The police murder of Rodney Mitchell: 10 essential facts

Late last month, a federal judge ruled in the civil trial of Rodney Mitchell, a 23-year-old Black man killed by two white Sarasota sheriffs in 2012 during a traffic stop.

Finding against Mitchell’s estate, Federal District Judge James Whittemore exonerated the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and two of its officers in the murder. The unexpected verdict shocked the Sarasota and Bradenton community, where the killing is widely regarded as a police homicide.

Rodney Mitchell was a loving father and a role model in his community. He had just moved home to become a teacher after graduating with a degree in Education from Eastern New Mexico State University.

On June 11, 2012, Sarasota sheriffs Troy Sasse and Adam Shaw stopped Mitchell, 23, and Dorian Gilmer, 16, for an alleged seat belt violation at 9:30 pm. The sheriffs quickly fired four rounds at the young men, who were unarmed, killing Mitchell instantly. The following are 10 essential facts about the events leading up to his death.

1. The illegal traffic stop violated Mitchell’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment. Shaw had no way of seeing Mitchell’s seatbelt through Mitchell’s factory-tinted windows, at night, and through the glare of Mitchell’s headlights.

2.  Shaw racially profiled Mitchell as part of Operation Armistice, “a joint operation with the Sarasota Police Department (SPD), to saturate the north zone of Sarasota due to its high level of gun violence and drugs related activity,” according to legal documents filed by Shaw’s attorney. The “north zone of Sarasota” is code for the predominantly Black area of the segregated city.

3. Several motorists had already reported Shaw for racially profiling them, stopping them for alleged seatbelt violations, and issuing them tickets. Sasse also had a history of complaints as well as a previous fatal shooting incident.

4.  Shaw and Sasse communicated on an off radio channel, known as a “ghost radio frequency,” minutes before the killing. There is no record of their conversation.

5. The sheriffs provoked a frightening situation and escalated it. Shaw and Sasse boxed in Mitchell’s Jeep with their cruisers. Shaw approached the vehicle shouting, “Put your god damn hands on the steering wheel, boy!” while Sasse aimed his cruiser spotlight at Mitchell.

6. Shaw and Sasse were never in danger. Forensic analysis and witness testimony show that Sasse was never positioned in front of the Jeep and the Jeep’s tires were pointing away from the sheriffs. Witness testimony even suggests that the vehicle did not move until after Mitchell was killed.

7. Mitchell’s hands were raised and visible. The bullet that fatally struck his temple first went through his left hand.

8. There was no reason to shoot. Shaw commanded Mitchell to put his vehicle in the park position. When Mitchell went to comply, Sasse took out his gun and fired at Mitchell’s head without giving any command warning. But Shaw was positioned so that he could see Mitchell’s hands and didn’t indicate any danger.

9. Dorian Gilmer suffered numerous wounds to his face, neck, and shoulders from flying glass, possibly bullet fragments, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

10. Police tampered with video evidence of the shooting. A camera at the nearby Xpress Lube was impounded by Sheriff’s investigators. When the video was released, it contained jumping time stamps, dozens of repeating frames, and other irregularities.

In light of these facts, the district court’s shocking ruling is further proof that the U.S. legal system fails to provide justice to Black people even in clear instances of police brutality, at the same time denying reparations to their loved ones.

By protecting Sarasota County Sheriff Thomas Knight and giving the state’s approval to Sasse and Shaw’s cold-blooded execution of Mitchell, the courts are sending a message to cops in Sarasota and everywhere: ‘You have impunity to hunt Black men.’

Mitchell’s family will appeal, but now is the time for progressive people and all people of good will to stand with them in the streets.

Black lives matter! Justice for Rodney Mitchell!

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