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The Shooting of Dion Avila Damon: A Case of Extrajudicial Killing by the Police?

Efforts to justify the killing of Dion Avila Damon by alleging he robbed a bank fail to recognize his right to due process.

Protest signs at Justice for Dion march, April 26, 2016. (Credit: Christina Ryder)

Many questions have surfaced following the police killing of 40-year-old Dion Avila Damon on April 12 in Denver, Colorado. Police technician Jeff Motz fired seven shots through the front windshield of Damon’s car, killing him in front of his wife and stepson.

The Denver Police Department stated that Damon had a warrant for a suspected bank robbery and he was under surveillance. Dawn Aguirre, Damon’s wife, explained that the family had driven downtown to pay a parking ticket when a truck came up and hit the car with Damon in it shortly after she and her son exited the vehicle. Aguirre told reporters that she yelled to the police, “Please don’t shoot, I’m not armed; my husband’s not armed” before the police officer fatally shot Damon multiple times. Aguirre also stated that Damon would have surrendered if the police gave him a chance.

At a press conference the next day, Denver Police Commander Ron Saunier stated that Damon was shot in under a minute after police said he was being noncompliant after being given verbal orders.

The police said Motz shot seven bullets through Damon’s windshield because his windows were tinted and he was making a noncompliant threatening gesture. While Denver’s chief of police, Robert White, and many news outlets headlined Damon as being a “suspected bank robber,” this implicit justification for his shooting ignores the fact that every citizen has a right to due process and a trial; that Damon did not attempt to leave his car; and that he did not have a gun.

“If they didn’t respect the law for him, what makes you think they will respect the law for you?”

When asked why Damon was under surveillance and served a warrant during the lunch hour in downtown Denver when, according to the police, the suspect was “dangerous,” Saunier did not answer. A recent report released from the Office of the Independent Monitor in Denver highlighted the risks of officers shooting into vehicles, stating, “missed shots can hit bystanders, non-targets in a vehicle, or other police officers.” Following the officer-involved fatal shooting of an unarmed person, Ryan Ronquillo, in 2014, the department revised its policy in June 2015, adding a general prohibition of shooting into moving vehicles, thus joining the New York City Police Department (banned in 1972) and the Los Angeles Police Department (banned in 2005).

Justice for Dion March. (Credit: Christina Ryder)Justice for Dion March. (Credit: Christina Ryder)

On the evening of Damon’s death, protesters and family gathered to mourn Damon and protest the spate of police shootings — primarily of people of color — in Denver. Ronquillo, Jesse Hernandez and Paul Castaway are among the names of people killed by police since 2014 with no indictment for police officers, adding to the frustration and discontent of family and protesters.

On April 18, 2016, the media group Unicorn Riot was denied surveillance footage of Damon’s shooting after filing a Colorado Open Records Act request. At a press conference held on April 13, Saunier explained that there was surveillance footage, but it would not be released until the investigation by police was finished. Unicorn Riot did receive records from Internal Affairs on the offending officer, Jeff Motz. The records revealed that Motz has had 13 citizen complaints with nine involving “excessive or inappropriate force.” Motz was also involved in the January 16, 2013, shooting of Michael Valdez. The lawsuit describes the shooting: “While prone on the ground with his face in the grass and his hands extended overhead, Valdez was shot by the defendant officers, once in his back and once to his fourth finger as he tried to shield his head from gunshots.”

Flowers and candles at Dion Damon's Memorial. (Credit: Christina Ryder)Flowers and candles at Dion Damon’s Memorial. (Credit: Christina Ryder)A protest for Damon was held in the early evening on April 26 at the location where he was killed by police. Around 100 people were in attendance, with signs reading “Justice 4 Dion,” “N.W.A. was Right,” “Corporate Media is Complicit in Cops’ Crimes” and “Dion Avila Damon Was Executed.”

Damon’s cousin Jack, who requested that his full name not be disclosed, said Damon was “a storyteller, a jokester — he made us laugh.” Jack expressed his outrage at Denver police for killing his cousin, explaining that Damon had the right to a trial and that “the police stole a chance for a jury for Dion.” Jack added, “If they didn’t respect the law for him, what makes you think they will respect the law for you?”

Jason Metter, a community activist and anti-police brutality organizer, attended the protest. “The law is a tool of class rule,” Metter said. “People of color and the poor must comply, but rich white people and the police are above the law.”

“Within hours of the murder of Dion,” Metter said, “Chief White mentioned [Damon’s] alleged involvement in a bank robbery so many times that someone from the press thought the robbery had happened just prior, not a month ago.” On the topic of due process, Metter said, “Why bother with a judge, jury and executioner when one cop can do it all?”

Metter and other anti-police brutality advocates have also expressed concerns with the way Damon’s case has been presented and reported in the press. During White’s April 13 press conference, he mentioned “bank robber” four times in a minute and 48 seconds. In addition, all headlines from mainstream local and regional news outlets on the day of the shooting used “suspected bank robber.”

Regarding media reporting and police-involved shootings, Kristian Williams, an author and scholar on policing and state violence, explained that the media want to report news right after it happens and typically the “most readily available information comes from the police.” Williams added that the police are always seeking to justify their use of force, especially when it is lethal, and one part of that is to paint the victim as a “bad guy.” He added that other biases play a factor, “such as the trust in official sources and the fact that the media rely on the police for a lot of information not directly related to policing and crime, and therefore have an institutional interest in maintaining good relations.”

The investigation of the shooting of Damon is still being conducted, and more protests and actions are being planned to bring attention to Damon’s killing and police conduct in Denver.

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