Last Friday, Sylvia and Sterling Askew got the kind of call that every parent fears. It was from the Memphis Police Department, telling them that their son Steven, 24, had been shot and killed by police officers while sitting in his car. (Full disclosure: Sylvia is a secretary at the U.S. Public Defenders Office, where my wife works as an attorney.)
The Askews were not allowed to see their son's body for several days, until an autopsy was completed. Nor were they allowed to see his car, which was impounded, pending an investigation by the MPD.
Steven Askew had no criminal record. He was a 2006 graduate of Wooddale High School. After high school, he graduated from an airplane mechanics school. He was employed full-time. He was in the habit of going to his girlfriend's apartment complex and sleeping in his car until she got off work, which is what he was doing when he was shot. He had a permit to carry a pistol.
The Askews' attorney conducted an investigation and found witnesses who said that police officers approached Steven's car on foot from behind, then fired as many as 20 shots into the car. He also obtained a video taken by a resident of the apartment complex.
The police report states that the officers saw Askew point a gun at them, so they opened fire. Why Askew would have pointed a gun at police officers is unknown, though he may have been startled awake and reflexively reached for his weapon. Not too much is clear at this point.
But what is clear is the disturbing video, which shows 17 seconds of silence as officers approached the car after the initial fusillade of shots. It then appears to show the officers firing three more shots into Askew's body.
If this is proper police procedure for the MPD these days, then we are in a lot of trouble. I know that police work is dangerous and thankless, and by no means am I condemning the job that the great majority of our officers do. This case, however, raises legitimate questions about whether proper police protocol was followed.
A copy of the video was turned over to the MPD, but the Askew family is asking that their son's death be investigated by an outside agency, perhaps the U.S. attorney, TBI, or FBI. I think that is a reasonable and necessary course of action, particularly when — not if — this video goes public.