. “No matter where you might stand, the fact remains that every loss of life is tragic and cause for grief.”