The fire chief of Lafayette, Louisiana, pleaded with protesters "don't burn down your city" after a vigil for a Black man killed in a police-involved shooting caught on cell-phone video turned into a clash with riot-ready police as "agitators" allegedly shot fireworks at buildings and set a blaze in a roadway, authorities said.
The civil unrest on Saturday night, which led to several arrests and prompted police to fire smoke canisters to disperse the protesters, came a day after several officers opened fire on 31-year-old Trayford Pellerin, who law enforcement said was headed into a gas station minimarket armed with a knife and refused orders to stop even after they deployed stun guns on him.
"As a chief and a leader in the community, I'm asking you do your protest peacefully, but don't burn down your city," Lafayette Fire Chief Robert Benoit said at a news conference early Sunday.
The shooting came amidst months of angry protests across the country stemming from a series of police-involved killings of Black people, including George Floyd, who died on May 25 while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. Floyd's killing became a flashpoint that spawned angry and sometimes violent demonstrations nationwide over police tactics and racial injustice.
Benoit warned demonstrators that with two tropical storms threatening to develop into hurricanes aimed to hit the Louisiana coast, his agency might not have the resources to extinguish intentionally set fires caused by demonstrators.
"If firefighters are not ready to be able to go out there in these trucks and extinguish these fire when the wind is blowing, when the rain is coming down and things are falling apart, what's going to happen to this city?" Benoit said. "I'm asking you tonight as a leader who lives here, this is our city. Let's protect our city. Let's protect our first responders and do the right thing and let the courts handle what they have to handle."
Cellphone video taken by a witness showed police officers firing their guns multiple times at Pellerin as he appeared to be heading for the door of a gas station minimarket with a knife in his hands, according to a statement from the Louisiana State Police, which is leading the investigation. The officers involved in the shooting, who have been placed on administrative duty and have not been identified, resorted to the use of deadly force after they deployed stun guns on Pellerin that "were ineffective," according to the police statement.
On the cellphone video, at least 10 gunshots can be heard.
A gravely wounded Pellerin was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead, officials said.
The shooting unfolded around 8 p.m. when Lafayette police officers responded to a different convenience store after receiving a complaint of a disturbance being caused by a person armed with a knife at the store, according to the state police statement. When officers confronted Pellerin in the store's parking lot, he allegedly refused repeated orders to stop and fled on foot as officers deployed stun guns on him, the statement reads.
Police pursued Pellerin, still allegedly armed with a knife, for roughly a half-mile to a Shell gas station near the Evangeline Thruway, where they claim he was heading for the gas station's minimarket door, prompting them to shoot.
Pellerin's mother, Michelle Pellerin, told The Acadiana Advocate of Lafayette that her son suffered from anxiety related to social situations and began seeking professional help earlier this year. She said she suspects her son was scared by the group of police officers confronting him.
"He was very quiet. He had a big heart. He would give you the shirt off his back," Pellerin's aunt, Choicey Pellerin, said at the vigil earlier Saturday. "He was just an overall great kid. He didn’t deserve this."
Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and Baton Rouge attorney Ronald Haley, who are representing the family, said Pellerin may have been in the throes of a mental health crisis when he was shot.
Crump said in a statement that the officers involved in the shooting "should be fired immediately for their abhorrent and fatal actions."
"We refuse to let this case resolve like so many others: quietly and without answers and justice," Crump said in a statement. "The family, and the people of Lafayette, deserve honesty and accountability from those who are sworn to protect them -- the Lafayette Police."
Haley said he and Crump have launched their own investigation into the shooting for a possible lawsuit.
“We want policy changes as well, so that Ben and I are not in the living room with another family in Lafayette dealing with this,” Haley said.
Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory said in a statement that the officers involved in the shooting made "numerous efforts to de-escalate the situation, and multiple tries to subdue the knife-wielding suspect through the use of Tasers."
"The officers opened fire when it became apparent the armed individual was attempting to enter a convenience store, threatening the lives of the customers and workers inside," Guillory said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with our community tonight, and with the men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe."
Local NAACP officials organized what they said was supposed to be a peaceful vigil on Saturday afternoon near the Shell station where Pellerin was shot. But as night fell, the demonstration took an unruly turn when more than 100 demonstrators blocked traffic on the nearby Evangeline Thruway, locking arms and chanting "Tray," "Black Lives Matter" and "No justice, no peace."
Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mark Garber said at a news conference that some people among the demonstrators fired fireworks at buildings and set a blaze on a road median.
Police officers in riot gear and some on horseback were mobilized and attempted to disperse the demonstration by firing smoke canisters into the crowd, officials said. Several arrests were made.
Garber blamed the violence on "out of town agitators."
"If anyone is planning to enhance their techniques tomorrow or the next day, we are ready for you. We are prepared," Garber said. "We will not willingly give up this city. You have to go through every resource that I have and every resource that the police have in order to do harm to the citizens or their property."
Jamal Taylor, a local activist who participated in the protest, confirmed that agitators from out of town instigated the problems Saturday night.
"Go back to the hell where you came from. We don't want it in this city. We can handle our own. We got this," Taylor said. "So if you're one of those bad actors that comes in and sets fires, throws rocks and firecrackers, you're not welcomed here in Lafayette."