With his weapon cocked to the side, the Arkansas police officer repeatedly gives Ed Truitt a simple command: “shut your car off.”
An apprehensive Truitt, using his left hand to live-stream the early Sunday encounter on Facebook, begins to move his right arm.
“He’s got a gun!” the officer yells before repeating the last word. “Gun!”
“Where? My hand’s in the air!” Truitt replies, panning the camera to his empty hand. “Come shut the car off, I ain’t moving my hands. He’s trying to shoot me.”
Video of the incident, which took place outside a convenience store in the eastern Arkansas city of Helena-West Helena, has garnered thousands of views online and raised questions about the officer’s intentions. For some, Truitt’s experience illustrated the painstaking steps people of color feel they must take to survive run-ins with law enforcement.
“Given the history of these types of videos, I heard ‘gun’ and I flinched,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, whose advocacy group, Center for Policing Equity, promotes police transparency and accountability. “I thought I knew what was going to happen next."
Truitt argues he survived by ignoring the officer’s instructions, telling WREG that he “played it safe” by keeping his hands visible and refusing to move.
“[The officer] was like, ‘That’s a failure to comply,’” Truitt told the Memphis-based CBS affiliate. “But if I would have complied, I would have got killed.”
Reached Wednesday, he referred questions to his attorney, who did not return multiple requests for comment.
Helena-West Helena police told WREG the convenience store’s parking lot was a hotbed of criminal activity. Police are seen in the background of the video talking with others at the scene.
According to Truitt, several police officers arrived Sunday morning and ordered everyone to clear out, causing another car to block him in. In the video, the officer claims Truitt didn’t leave the premises when asked. In an apparent change of course, he then alleges Truitt had “come back.”
“I’m not going to shoot you, but you’re not going to move those hands,” the officer says.
“My hands in the air,” Truitt replies. “You’re telling me to shut my car off so you can shoot me. C’mon now.”
As the video circulated on Twitter and Instagram, where it was reposted by comedian D.L. Hughley and others with large followings, commenters accused the officer of looking for reasons to shoot Truitt. Others questioned why the officer involved, who has not been named by the department, would yell out “gun” when Truitt’s hands were shown to be empty.
Helena-West Helena Police Chief James Smith, who did not return multiple requests for comment from The Washington Post, told WREG that officers found a rifle inside the vehicle. Truitt appears to say in the video the weapon is registered in his name. Under Arkansas law, rifles do not require registration.
Body camera footage published by the network Wednesday shows police holding a rifle after placing Truitt in handcuffs. Truitt has indicated the gun was not easily accessible from where he sat in the vehicle.
Smith said the department was working to determine if the officer responded properly. The chief sought the facts, he said, including whether the officer felt “imminent danger” before pulling out his weapon.
“We don’t want this to be a racial thing,” he added. “We want to make sure this officer did the right thing and that he is accountable for his actions.”
Goff said it’s important to note the officer’s finger was not placed on the trigger during the encounter, and that he remained calm after initially reacting to the rifle. He attempted to explain the reactions of those who may think the officer responded with appropriate urgency after spotting the weapon, and others who see an armed policeman needlessly escalating the situation.
“Hero cop or hero bystander? Ridiculous citizens or unnecessarily goonish officer?” Goff said. “Very quickly, these become characters that are written in historical stereotypes. That’s part of the toxins in how we handle race and law enforcement today.”
Since 2015, The Post has kept a database of fatal officer-involved shootings in the United States, which has shown that black men are shot at disproportionately high rates.
In 2017, the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile as he sat in his vehicle was acquitted on all charges. A year prior, the officer had opened fire on Castile within seven seconds of learning the man had a weapon in the car. That incident — the aftermath of which was posted to Facebook Live by Castile’s girlfriend — sparked protests across the country.
The woman said Castile was simply reaching for his gun permit and driver’s license.
For many discussing Truitt on social media, he was the clear hero. They commended his demeanor as he stared down the barrel of a police officer’s gun.
“Way to keep your cool, brother. You didn’t get emotional,” one woman commented on his Facebook video. “That takes you off your game. You stayed rational.”
According to WREG, Truitt was arrested for loitering and disregarding an official order. Police also told the network Truitt was charged with having a gun in his vehicle. The Post was unable to confirm any charges late Wednesday.
In the video’s waning moments the officer is seen forcibly removing Truitt from the car, sending the phone he recorded with tumbling to the ground. Grateful to be alive, Truitt said he has no regrets about how he handled the interaction.
“What I did saved my life,” he told WREG. “That’s why I’m here talking to y’all. If not, y’all would be covering a story about how I got shot.”