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Family, police experts, and activists challenge the official scenario in shooting death of Baltimore County woman

Family, police experts, and activists challenge the official scenario in shooting death of Baltimore County woman
Tawanda Jones (right), Marlene Mcbride, Korryn Gaines' grandmother, and other family members speak at a vigil for Gaines at City College. (Reginald Thomas II/For City Paper)

Not long after Baltimore County Police shot and killed 23-year-old Korryn Gaines last week, the questions started. Had police really disabled her social media accounts? How was her five-year-old son injured? How could a warrant for a simple traffic stop end in a death?

After barricading herself in her Randallstown apartment and after hours of negotiation with police, Gaines pointed her Mossberg shotgun at officers and said, "If you don't leave, I'm going to kill you. I'm going to kill you."

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Police said they did not leave; they fired a round at her. After Gaines fired several rounds, police shot again, killing her. At some point in the exchange of fire, Gaines' 5-year-old son was injured. On Friday, a little after 5 p.m., Baltimore County Police released a statement saying they "believe" the bullet that struck the boy came from one of their tactical officers.

When police arrived on the morning of Aug. 1 to serve a warrant on Gaines for a March traffic violation and one to her boyfriend for a domestic violence incident, there were two children in the home—a one year old who left the apartment with Gaines' boyfriend and Gaines' five-year-old son, who was later shot by police. During the incident, which Gaines recorded on her phone and posted on Facebook and Instagram prior to her death, the little boy's voice is heard and a fully armed officer is visible standing in the doorway of her apartment. It appears that the five-year-old boy witnessed the entire encounter, including his mother's death.

In 2014, the ACLU did a study examining the militarization of police across the nation and noted that it is not uncommon for SWAT teams to be deployed when children are present. "A SWAT deployment can involve significant levels of violence, including breaking down doors, shattering windows, and the detonation of explosive devices," researchers wrote. "In addition, SWAT officers also typically deploy wearing "BDUs" (battle dress uniforms), carry large semi-automatic rifles, which they sometimes point at people during deployment, and often use force, throwing people onto the floor and handcuffing them. Experiencing violent events can have serious and long-term impacts, particularly on children."

Some veteran police officers also questioned how the standoff was handled tactically.

"It seemed like they were pushing," said a former Baltimore City Police commander who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They might have had a commander back them off."

Neill Franklin, a retired Maryland State Police major who now heads Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a drug-law-reform nonprofit, said the same. Once the tactical team had evacuated the area, set up a perimeter, and cut off communication by deactivating Gaines' Facebook and Instagram accounts, "then time is on your side," he said.

Both Franklin and the other officer cautioned that they weren't there, and so can't say definitively whether any tactical errors were made. But Franklin, who served on a SWAT team in the early 1980s and whose brother commanded the MSP SWAT team for "many, many years," said the county police should have understood Gaines' state of mind, given her prior behavior with the officers who pulled her over in her car. (In the video Gaines posted online in March, she demanded a "delegation of authority order" from the uniformed officer. "I don't participate in any of you guy's laws," she told them.) They might have tried to get her to release her son to her mother. And they might have been able to avoid shooting.

"Why was she able to point her weapon at a member of the tactical unit, who apparently felt they did not have sufficient cover, in case she fired?" Franklin asked. "There could be a valid reason. [But] she pointed it at the three that came—and they didn't fire. So why did the SWAT guys have to?"

That a police tactical officer fired the first shot, and missed, also troubled him, as did the three-day delay in determining who shot Gaines' five-year-old son.

Franklin said he led a team that, in a couple of days, accounted for every shot fired during a prison riot in Hagerstown in the mid-'80s: many corrections officers firing many rounds of buckshot from 12-gauge guns on three tiers of a state prison.

"You know where your officer fired from," he said. "You know where she fired from. If the boy was hit, you will have blood evidence."

The blood, which typically splatters, will reveal which direction the shot came from, he explained.

Gaines' son is currently recovering at Johns Hopkins Hospital after sustaining an injury in his left cheek, police say. A video of him describing the incident to his aunt was released on Thursday and spread across the Internet.

In the video, the five year old had a bandage on his arm and his cheek. He said that when the police kicked the door in, he hid in the closet. Right before Gaines was shot, her son said, the police asked Gaines to back up in response to Gaines asking them to "back off." The son said, "and then they started shooting and I went in the couch and then the police just took me, and she died—the end."

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He also said that it was the police who "hurt [his] arm."

The Baltimore County Police have refused to release the names of the officers involved, citing death threats as the reason for withholding them.

Also, as it turns out, police had indeed been able to shut down Gaines' Facebook and Instagram accounts—at least temporarily. A Facebook representative told City Paper that police were able to contact the company and have the account suspended. It was eventually restored, but without some of the videos Gaines recorded during the standoff. Those videos, which the company said violated their standards, were deleted permanently. They were able to shut down both accounts because Instagram is owned by Facebook.

On Aug. 5, Gaines' family, friends, and activists met at City College High School to remember her and mourn her death.

Her dad, Ryan Gaines, told the crowd of about 200 that he taught his daughter "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."

Behind him, balloons and candles were arrayed to spell out "Korryn." Off to the side, someone had displayed a photo of Harriet Tubman, who infamously wielded a shotgun during her underground railroad missions—and whose image will soon be on $20 bills.

The 49-year-old father of six delivered a sermon pointing out that children in Flint and Baltimore and across the country drink "glasses of lead" and Korryn's head—like his other children's heads—was full of lead and he doesn't think that's a coincidence or an accident. He said that the police continue "to demonize" his daughter.

Other speakers of the night included Ralikh Hayes of Baltimore Bloc who called Gaines "a mother, warrior, sister, cousin, niece"; poet Kondwani Fidel, who read his poem 'Welcome 2 America' ("Welcome to America, home of the slaves"); and activist Tawanda Jones, who welcomed the Gaineses as part of her "new extended family" of victims of police murder and encouraged them to never stop fighting.

The questions raised immediately after Gaines' death continued to circulate among speakers and mourners at the vigil: If Gaines threatened to kill the police if they didn't leave, why didn't they leave and return with a new plan? If Gaines was indeed "mentally ill" as they say, why weren't specialists called in to de-escalate the situation? If they knew a child was present, why did they shoot?

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Creo Brady, Gaines' cousin, said that the family was kept out of the situation. Police told them it was "way beyond" their being able to help as early as 10 a.m., he said, and noted that even at the hospital, police remained around Gaines' son.

"When I am surrounded by security I don't feel safe," Brady said. The police, he said, "wanted to put [the child] on lockdown" after the family put out a series of videos of the boy recounting the shooting.

Michael Mason, another cousin of Gaines, said that when he showed up at the standoff on Aug. 1, police stopped him and "asked...about the movement" and searched him. He works at a mental health facility, he said, and added that Gaines' mother, Rhonda Dormeus, is a psychiatric nurse. "So you have two mental health professionals in the building that also have personal relationships, but you didn't tap into that," he said.

Black consciousness is vilified in this country, he said. He pointed out that the Gaines family comes from a conscious, aware, and empowered tradition. "You hear how my family is speaking," Mason said. "You might not agree with all of it, but it's not completely ignorant, it's not completely negative; you might not agree with it, you might not want to accept it but this is the same information that Korryn was around, the same information that all my family is around."

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