A young Black California man was fatally shot by police after they found him unresponsive in his car in a Taco Bell parking lot.
The 20-year-old rapper was shot fatally as he was slumped over his car’s steering wheel. The incident took place earlier this month on 9th February, and NBC News says that he was shot at 25 times – with bullets striking the center of his face and throat and blowing off part of his ear, a lawyer for his family said.
Reportedly, the young Bay Area rapper had fallen asleep in his car that was parked in the Taco Bell parking lot, with a gun on his lap. According to The Guardian, the six police officers had surrounded the car and shouted commands to which McCoy had failed to respond to after suddenly being woken up by them.
The statement from the Vallejo Police Department said that the officers had opened fire out of “fear for their own safety”.
Oakland attorney Melissa Nold, who said she examined the body of Willie McCoy, 20, last week, told NBC News that he also sustained injuries to his shoulders, chest and arm, during the Feb. 9 encounter with six officers.
“Overkill is an understatement,” Nold said of his wounds and the number of times he was struck.
A coroner’s report has not been released and Vallejo police have declined to comment further during an active investigation.
McCoy — a Bay Area rapper known by his stage name Willie Bo — had been in the recording studio in recent days, his family said. They believe he had gone to the Taco Bell for a bite to eat and was so exhausted that he fell asleep while waiting in the drive-thru.
Employees called police at about 10:30 p.m. when they saw him slumped behind the wheel of the car with the engine running, Vallejo police said in a statement last week.
Nold said the situation could have been handled differently, especially since they recognized McCoy was not initially responsive.
“Suppose he was having a medical emergency and needed help. Their reaction wasn’t can we get this person safely out of the car,” Nold said.
“Even under the worst case scenario, you still have an obligation to try and avoid the use of deadly force,” she added.
Authorities said a fully loaded .40 caliber semiautomatic handgun with an extended magazine was recovered at the scene, and had been reported stolen out of Oregon.
David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and former police officer, said the initial actions of police appeared to make sense in order to protect the public’s safety, but the number of officers who ultimately pulled their triggers is concerning — especially since the officers had time to formulate a plan.
“Unless there’s some really extraordinary explanation, too many bullets were fired by too many officers,” he said.
Nold also called into question the officers’ version of events in which they said the doors to McCoy’s Mercedes-Benz were locked when they first considered retrieving the gun from his lap before he woke up.
Even if the doors were locked, the front passenger’s side window was already broken and had a sheet of plastic covering it, which could have been removed, Nold said. Video of McCoy’s car being towed in the aftermath from the scene shows plastic over the open window and several bullet holes in the windshield.
Police were in the middle of blocking in McCoy’s car in the drive-thru so that he wouldn’t make any sudden movements, and when he woke up, officers said, they gave him “several commands to put his hands up.”
Rather than comply, police said, he “quickly moved his hands” down to the gun.
Six officers “fearing for their safety” opened fire in about four seconds, police added.
“Officers continued to yell commands at the driver and ultimately reached through the broken glass of the driver’s window to unlock the vehicle,” they said, before retrieving McCoy’s body to perform first aid. He died at the scene.
A Vallejo Police Department document on police protocol says lethal force may only be used “when it is reasonable,” and to either prevent an “immediate threat” of death or injury; apprehend a suspect who is attempting to escape and is believed to have committed a violent felony or presents a life-threatening danger; or kill a dangerous or seriously injured animal when there is no humane alternative.
In general, when police come upon a sleeping person with a firearm within reach, they must take into account how the person may reflexively grab for their gun, said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police use of force.
He added that since McCoy didn’t immediately respond, police were on the “right track” to attempt to block him in so that he wouldn’t make any sudden movement with his car.
But Alpert questioned whether any of the officers decided to position themselves in a place near the car where a startled McCoy could have shot them.
“Being in the sight line of a guy with a gun is not the smartest thing to do,” said Alpert, adding that police are trained to approach cars carefully and determine potential threats.
The number of officers who used their weapons and the multiple shots fired also worries Alpert.
“If they’re smart enough to block the car, why aren’t they anticipating for the worst but understanding that there’s always a good chance that he’s an innocent person who fell asleep and wanted the gun for protection?” he asked.
Vallejo police are working with the Solano County District Attorney’s Office in the investigation. The district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
At a Vallejo City Council meeting last week, a woman who identified herself as McCoy’s girlfriend tearfully asked for the officers’ bodycam footage to be released.
Police will be required to release the related video within 45 days following state legislation signed last fall that requires all law enforcement agencies in California to do so when an officer fires their gun or uses deadly force. Departments can delay the release for up to 30 days if doing so interferes with the investigation.
Klinger said the bodycam footage will be important in piecing together a number of details, including the timeline of events, who was in control at the scene, how it was determined who would use their weapon and where the officers were standing when they fired.
“It’s possible that all of the officers had to shoot, but not very probable,” he added.
Nold said it’s imperative for police to communicate under what circumstances it’s OK to “shoot and kill someone who looks like he’s going to get a taco.” She said she’s disappointed by the police’s failure — more than a week after the shooting — to even call McCoy’s family and identify him as the person who died that night at the Taco Bell.
“We only know,” Nold said, “because we’ve seen him in the mortuary.”