Terrence Sterling was cruising through Washington early on the morning of Sept. 11 when his green-and-black motorcycle caught the attention of police.
Police noticed the 31-year-old on U Street, near a popular strip of bars and restaurants, where they said he was driving recklessly. Two officers soon encountered him a second time, about two miles away. It was nearly 4:30 a.m.
A confrontation unfolded in seconds at a darkened intersection, leaving Sterling dead and bringing the contentious national debate over the shooting of black men by police to the nation’s capital.
In the weeks that followed, demonstrators demanded details about the incident, at one point shutting down streets. A lawyer for the Sterling family said the motorcyclist was killed “unlawfully and unjustifiably .” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) angered the police union by releasing the name of the officer who fired his gun. An investigation is underway.
But what happened that night — just as what happened in Ferguson, Mo., Falcon Heights, Minn., and Baton Rouge — may never be completely clear. A month after Sterling’s death, some witness accounts counter the initial police version of events, and questions remain over whether the officers acted properly.
Police said Sterling was shot when he intentionally ran his motorcycle into the door of a marked police cruiser as the officer was getting out to stop the bike. Two witnesses said the crash did not appear deliberate. They believed that Sterling was trying to move around the police car, which had pulled into the intersection.
Sterling’s family members think the man they affectionately knew as “Chicken” or “KFC,” a nickname that stuck after he worked as a teenager at the fast-food restaurant, was headed that night to the Fort Washington home he shared with his parents. Friends describe him as easygoing, a motorcycle enthusiast who belonged to a local club and worked as an HVAC technician.
Relatives and demonstrators want to know why the officer who fired his weapon, 27-year-old Brian Trainer, did not activate his body camera until after the shooting. They also question whether the two officers involved violated department rules. Those include bans against shooting at a moving vehicle or from inside a police car, or using tactics that put an officer in danger of being struck by a vehicle.
As they seek answers, those closest to Sterling remain mystified by the deadly encounter.
“It’s completely unexplainable,” said Jerry Formey, a longtime friend. “The world should know that Terrence Sterling, or as we called him, KFC, is really going to be missed. He knows law officers, he respects them.”
Howard Dorsey Jr. had just left the club where he was working as DJ DC Hollywood that September night. He planned to buy some Black & Mild cigars and go to his Bowie, Md., townhouse.
As Dorsey, 40, waited at a stoplight on Third Street NW just before M Street, a man straddling his motorcycle walked it past his car and into the crosswalk ahead. Seconds later, Dorsey said, a police car pulled into the intersection in front of them, blocking the left lane.
Dorsey said the motorcyclist accelerated to between 5 and 10 mph. The right lane was open, he said, but the biker steered left.
Just then, a police officer opened the front passenger door a few inches, Dorsey said. He said the motorcycle’s front tire hit the door with enough force to dent it, but no more.
“That’s when he let off the shots,” said Dorsey, who said he heard two or three shots. “The cops said no words, nothing. No ‘freeze.’ ”
Dorsey ducked. When he got back up, he saw the motorcycle falling.
A D.C. police report classifies the case as an assault on police, saying it occurred as the officers were trying to stop the motorcyclist. “The suspect intentionally drove his motor cycle into the passenger side of the marked police vehicle,” the one-page report reads.
In a news release, police said the biker had been seen “driving recklessly” on U Street, and city officials said Trainer and his partner saw the motorcycle there. But police did not say what route either the motorcycle or the cruiser took to Third and M, or whether the officers followed the bike or happened to meet up with it.
Dorsey said a police officer who arrived after the shooting told him to leave. “A police officer with dreads said, ‘Go, go, go,’ ” Dorsey said. “He said, ‘Get in your car and go.’ ”
But Dorsey said he stayed for several hours and talked to investigators.
Dorsey’s account differs slightly from the recollections of Kandace Simms, who said she witnessed the shooting from behind the wheel of her Chrysler 300, the first car in the right lane of southbound Third Street. “I saw the sparks from the gun, that’s how close I was,” she said.
The night air was cool, so the 34-year-old had her window down. A friend was in the car with her.
Simms heard the motorcycle before she saw it approach the stoplight in her rearview mirror. In her mind, Sterling and the police arrived at the intersection almost simultaneously.
“The police officers jumped in front of him on purpose,” said Simms, who also was interviewed by police. “The police car lights weren’t on, the sirens weren’t on. They didn’t use their loudspeaker to tell them anything. No commands, no nothing.”
“Why he didn’t stop, I don’t know,” Simms said of the motorcyclist. “He tried to not hit them.”
After the collision, the biker tried to accelerate and drive toward the back of the car, she said. She said the officer tried to open the door, but it jammed against the motorcycle, which appeared stuck between the car and a curb.
Simms said that the police car window lowered about halfway and that she heard shots and saw muzzle flashes. Both Simms and Dorsey said the motorcycle was not moving quickly and, in their view, did not appear to be aiming for the cruiser.
“He never, like, reversed or backed up and rammed again. He never looked at them or said anything to them,” Simms said. “There was no loud crash. There was no screeching of the wheels. He wasn’t speeding.”
Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, said determining whether a shooting is justified comes down to whether an officer has “objectively reasonable fear.”
The D.C. police union said it has hired a law firm to represent Trainer but declined to name that firm. The officer could not be reached for comment, and a union official said he would not speak to the media at this time.
The interim D.C. police chief, Peter Newsham, said he is aware of public criticism surrounding the speed of the investigation and that some witness accounts may counter some information released by police. He said such investigations take time, as detectives try to identify and locate additional witnesses.
“Those two people’s versions are going to be considered with the totality of the evidence we have,” Newsham said in an interview. “I don’t know how long these things should take, but I would rather be right than quick.”
He said police will turn over all evidence to the U.S. attorney’s office to determine whether charges should be filed.
One night this month, more than 200 people gathered at the intersection where Sterling was shot. Holding “Black Lives Matter” signs, they shut down New York Avenue, then marched up New Jersey Avenue to U Street, which they shut down, too.
This was by far the largest of several planned demonstrations, but organizers have found difficulty in drawing a national spotlight to Sterling’s death or building pressure on city officials.
Sterling’s friends, some of whom have joined in various protests and vigils, remember him as a quiet man who would play baseball with their children in the back yard, hang out and watch the Redskins at a cookout, or go fishing off Farmington Road in Prince George’s County, Md.
“He was real humble, quiet,” said Latonya Johnson, a friend who grew up with Sterling in Fort Washington, Md., where they attended church together. Sterling was single — “too quiet” to get a girlfriend, Johnson said — and had no children.
Though D.C. police officers have been involved in at least six other fatal shootings since 2014, when the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., sparked months of protests, the city has not been galvanized by one particular incident. So far, D.C. has no Eric Garner or Freddie Gray.
Some said Sterling, though the circumstances of his death are not yet clear, would continue to bring people into the streets.
“I think his death is the one likely to be a turning point on Black Lives Matter,” said Sean Brown, a longtime friend of Sterling’s. He added, “Us as friends and family are not going to let this go.”
Victoria St. Martin, Keith L. Alexander and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.