An unarmed black 18-year-old accused of shoplifting was killed by a police officer in Virginia who had been barred from patrolling city streets for almost three years after fatally shooting another unarmed man.
William Chapman was shot dead by Stephen Rankin, a white Portsmouth police officer, during a struggle in a Walmart parking lot. Rankin, 35, a US navy veteran trained in martial arts, was once disciplined for posting violent remarks and Nazi images online.
Chapman’s family likened his death to that of Michael Brown, another unarmed black 18-year-old who was suspected of a theft and shot dead following a struggle with a white officer. Brown’s death last year in Ferguson unleashed nationwide protests.
But they noted with disappointment that Chapman’s killing in April barely registered among activists and the media. “I feel alone,” said Chapman’s mother, Sallie. “Because my son is gone and because nobody is trying to help me understand why.”
The Virginia chief medical examiner’s office said in a statement only that the cause of Chapman’s death was “gunshot wounds of face and chest”. Chapman’s mother said his hands were also wounded in the encounter, a claim supported by photographs of his body reviewed by the Guardian.
Chiefs only allowed Rankin to return to frontline policing in March last year, almost three years after he killed an unarmed 26-year-old Kazakh immigrant in February 2011. Rankin was later found to have insulted the man and his family in other online postings.
A sergeant in the department at the time told the Guardian that senior commanders were formally warned by one of Rankin’s supervisors weeks before his first fatal shooting that he was “dangerous” and likely to cause someone harm.
Asked twice during a telephone interview why Rankin had been allowed to continue policing the public, Portsmouth’s police chief, Edward Hargis, repeated: “That’s a personnel matter and I can’t comment.” He added: “I’m not going to comment on what people may say, allegation-wise.”
Police refused to say whether Chapman was actually found to have stolen anything. They will still not confirm it was Rankin who shot him. However, the head of Rankin’s professional association confirmed to the Guardian he was indeed the officer involved.
Rankin fired twice after Chapman resisted an arrest at the edge of the superstore parking lot on the morning of 22 April and a struggle ensued, according to witnesses. The officer was responding to a complaint by store staff of a “suspected shoplifting”.
A funeral service was held for Chapman last month but his body has not yet been buried because his family is unable to afford the $3,600 fee, relatives said.
His shooting is being investigated by the Virginia state police, which is also carrying out an inquiry into the fatal shooting by another Portsmouth officer a month earlier of Walter Brown, a 29-year-old black man who fled a stop by drugs police.
Sergeant Michelle Anaya, a state police spokeswoman, declined to discuss any details of what happened in Chapman’s shooting. “That investigation is currently ongoing and that information is not available at this time for release,” she said in an email.
don Jones, also 18, was killed by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, in March after a struggle when he was caught robbing a grocery store, according to authorities. Earlier that month, Tony Robinson, 19, was shot dead by an officer looking into a disturbance in Madison, Wisconsin. Last month state prosecutors ruled the shooting was justified.
Chapman’s cousin, Earl Lewis, welcomed The Counted, the Guardian’s project to monitor all killings by police and law enforcement. He said increased transparency could reduce unnecessary or unjustified fatalities. “Better data would put a check on how some cities and their officers do business,” said Lewis.
Construction workers who saw the confrontation between Chapman and Rankin told local television reporters that the 18-year-old appeared to break free from an attempt by the officer to handcuff him against a parked car.
One, Leroy Woodman, told reporters at the scene Chapman was shot because he “took a couple steps towards the cop like he was ready to fight”. A colleague of Woodman’s, Paul Akey, said Chapman “came at” Rankin after the Taser was knocked from Rankin’s hand and the officer stepped back. Akey said he believed Rankin’s actions were justified.
“I know my son,” said Sallie Chapman. “He would have been saying ‘Why are doing this? I didn’t do anything.’ I know what his words would have been.”
Woodman and Akey, who have since been interviewed by police investigators, declined or ignored several requests for comment when reached by telephone and online messages.
Police have not given any explanation to Chapman’s mother, she said, and Walmart management called the police to help remove her when she travelled to the store demanding information about what he may have stolen and what happened.
“My son is gone, and I just want to know why,” said Chapman. “Why can’t I see the Walmart surveillance video? I’m his mother.”
The police did not actively inform Chapman that her son had died. After being unable to reach him on 22 April, and hearing media reports of an 18-year-old killed at their local Walmart, she called 911. When she gave William’s name, she was placed on hold and eventually told a detective would visit her home. The detective told her William was dead.
Recordings of live news bulletins from the scene on the day of the incident show that Chapman’s body was still on the ground of the parking lot five hours after he was killed. “It hurt,” said Lewis. “It was as if a dog had been hit in the street, and eventually, later on, someone found the owner and told them to come pick it up.”
Portsmouth and state police have declined to confirm that Rankin was the officer responsible for the shooting. Sean McGowan, the executive director of the Virginia division of the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), told the Guardian Rankin was the officer involved and the group had helped him obtain legal representation.
“Any other questions you have, I would need to refer you to his attorney,” said McGowan, who then declined to identify Rankin’s attorney. The officer’s legal team did not respond to requests for comment that McGowan said he had conveyed to them.
State police investigators are expected to pass their completed inquiry on the shooting to Stephanie Morales, Virginia’s commonwealth attorney, who will then decide whether or not to put the case to a grand jury for a possible criminal prosecution.
The deaths of Chapman and Brown were the Portsmouth department’s first fatalities since Rankin’s April 2011 shooting of Kirill Denyakin, a Kazakh cook. Denyakin was shot 11 times by Rankin, who was responding to a 911 call about the 26-year-old aggressively banging at the door of a building where he was staying.
Rankin claimed he shot because Denyakin, who was drunk, charged at him while reaching into the waistband of his jeans. The officer said he feared Denyakin would pull out a weapon. No weapon was found.
A grand jury declined to indict Rankin on criminal charges and a jury in a $22m civil lawsuit brought by Denyakin’s family found in Rankin’s favour. Among 250 posts defending himself on a local newspaper website, Rankin wrote “22 mil wont buy your boy back”, adding that most Americans could not hope to earn that in an entire career, “let alone a habitual drunk working as a hotel cook”.
It also emerged Rankin had in Facebook posts referred to his firearms case as “Rankin’s box of vengeance” and said he would rather be dirtying his guns than cleaning them. His Facebook avatar was once a print of a photograph depicting a Serb left hanging from a lamppost by invading Nazi forces in 1943.
When he returned to work two months after the shooting, Rankin was restricted to administrative duties for more than two and a half years. He was finally allowed back on patrols on 1 March 2014. “I never thought seeing Steve get ready for work would make me so nervous,” his girlfriend wrote in a post to Facebook.