Then, the gunshot comes, a single round that pierces Thomas’s chest.
The woman behind the camera is not laughing any longer. Her video is a chaotic, tumbling stream of images as she tries to regain composure. “Why he shot him? Why he shot that man?” she shrieks. The woman eventually reframes the scene, with the deputy crouching over Thomas. He was pronounced dead at Houston Northwest Medical Center, authorities said.
Authorities indicated Thomas, a 34-year-old black man, had “some object” in his hand, but Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer told the Houston Chronicle “we have not recovered a weapon at this point.” It’s not clear from the video if Thomas has anything in his hands.
He does not appear to raise his arms in a manner that would appear threatening before the passing truck blocks the camera’s view. About three seconds pass between the truck obscuring the frame and the gunshot ringing out.
Marketa Thomas, the victim’s sister, told reporters Thursday that they both struggled with mental illness and relied on each together, saying there is “no justification” for the deputy involved.
“Knowing that he was okay when I woke up every day made me fine,” she told reporters at the scene, according to a Chronicle video. “And knowing that my brother is no longer here — you think I’m going to be fine? I’m not going to be fine. That’s my brother.”
Thomas spoke through tears. “That’s my flesh and my blood. … He had my back through everything. And he promised me he wouldn’t leave me, and he didn’t leave me. Somebody took him from me.”
Tensions flared at a nearby gas station where media and members of the public gathered, including apparent witnesses who said Thomas appeared compliant. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez met the crowd face to face after the incident.
“But he threw his hands up,” a woman asked, in a moment captured by CBS affiliate KHOU. “But what if he threw his hands up?”
Gonzalez rebuffed the assertion. “We don’t know that. That’s why we’re out here to investigate. We’ll get to the bottom of it,” Gonzalez told the crowd of mostly black citizens.
Thursday’s killing occurred in the jurisdiction of the Houston Police Department, which will take the lead in the investigation. The sheriff’s office and Harris County District Attorney will also conduct probes.
Authorities released a brief summary of the incident on Friday.
“According to witnesses, Thomas was walking in the middle of the intersection of Imperial Valley and Greens Rd. with his pants around his ankles, talking to himself and hitting vehicles as they passed by,” the Houston Police Department said in a statement. Thomas struck a white vehicle, and a physical altercation ensued. A passing deputy stopped to disrupt the disturbance, the police said.
“The deputy gave Thomas verbal commands to stop, which he ignored and continued to advance toward the deputy. Fearing for his safety, the deputy discharged his duty weapon, striking Thomas once in the chest,” the department stated.
“Obviously they’re someone’s loved one. These situations are always difficult and so the main thing we can do is to make sure that we get the facts and that we’re thorough and transparent,” Gonzalez told reporters at the scene Thursday.
The shooting serves as a “a reminder of how things could escalate in these situations,” Gonzalez added. “Our deputies work in a very difficult environment where they have to make split-second decisions to protect their lives as well.”
Houston officer Kim Jones at the department’s crime center told The Washington Post on Saturday there was no information on whether the deputy was carrying a Taser or other less-than-lethal weapons. The sheriff’s office did not immediately answer an inquiry requesting information on the typical configuration of less-than-lethal weapons for deputies on patrol.
The Houston killing occurred just days after two Sacramento police officers shot and killed Stephon Clark in his own backyard after a foot pursuit on Sunday night. The police believed Clark raised a gun at them. Only a white iPhone was found near his body. He died at the scene after the officers shot 20 rounds at him.
That incident sparked waves of protests in the following days, with chants of “Phones up, don’t shoot” — a reference to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. He was also unarmed when he was killed by police.
An analysis by The Post found 987 people were killed by police last year — 68 of them unarmed. Of those unarmed victims, 30 were white, 20 were black and 13 were Hispanic, showing an overrepresentation of African Americans compared to their percentage of the U.S. population. Five of the remaining fatalities were of unknown or other race.
At least 230 people have been killed by police this year, according to The Post’s database on fatal force.