Officials in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., said Tuesday evening that 31-year-old Corey Jones, a well-known area musician, was carrying a gun he had purchased legally just three days earlier when he was shot and killed by a police officer early Sunday morning.
Jones was killed after his car broke down on an Interstate 95 off-ramp while he was driving home after his band played a Saturday night gig. After calling his brother and a bandmate, who came to Jones and attempted to help fix his car, Jones waited alone for a tow truck to arrive.
Around 3:15 a.m., Jones was encountered by Palm Beach Gardens police Officer Nouman Raja, who was in plainclothes in an unmarked car. Police say that Raja believed he was investigating an abandoned vehicle.
“As the officer investigated his vehicle he was suddenly confronted by an armed suspect,” Palm Beach Gardens Police Chief Stephen Stepp told reporters on Tuesday evening.
But details of what exactly occurred during that “confrontation” remain scarce. It remains unclear if Raja identified himself as a police officer, if he was carrying his badge, what if any words were exchanged between the two men and how many shots were fired at Jones. The vehicle Raja was driving was not outfitted with a dash camera, and officers with the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department do not wear body cameras.
Stepp said that Jones was carrying a handgun, which was found outside of the vehicle, and that the gun’s box and paperwork from its purchase just three days earlier were located inside of Jones’ vehicle.
Members of Jones’ family said they did not know why he bought the gun.
“No matter what the circumstances turn out to be, this is a tragic loss of life that affects us all,” Stepp said.
The shooting comes as the nation continues to grapple with the increased attention on police shootings, especially of black men and women. While many of the most prominent incidents involved unarmed black men and boys — Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott — Jones’ death seems to add a new twist to such cases — the police shooting of a black man who was legally carrying a firearm.
Jones’ friends and family members have expressed outrage at both the shooting and the lack of information about the confrontation that led to his death. On Tuesday, family members announced that they had hired civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, a Florida attorney with a national profile who represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, to advocate on their behalf. Meanwhile, civil rights activist and MSNBC host Al Sharpton is rumored to have made plans to travel to Florida to meet with Jones’ family, however his aides have not confirmed that he will travel to Florida.
“Corey Jones was a God-fearing man who dedicated his life to doing the right thing,” the Jones family said in a statement released by Crump’s office. “Rest assured, we are working diligently with our legal team to determine exactly why this plainclothes police officer in an unmarked car would approach Corey.”
The shooting was the 787th fatal police shooting of the year by an on-duty police officer, according to a Washington Post database tracking all fatal police shootings in 2015. In the two days since Jones was killed, two more people have been fatally shot and killed by on-duty officers, bringing the total number of fatal police shootings to 789 to date.
Officer Raja joined the Palm Beach Gardens police force in April, and officials said he had no complaints or disciplinary records in the six months since he was hired. Prior to taking his current job, Raja worked for the police department in nearby Atlantis, Fla., from 2008 to 2015. His disciplinary records from that department, obtained by the open-records group Transparency and Accountability Project, show that he received a written warning for failing to properly file some investigative paperwork but do not include any complaints or investigation related to use of force.
“We are reaching out for help everywhere, and if anyone, whether it is Al Sharpton or whoever…even to the president of the United States, if he can help us in this situation…” said Sylvester Banks, Jones’ grandfather. “God is going to bring this to justice. I believe that justice will be served. And we are praying to God that special people will be [brought] into our life and we will get justice.”
In addition to Jones family and civil rights activists, local police union officials have also called on the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department to release more information about the shooting.
“It’s causing reckless inferences about our officer’s conduct,” John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association told the Sun-Sentinel on Tuesday. “Whether it’s good or bad, they need to be more transparent.”
The shooting is being investigated by the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, which has referred all requests for comment to the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department.
“I understand the public concern with what is going on. We share that,” Chief Stepp said. “The most important thing, I believe, is to get the facts out. That’s what we’re trying to do.”