George Floyd anniversary: Black homeless man Kurt Reinhold was shot dead for ‘jaywalking’ and his family still await answers

Before the fatal arrest, deputies seemed to mock his accent, Josh Marcus writes

Tuesday 25 May 2021 09:51 BST
Sheriff’s deputies on the homeless outreach unit in Orange County, California, shot and killed Kurt Reinhold, an unarmed homeless man, in September after surveilling him, seeming to mock a Black accent, and accusing him of jaywalking.
Sheriff’s deputies on the homeless outreach unit in Orange County, California, shot and killed Kurt Reinhold, an unarmed homeless man, in September after surveilling him, seeming to mock a Black accent, and accusing him of jaywalking. (Courtesy of John Taylor)

Police have killed at least 229 Black people among a total of 426 people of colour since former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on 25 May, 2020. Each case is different, but many share core similarities: quick encounters, for low-level infractions, met with deadly force, leaving families and communities with unanswered questions.

For nearly five months, the family of Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in Southern California last September, had no idea why he was killed.

At first, officials from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department used the opaque vernacular common to police, describing how two experienced officers on the homeless outreach team contacted him in San Clemente, California – “during their contact, a physical altercation occurred.” Mr Reinhold was captured on surveillance footage allegedly reaching for an officer’s weapon, though officials noted it wasn’t clear he ever got it out of its holster.

“Given the current climate of police-community relations, I understand that this conversation is going to be a difficult one around this incident,” Sheriff Don Barnes said at the time, a nod to that summer’s George Floyd protests. He warned people not to spread “misinformation” or latch onto a “false narrative.”

From these bare outlines, the official account seemed to be: a homeless man, perhaps mentally disturbed, attacked officers for no apparent reason, then tried to grab their gun and shoot them. This didn’t add up for his family, or for community members, who soon launched protests.

“What did Kurt do to deserve to be shot in broad daylight?” Latoya Reinhold, his wife, asked at the time. “None of this makes any sense.”

Video shows police tackling Kurt Reinhold during jaywalking arrest before fatal shooting

Then, in February, authorities released body camera footage, and the story became far less black and white.

It’s still unclear why deputies began tailing Mr Reinhold, but the footage begins with them appearing to mock a stereotypical Black accent, with one saying, “He’s see ya, copper,” and another adding, “He went to go get a drank,” as they observe him exit a roadside mini-mart.

According to bystanders, just before Mr Reinhold met with police, he asked a woman at a flower stand for money, saying he was hungry and needed food.

“Watch this, he’s going to jaywalk,” one of the deputies says.

Jaywalking, as with the fake $20 bill that triggered George Floyd’s interaction with police, is an infraction typically met with a ticket, not an armed arrest.

One of the officers is sceptical any infraction took place, even warning his partner, “Don’t make case law,” before the squad car swings around and deputies confront Mr Reinhold, one soon appearing to draw his Taser.

“Are you going to stop or are we going to have to make you stop?” a deputy asks as they argue back and forth, Mr Reinhold refusing to be detained.

“What the h— is this? Do you see yourself?” Mr Reinhold asks, incredulous, arguing he never jaywalked.

The argument continues to escalate until the deputies tackle him to the ground.

“The man is refusing to obey the deputies’ commands to go back to the sidewalk, and is actively resisting to detain him,” sergeant Dennis Breckner explained in a video accompanying the police footage.

If Kurt Reinhold didn’t commit a crime in the first place, deputies would have no legal right to detain him, and refusing to be stopped unlawfully isn’t the same as resisting a lawful arrest.

The officers continue battling with him until his hand appears to graze a deputy’s gun, and the other shoots him twice at close range.

Authorities have warned investigations into the shooting from the sheriff’s department, county district attorney’s office, and a police oversight board, could take up to another year.

His family isn’t waiting that long, however. In March, they filed a federal lawsuit, accusing the officers and department of perpetuating “a disturbing pattern of shootings of unarmed Black men by law enforcement officers in the United States.”

“They’re targeting him because he’s Black,” John Taylor, an attorney for the family, told The Independent. “If this person’s white, same clothing, same backpack, same activities, does this person ever get stopped by these officers at the beginning? It never happens. It never happens.”

The Orange County sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office have not responded to a request for comment.

No charges have been filed against either officer, later identified as Eduardo Duran, a 14-year vet, and Jonathan Israel, who had eight years’ experience. Both underwent de-escalation training and were put back on duty after killing Kurt Reinhold.

“The homeless outreach team is supposed to officer assistance to, provide resources to people who are in some kind of crisis, or are in need of some kind of assistance. Kurt Reinhold didn’t need anything. He was not committing any crime. He was not a suspect in having committed any crime,” Mr Taylor continued. “How do you end up with a  guy who’s gone in to buy something in the store, and within three minutes he’s shot two times, unarmed?”

Even after a year of civil rights protests, his family still doesn’t know.

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