Alabama police have backtracked further from their claims about Emantic Bradford Jr., who was initially described as an active shooter after an officer killed him in a suburban Birmingham shopping mall on Thanksgiving evening.
In a regretful statement the next day, police said the actual gunman had apparently escaped the Riverchase Galleria — but still maintained that Bradford, 21, “was fleeing the shooting scene while brandishing a handgun” when an officer shot him in a corridor outside the JCPenney store.
In a third statement Monday, police raised doubts about whether Bradford even had his gun out when officers encountered him.
“We can say with certainty Mr. Bradford brandished a gun during the seconds following the gunshots,” the statement reads, “which instantly heightened the sense of threat to approaching officers responding to the chaotic scene.”
The Hoover Police Department’s shifting explanations are likely to increase suspicions that the 21-year-old former Army recruit was considered a threat because he is black.
“While these black young men are walking around in the mall, whether they’re carrying an arm or not, give them a chance to say what they’re doing with it,” as Bradford’s great aunt put it during a weekend protest at the mall.
It’s still unclear what set off the violence near the Galleria shortly before 10 p.m. Thursday, as shoppers were getting an early start on post-Thanksgiving sales.
Police said a dispute on the upper concourse escalated into a fight, then a volley of gunfire that struck an 18-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl, both of whom survived.
Crowds immediately fled from the gunshots, stampeding through the food court, jumping over checkout counters and hiding inside stores.
If Bradford did draw his weapon in the aftermath of the shooting, as police say, he was one of several people to do so, according to AL.com. It’s unclear whether the weapons came out as part of a group dispute, as police have suggested, or in self-defense. Bradford’s relatives have said he had a concealed-handgun license and may have been trying to help people.
The Hoover Police Department did not immediately respond when asked whether Bradford aimed his weapon or simply took it out, or whether the gun was still in view when two uniformed officers working as security guards approached him, and one of them opened fire.
He died on the tile between a GameStop and a Footaction, blood pooled around his head.
In time, more officers gathered around the body, and several onlookers took pictures.
"That boy didn’t shoot at nobody,” a man in the corridor said as he filmed.
“The shooter is down at this time,” an emergency dispatcher announced on the radio.
After police backed away from their claim that Bradford shot anyone, his parents hired civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who has previously represented the families of black shooting victims such as Stephon Clark and Trayvon Martin. The attorney demanded police footage of the shooting be released at a news conference on Sunday. He said Bradford was shot in the face, then interrupted his speech as a woman behind him collapsed in grief.
Bradford is one of more than 850 people shot and killed by police in the United States this year, according to a Washington Post database, and the latest of many black men whose deaths have led to accusations of systemic racism under U.S. law.
He grew up near Birmingham and joined the Army last year, though he left before completing advanced training. At a protest outside the mall on Saturday, relatives said Bradford recently came home to help care for his father.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency has taken over the investigation and search for the shooter, and it has been given body camera footage and other evidence from the mall, police said Monday. In a statement, the agency said it would eventually turn over its findings to the district attorney’s office.
Police offered sympathy to Bradford’s family in their latest statement — and to others affected by “an event so unnecessary on what should have been a peaceful Thanksgiving evening.”
“The loss of human life is a tragedy under any circumstances,” the statement said.