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A Popular Louisville Restaurant Owner Was Killed by the Police. What Happened?

2020-06-05 03:22:15
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In the confusing final seconds of his life, David McAtee saw his barbecue stand in Louisville, Ky., fill with people seeking shelter from law enforcement.

The police and National Guard had gotten to the intersection of 26th Street and West Broadway to enforce a 9 p.m. curfew. It was past midnight, and groups of friends in the city’s predominantly black West End were mingling and listening to music outside of Dino’s Food Mart, a popular gas station hangout, and YaYa’s BBQ, Mr. McAtee’s modest restaurant.

“Go! Go!” the officers yelled. Then, they fired pepper balls.

As people rushed inside his side door to take cover, Mr. McAtee peeked out, gun in hand. He appeared to shoot.

Moments later, he lay dead, killed by a single shot to the chest. Two police officers and two Guard members had discharged their weapons, firing about 18 rounds.

What transpired in the few minutes between when law enforcement arrived and when Mr. McAtee, 53, was killed early Monday morning is now under investigation by federal and state authorities in Kentucky. Protests against police brutality had already raged in Louisville over the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Now demonstrators added another name to the list: David McAtee.

Credit…Marvin McAtee

The authorities say the police and National Guard were returning Mr. McAtee’s fire. Surveillance videos released by the Louisville Metro Police Department, as well as a bystander video analyzed by the visual investigations team of The New York Times, suggest that he did shoot his gun.

But they also show, based on a synchronized chronology of the events that night, that the police had first fired at least two pepper balls from outside the restaurant toward Mr. McAtee and his relatives. One of the balls — which may not have been distinguishable at the time from other ammunition — hit a bottle on an outdoor table, and another came close to hitting his niece in the head right before Mr. McAtee fired.

The volley was intended to disperse a crowd outside the restaurant in violation of the curfew. But the gathering was not of protesters, those who were there said, but of residents who were out for a good time on a Sunday night.

“They may be violating the curfew, but I don’t know if that justifies being shot with pepper balls,” said David James, a former police officer and the president of the Louisville Metro Council, whose district includes the site of the shooting.

Mr. James, who knew Mr. McAtee, said he and other African-Americans in Louisville cannot help but wonder if the authorities would have been so quick to deploy pepper balls against curfew violators in a white neighborhood.

“If they’d been in another part of town and people were out lounging in a large group like that, would they have rolled up with the National Guard and fired pepper balls, or would they have gone up and talked to people?” Mr. James said. Had the officers simply told people to clear out, Mr. James said, “I have a feeling that the outcome would have been different.”

Mr. McAtee’s relatives say he would not have knowingly shot at the police. He liked to offer officers free meals at his restaurant, named YaYa’s because YaYa was Mr. McAtee’s nickname. The barbecue stand was also Mr. McAtee’s home: He lived in the basement, said his nephew Marvin McAtee, 46, who helped run the business and was in the restaurant when the shooting began.

Law enforcement had shown up on Saturday night to warn people outside about the curfew, Mr. McAtee said. When the police and National Guard pulled up early Monday morning, he thought little of it. Things sometimes got rowdy at Dino’s, where arrests were not uncommon, he said, but his uncle was on good terms with the police.

The group on YaYa’s porch consisted of maybe a half-dozen people, he said, most of them close friends listening to music and enjoying the nice weather after weeks of staying at home to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Several relatives were inside, helping David McAtee clean up.

People started streaming in once the pepper balls were fired. The Police Department’s policy is to shoot the balls into the ground in front of a crowd to try to disperse it, Assistant Chief LaVita Chavous said in a news conference on Tuesday.

The guidelines also say officers should try to avoid the use of force to disperse nonviolent crowds, identify themselves as the police and give people a reasonable time to comply with dispersal orders.

One of the balls appeared to directly hit a soda bottle outside of YaYa’s BBQ, knocking it off a table. Another pepper ball struck the doorway. Mr. McAtee’s niece, who had approached the door from the inside, was nearly hit in the head. She backed away, security video showed.

David McAtee grabbed his gun, which was holstered on his hip, and moved toward his niece. He put his arm up and out the door. Then came the sound of a shot — his, according to the police — followed by a string of shots from the police and National Guard.

Marvin McAtee said he did not see his uncle shoot. Other people in the crowd had been armed, he said; the police recovered six handguns and one shotgun from the crime scene.

“There’s no way he had a clear vision of the police from there,” Mr. McAtee said. “He had no intention of shooting at no police.”

If he did shoot, he said, it would have been to defend his property in the belief that someone outside might be threatening it — and, above all, to protect his niece: “I know in my heart he died for her.”

Chief Chavous said the surveillance video released by the authorities showed that David McAtee “fired his weapon out the door of his business as police approached.”

Gov. Andy Beshear said his administration had released unusually detailed information about the investigation so Kentuckians could “make determinations with their own eyes.”

“I know we have to be transparent,” he said.

On Tuesday, Mayor Greg Fischer fired Steven Conrad, the police chief, after learning that the officers involved in the shooting had failed to activate their body cameras. The firing came after years of troubling incidents that have sown mistrust in the police, including a scandal in which officers sexually assaulted teenagers in a department-run youth program. The city has also seen a spike in its murder rate.

Under pressure over Ms. Taylor’s killing, Mr. Conrad said last month that he would retire at the end of June. But Mr. McAtee’s killing sped up his departure, and Deputy Chief Robert Schroeder has taken his place for now, ahead of a national search. The city also plans to hire a consultant to review the department’s training and policies, Mr. Fischer said.

The mayor ended the curfew on Thursday, saying that it had helped keep the peace but also acknowledging that the city had shown an “inability to apply it evenly.”

Mr. McAtee’s grieving family and friends have spent the days since his death hearing from community members about Mr. McAtee’s generosity. Mr. James, the council president, remembered that the restaurant owner offered a free meal last year to the family of a man who was living in his car. The man did not want to accept it because he was embarrassed to have his family see him unable to pay.

“I will take care of how it appears,” Mr. McAtee said, according to Mr. James, and he made it look like the man paid for everything.

Cora Engelbrecht contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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