FBI investigating after cellphone video shows police fatally shooting unarmed man in Fresno

Cellphone video showing Fresno police officers shooting an unarmed 19-year-old man lying on the ground at a gas station has sparked protests and prompted the FBI to launch an investigation.

The shooting, which occurred last month but generated debate this week after the video was made public, is the latest in a series of police use-of-force incidents caught on tape.

The video shows Dylan Noble lying on the ground on June 25 as two officers with their guns drawn stand feet away from him. As officers yell “Keep your hands up” and other commands, one shot is fired. Seconds later, a third officer approaches the pair, and another shot rings out. At one point during the video, Noble can be seen raising his arm and saying, “I’ve been shot.”

UPDATE: 'We will get justice': Family pleads for investigation into fatal police shooting of unarmed teen >>

The witness video does not show the moments just before the fatal shooting. Two shots already had been fired at Noble before the recording began.

Police Chief Jerry Dyer told The Times on Thursday that Noble twice raised his shirt with his left hand and used his right hand to reach under his shirt into his waistband. The officers, he said, feared for their lives.

Officers warned Noble not to reach into his waistband because they believed he was trying to retrieve a firearm, Dyer said.

That’s when an officer fired two shots with his handgun. Those shots, he said, are not depicted in the witness video. The officer then fired another shot. A second officer delivered the fourth and final shot, one round from a shotgun.

The video, Dyer said, doesn’t tell the whole story of the shooting, which lasted about 2 minutes and 20 seconds. It was originally posted Wednesday by the Fresno Bee.

The officers’ body cameras will show exactly what happened, since they were standing 12 to 15 feet away, he said. The department will review the officers’ actions to determine why they fired at Noble while he was on the ground and if there were other options, he said. Officers have to make split-second decisions, Dyer noted.

“There is going to be questions,” he said.  “It’s an unfortunate tragedy that occurred in this city.”

The FBI and the U.S. attorney general’s office have agreed to investigate the shooting and will have access to all evidence, Dyer said. The chief said he didn’t want the public to think the police department isn’t “fair and objective” in its handling of the investigation and that FBI oversight would provide more transparency.

“Anytime an unarmed individual is shot, especially when their life is taken, there is a tendency for the public to rush to judgment and come up with their own conclusions,” Dyer said.

The body camera videos, he said, would be released once the district attorney’s office has concluded its investigation. Noble’s family will be allowed to view the videos before they are publicly released, Dyer added.

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According to the police department, officers responded to a report of a man walking with a rifle about 3:20 p.m. and observed a black pickup speeding as they searched the area. They tried to stop the truck, but it continued traveling for half a mile. The truck eventually pulled into a Chevron gas station, police said.

The shooting has sparked an online petition demanding that the Fresno Police Department release body camera footage of the incident. The shooting comes amid national outrage over the number of shootings by police involving black men. In this case, Noble was white.

Lt. Burke Farrah said Noble refused to show his hands and tried to conceal one hand behind his back, then in his waistband. Noble, he said, got out of his truck.

Officers repeatedly ordered Noble to show his hands and get on the ground. That’s when Noble turned toward the officers with one hand still behind his back, telling them that “he hated his life,” Farrah said. Police said Noble advanced toward officers, who then fired four shots. Farrah told The Times that Noble did not have a weapon.

Noble was taken to an area hospital and died during surgery.

A large vigil held days after the shooting drew a crowd of officers, who blocked the road for safety, police said.

Fresno residents and friends and family of Noble carried a large Confederate flag as they confronted police, while others posted signs at a memorial that said “Justice for Dylan,” and “White Lives Matter.”  

Videos of the gathering posted online show dozens of motorcycles and trucks participating in a lively sideshow. Drivers revved their engines and raced down a strip of road as they were cheered by onlookers.

Dylan Noble’s father, Darren Noble, said in a statement that his son did not have emotional or mental problems and that any suggestion he wanted to die is false.

The officers involved in the shooting have been placed on administrative leave. Dyer declined to release the officers’ names because he said they have been receiving threats on social media. One officer has 20 years’ experience with the department, and the other officer has worked in law enforcement for 17 years, Dyer said.

The Fresno County district attorney’s office has conducted interviews, collected evidence and attended Noble’s autopsy, said Assistant Dist. Atty. Steve Wright. Prosecutors are waiting for the results of toxicology tests, which could take six weeks, before they review the case. A complete investigation will take at least two months, Wright said.

At least one use-of-force expert said the chief’s statement that the shooting sequence lasted more than 2 minutes was odd.

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“That would be highly unusual. It’s usually no more than five to 20 seconds between the first and last shot,” said Charles "Sid" Heal, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's commander. 

In cases where lethal force was used, “each and every shot must be justified as protecting the public or officers,” Heal said.

Deadly force could be deemed justified if the officers feared for their lives because Noble made repeated furtive movements, refused to show his hands and refused to follow commands, Heal said. 

Once Noble was on the ground after the first shots, officers would have had to reassess the threat, Heal said. 

The officers will need to explain the last two shots seen in the video, the expert said.

“Why didn’t officers move in after the third shot and restrain him? Fourteen seconds is a long time to wait,” Heal said. “Sometimes we get criticized for handcuffing dead people. But this is why we move in and restrain people.”

Ed Obayashi, another use-of-force expert who consults with county governments throughout California, said that even though the video fails to capture the entire shooting sequence, it does raise questions about whether the officers perceived the same threat.

“We hear a third shot on the video and apparently that officer perceived a threat and then 14 to 16 seconds later there is a discharge of a shotgun at the individual on the ground,” Obayashi said.

“At that time, four or five officers have a direct field of vision of the man on the ground. And yet we have a backup officer with a shotgun firing that fourth shot alone,” Obayashi said. “Usually, four of five officers in the field of vision will all open fire at once,” he said.

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UPDATES:

3:30 p.m.: This post has been updated with a Noble family statement.

3:19 p.m.: This post was updated throughout.

2:12 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Fresno County Assistant Dist. Atty. Steve Wright. 

1:36 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from police Chief Jerry Dyer and use-of-force expert Ed Obayashi.

12:19 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from police Chief Jerry Dyer and use-of-force expert Charles “Sid” Heal.

10 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Dylan Noble’s family.

This article was originally published at 7:57 a.m.

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