Why did Wilmington police shoot Jabri Hunter?

Esteban Parra
Delaware News Journal

Jabri Hunter was shot by Wilmington police in April, and still little has been made public about what sparked an officer to open fire on him after he was found unconscious in a vehicle.  

That then-21-year-old Hunter was passed out when officers found him behind the wheel of a GMC Yukon near downtown Wilmington is agreed upon by police, court records and Hunter's supporters. But beyond that, the story provided by Wilmington police differs from what Hunter's advocates and a video obtained by Delaware Online/The News Journal say and show. 

Yet, Wilmington police and city officials remain unwilling to release more details or comment on the video or the claims of Hunter's advocates. 

Police activity at the scene of a shooting at 11th and Walnut Streets in Wilmington.

"As we indicated in our release on April 12, this incident is under investigation by the Criminal Investigations Division, the Office of Professional Standards and the Delaware Department of Justice," Wilmington police spokesman David Karas said in a statement. "As per departmental policy, the officer involved in this incident was placed on administrative leave pending the ongoing investigation.

"This is an ongoing investigation and we are not able to release any further information at this time. I hope this helps."

The incident – and the police response to questions about it – show how investigations in Delaware, especially ones involving police officers, are rarely made public. 

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This unwillingness to be accountable continues to erode trust in police, not only in Wilmington but beyond, activists say.

"In general, trust is built on transparency," said James Nolan, a former Wilmington police officer who is now a West Virginia University professor of sociology and anthropology. "Police procedures often fail to take this into account. Doing the right thing with regards to releasing information generally means to keep quiet. 

Police activity at the scene of a shooting on 11th and Walnut Streets in Wilmington.

"Restoring relationships with the community in Wilmington will require regular practices that repair harm and build trust by way of straightforward and honest answers to violent encounters such as this."

Highlighting many of these issues is that people are now using technology to capture what many have complained about for years, said Terence Jones, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Total Justice. 

"What's being exposed with cellphone video is that a lot of these officers are corrupt," he said. "It's not just the officer that did the act, it's the internal affairs that's covering it up. It's the police chief that's covering it up. It's the prosecutors not wanting to prosecute.

"It's a systemic problem, and that's what people across the world are saying."

19-year-old Yahim Harris poses with mother, Jonda Brown, and private investigator Terence Jones, after being released from Howard R. Young Correctional Institution on Wednesday, March 4. The Wilmington teenager was accused of carjacking and then shot by the police during his arrest.

Since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, elected leaders have been put on notice to take a closer look at how law enforcement acts when confronting people of color, particularly Black men such as Floyd. 

"Officers are being arrested in Minneapolis, being arrested in Atlanta. The tide has turned. Everything has shifted," said Jones, a former Philadelphia police officer turned civil rights investigator. "People don't have confidence in the police anymore."

To date, no officer in Delaware has been charged with wrongdoing when using deadly force. This includes a Wilmington officer who earlier this year was found to have lied about altering a weapon he used in the shooting of an unarmed teen suspected of carjacking. 

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Delaware police, under state law, have the right to use deadly force if they perceive a threat to themselves or others. Afterward, police usually issue an explanation – in a press release or court documents – detailing why deadly force was used.  

Wilmington did just that earlier this year when officers shot 51-year-old Orrin Daniels on March 5:

As police officers arrived on scene and exited their patrol vehicles, they located a 51-year-old male suspect in a vehicle. Officers repeatedly instructed the suspect to stop the vehicle, but the man attempted to flee, ramming a marked police vehicle and striking a second vehicle.

As the suspect continued to attempt to flee the area, he drove his vehicle at a high rate of speed onto a sidewalk where police officers were standing. Two Wilmington police officers discharged their department-issued firearms, and the suspect was struck once. The suspect continued driving and fled the area in his vehicle.

Police located the suspect a short time later in the 900 block of North Pine Street, where he was taken into custody and transported to the hospital for treatment. He was listed in stable condition at the time of this report.

Wilmington police also gave a brief explanation in their press release following the officer-involved fatal shooting of 35-year-old Ricardo Hylton on Aug. 30, 2019: 

Upon arrival, police officers located a man armed with a firearm. The man was actively firing the gun when police arrived.

At the scene, two Wilmington Police officers engaged with the suspect, and both discharged their department-issued firearms, striking the suspect.

But in Hunter's April 12 shooting, Wilmington gave no explanation of why Hunter was shot: 

At approximately 12:03 a.m., Wilmington Police located a suspicious vehicle that was running and parked, partially on the curb, at 11th and Walnut Streets.

Officers approached the vehicle to assess the situation, and engaged with the driver and sole occupant, a 21-year-old male. One Wilmington police officer discharged their department-issued firearm, striking the suspect.

Wilmington police did not respond to questions about why they did not go into details during this police-involved shooting. 

Hunter's shooting is similar to the June 12 killing of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police. Brooks died after an altercation with police who were responding to a call about a man asleep in his car while in line at a Wendy's drive-thru. He failed a sobriety test and was being handcuffed when he struggled to get away. Video from the scene shows Brooks fleeing with an officer's Taser when an officer shoots him from behind. 

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The Fulton County, Georgia, Medical Examiner's office ruled Brooks' death a homicide. 

Within days of the shooting, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields resigned. Officer Garrett Rolfe was fired and charged with 11 counts, including felony murder, and officer Devin Brosnan was placed on administrative duty and faces three charges.

Hunter survived being shot at least six times, including in his right shoulder, wrist and back. He has since been moved to Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington.

Jabri Hunter

"I've not seen him since before he was shot," Hunter's mother, Classie Hunter, told The News Journal. "I'm still not aware about all the gunshot wounds that he has or where they are on his body." 

She said the different details and the Police Department's silence makes her feel suspicious about the incident. 

"He's a victim," she said. "They shot him while he was unconscious."

Classie Hunter said her son doesn't remember much from that day, including why he was shot. He also told his mother that he did not have a gun on him. 

"I'm here for nothing," Classie Hunter said her son told her. "He doesn't understand why he is still sitting there."

The matter has left her in pain. 

"I'm really hurting," she said. "I've been in pain ever since."

'Actions'

Court documents said Hunter was shot because of his "actions," but the documents did not elaborate what those actions were. Neither did a detective testifying during Hunter's May 13 preliminary hearing – a month after the shooting. 

"And I think you may have already answered this but you were not told what Mr. Hunter did to alarm the officers on scene?" Hunter's court-appointed attorney asked during the court hearing. 

"No, ma'am, I wasn't," Wilmington Police Detective Anthony Ford responded. "Again, due to the severity of the investigation, certain information I wasn't privy to because it has to be investigated by a supervisor."

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According to police and court documents filed by Wilmington officers, the Yukon was partially parked on the curb of the 1000 block of N. Walnut St. 

A screen grab from a surveillance video doorbell shows Wilmington Police approaching an SUV that Jabri Hunter was in on the morning of April 12. The image shows the SUV is not on the curb as police have said the vehicle was before Hunter was shot.

But video and photos obtained by The News Journal show the SUV was on the street when two officers approached. One officer disappears from view as he goes toward the vehicle's driver side, while a second officer can be seen trying to first open the passenger side door, then striking the passenger side window. 

Court documents also show the officers issued loud "verbal commands."

"The driver then woke," the documents said. "Due to the actions of the driver. who was positively identified as Jabri Hunter, the officer then discharged his/her firearm striking Hunter. The GMC Yukon the (sic) across [redacted] Street colliding with the fence on the northeast corner."

The video clip provided to The News Journal ends right after an officer is seen striking the SUV's window, before the shooting.

Jones, who obtained several video clips from a resident who lives near the shooting scene, contends the clip that would show the shooting had been erased by police.

Jones said the resident told him Wilmington investigators asked him for the username and password that would access his security video doorbell. 

Wilmington police did not respond to questions about this allegation, and The News Journal could not verify this with the resident, who on Wednesday claimed his security video did not record the incident that night. 

The city and Bank of America, which have cameras throughout that area, did not respond to requests to view surveillance video of the incident. 

Other surveillance video clips Jones provided show the Yukon is gone as more officers begin to arrive – presumably after Hunter was shot. 

Both the Wilmington police press release and court documents said a gun was found on Hunter after he was given aid. Because Hunter is a convicted gang member, he is not allowed to have a weapon. 

The press release and court documents were not clear where the weapon, an ATM Backup .380 caliber, was found. It wasn't until Detective Ford was testifying on May 13 that it was learned the weapon had been concealed in Hunter's pants.

And it was not found until after he was shot and pulled out of the crashed Yukon. 

"So I guess it was kind of jumbling around, is what I was told, and then they had to physically remove it from his pants," Ford told a prosecutor. 

Ford also said the arresting officers found several bags of suspected heroin, some of which had been in a shoe Hunter was wearing before being shot. 

As Court of Common Pleas Judge John K. Welch Jr. decided on Hunter's bail, Deputy Attorney General Brett D. Fallon said his office might not go forward with prosecuting Hunter on the possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony – one of the three weapons offenses he was charged with. The other two are carrying a concealed deadly weapon and possession of a deadly weapon by a person prohibited. 

According to a transcript of the May hearing, Welch brought up that another deputy attorney general testified in a prior hearing that Hunter was responsible for a number of shootings and homicides – something Hunter has never been charged with, much less convicted of. 

Department of Justice spokesman Mat Marshall said the judge's comment appears to be a paraphrasing of a prosecutor’s comments and not a verbatim quote.

"Prosecutors made two separate but related comments," Marshall said. "First, that Hunter has a criminal record; and second, that he is part of a gang that has been involved in homicides and other violence in Wilmington."

Marshall declined further comment on the matter but said that if anybody believes they have any new, relevant evidence, they should immediately submit it to the Delaware Department of Justice.

Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299, eparra@delawareonline.com.