TOPEKA, Kan. -- A federal judge has ruled that videos from white officers' body cameras do not show conclusively that a black suspect reached for a gun in a pocket of his shorts before Topeka police shot him to death in September 2017.
U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree said this week that the video footage was "equivocal, at best" in a ruling that allows attorneys for suspect Dominique White's family to question two officers.
White's father filed a civil rights lawsuit in June 2018 on behalf of himself and White's four young children against the city, Officers Michael Cruse and Justin Mackey and five unnamed officers. The family contends that White's shooting wasn't legally justified.
The city has asked to have the lawsuit settled in its favor and dismissed before a trial, arguing that the officers' use of deadly force was reasonable, so that neither they nor the city can be sued for damages. The local district attorney declared the shooting justified, and an internal police review said the officers followed department procedures.
"But, a reasonable jury could conclude that Mr. White momentarily lost his balance after spinning out of Officer Cruse's grasp, then moved his hand consistent with a running motion, but did not reach for his pocket," Crabtree wrote in his decision.
Police were responding to reports of gunfire near a park when they confronted the 30-year-old White. He was armed and just months out of prison after being prosecuted for burglary and illegal gun possession. Officers shot him as he fled.
Attorneys for the city and the officers argued that Cruse and Mackey did not need to be questioned by the White family's lawyers because the body camera footage showed that White reached for a gun in a pocket.
But Crabtree disagreed, saying in his decision that "the videos alone" from Cruse and Mackey's body cameras do not establish that White reached for a gun. The judge said he would have to rely on Cruse's and Mackey's statements to reach that conclusion.
"The court has viewed both videos multiple times and finds the videos equivocal, at best, on whether Mr. White reached for his gun," Crabtree wrote.
The judge also said lawyers for the White family could seek information from the city about statements Cruse and Mackey made about their decisions to fire their weapons.