- Eva Ruth Moravec Special to the American-Statesman
Calin Devonte Roquemore, a 23-year-old African-American from East Texas, did not stop when a white trooper tried to pull him over for speeding on Texas 149, a two-lane country road, two hours after sunset on Feb. 13, 2016.
Instead, Roquemore sped through a maze of streets to a trailer park, jumped out of his Chevrolet Impala and ran. The trooper from the Texas Department of Public Safety gave chase, drew his gun and repeatedly hollered at Roquemore to stop and put his hands up, according to a recording from the trooper’s dashcam and body-worn microphone.
But Roquemore, a former high school football player, kept running until he tripped and fell. In the recording, Trooper Daniel McBride can be heard saying “put your hands up, hands up get down!” right before he shot Roquemore seven times, including five times in the back.
Roquemore was unarmed.
As he lie wounded and awaiting an ambulance, Roquemore told the trooper he ran because he was afraid, adding, “I didn’t think you were going to shoot.” He died hours later in the hospital.
In the last five years, shootings by police officers of unarmed people who were fleeing from them have sparked both protests and prosecutions across Texas, including the recent Balch Spring officer’s shooting of Jordan Edwards, 15, who was killed as he rode in a vehicle away from a party. In that case, the officer, who was white, has been indicted on murder charges in the death of the black teenager.
Roquemore’s death last year in Panola County, a rural county on the Texas-Louisiana state line that is 81 percent white and 16 percent African-American, set off red flags for civil rights leaders and District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson. But a grand jury did not bring any charges against the trooper in this case, and the FBI review requested by Davidson and other officials led to no public action.
Using deadly force on an unarmed suspect who is fleeing on foot was prohibited three decades ago in a case the U.S. Supreme Court decided known as Tennessee v. Garner.
The case law is less clear on whether the officer is protected if he or she believes that the person is armed and poses an immediate danger to the officer or to others.
McBride, according to his dashcam and other records, had no reason to suspect Roquemore of any crime except speeding, but he clearly believed Roquemore had a gun.
“I did not stop firing until the threat was over,” McBride later said in a voluntary statement to the Texas Rangers four days after the shooting. In a recording of the chase, shooting and aftermath, McBride, then 27, can be heard berating Roquemore for failing to show his hands as he lay bleeding on the ground.
FBI had no records of probe
Under DPS standard procedure, Texas Rangers investigated the shooting by McBride. The agency dug into the case for months, chasing down leads of potential witnesses, including a nearby resident named Adam Mugan, who told officers he “did not believe Roquemore needed to die just because he was fleeing from the Trooper.”
Davidson and other local officials also requested a review by the civil rights division of the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Based on the prevailing mood of everybody – with the Ferguson case and other cases – I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, here we go,’” Davidson said in a recent interview. “So I thought it’d be great to let the feds get involved, so they can’t say anything was covered up.”
But it appears that the FBI did little in probing Roquemore’s death, according to records and interviews. In two requests for information, the FBI could not find any Roquemore-related records nor confirm a probe.
The FBI’s process followed standard protocol, but the procedure itself often leaves unanswered questions, said John M. Bales, who was U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas at the time of the review.
“The notion that a white officer shot and killed an unarmed black citizen did raise potential civil rights violations,” Bales said. “But in this instance, (the FBI) was very happy to let the Rangers take the lead on this, and that’s where it ended.”
In 2016, Texas officers shot and killed seven unarmed black men, though Roquemore was the only one killed while running from an officer, based on reports of officer-involved shootings that must be filed under a state law that took effect September 2015. Nationwide, police officers shot and killed 20 unarmed African-Americans in 2016, according to the Washington Post and reporting for this series.
The Department of Justice has charged 17 law enforcement officers across the country with excessive use of force since 2014; nine incidents involved African-American victims, according to FBI news releases. None of those cases were in Texas.
The Texas Rangers’ case was presented a Panola County grand jury that included at least two African-American members. The two African-Americans and another member voted to indict after a 30-minute discussion, according to a member of the grand jury who requested anonymity due to the secrecy of proceedings. The white majority voted to take no action.
According to the grand jury member, the Texas Rangers painted Roquemore as an unsavory character and McBride as a saint.
“The officer was said to be a family man and his record was, I want to say, impeccable,” the jurist said. “But when they talked about the young man, it was all negative. Well, a record is true for over half the kids here in Carthage. That shouldn’t have had any merit on him being shot, especially not that many times.”
Letting authorities do their work
Betty Roquemore said Calin Roquemore, her middle child, had many friends and close relatives whom he loved to make laugh. “His nickname was ‘Big Friendly’ at school,” she said. “He was a big cuddly type.”
Roquemore had no prior criminal convictions, but he was out on bail awaiting adjudication on a drug possession charge. He also had previous traffic tickets and he’d had a bad experience in a recent traffic stop, according to a friend and to court records.
In January 2016, a Carthage policeman used pepper spray when Roquemore tried to flee a traffic stop over an expired registration ticket. Roquemore spent eight nights in jail and told friends he didn’t want to go back. He talked about the incident with Robert Lockridge, a close friend and cousin.
“I told him, ‘Bro, don’t run from these police officers. They’re scared. Don’t do anything extra to put them on edge,’” Lockridge said. “But he’s grown, and he’s going to make his own decisions.”
Soon after Roquemore was released from jail — and three weeks before he died — McBride stopped him for speeding in the Chevrolet Impala. Roquemore was shaking, but spoke to McBride willingly for about 28 minutes while the trooper wrote two traffic tickets and searched his car. McBride advised Roquemore to get a job and get his “stuff straightened out,” according to a dashcam video of the stop.
Despite conducting that earlier stop, McBride later said he did not recognize Roquemore on the night he fatally shot him.
Through a DPS spokesman and an attorney, McBride declined to comment. In a statement, DPS backed McBride: “It was dark; Trooper McBride could not see that Roquemore did not have a weapon; and Roquemore’s body movements prior to the shooting would have led a reasonable officer to believe that deadly force was immediately necessary.”
The statement continues, “While it was a tragic ending, there is absolutely no evidence race played a role in the shooting incident, and unsubstantiated insinuations to the contrary are unfair and irresponsible at best.”
He was not disciplined and an internal review found his use and pursuit decisions were consistent with policy.
Ozell Holland Jr., a member of Carthage’s NAACP chapter, said questions about race immediately came up after Roquemore’s death, prompting a courthouse vigil and community forums.
“We were going to have a prayer vigil to stay peaceful and let the authorities do their work,” Holland said. “Patience and understanding.”
They were reassured by Davidson, the district attorney, who wrote in his letters to the federal agencies that it was an “emotional issue” that he wanted “federal eyes on” as soon as possible.
In response, an attorney assigned by Bales and an FBI agent attended Texas Rangers’ meetings for updates. Either could have opted to open cases in their departments, but that didn’t happen. According to Bales, it wasn’t that the federal agencies dropped the ball – there was simply no evidence for a federal criminal charge.
But a Dallas-based lawyer for Roquemore’s family argued the federal process was faulty, and similar to having kids checking each other’s homework.
“If he wasn’t important enough to get a full (federal) investigation, that just lends credibility to my point that he wasn’t seen as important enough to live,” Ezekiel Tyson Jr. said. “That’s why he died for evading.”