The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When law enforcement killed my brother, there was no video

I worry that once the protests end, stories like his will be forgotten again.

A supporter of Black Lives Matter held a protest sign outside the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters last week. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
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Seeing millions of people, particularly white people, pouring into the streets to demand justice for black lives has been overwhelming. As a black man, my heart is full; I truly feel seen and heard for the first time in my life. But I can’t help but think about the countless faces and voices that go unknown. The families that are silenced. The stories that are forgotten.

Stories like my brother’s.

My brother Matthew Tucker didn’t get a video. He didn’t get a hashtag. He didn’t get human dignity from the police. And he didn’t get to see his 19th birthday.

So for me, this is more than a protest or cultural moment — this is my life. And my biggest fear is that once the headlines change or the streets are back to normal, we’ll go back into the shadows.

My family is among thousands of black and brown American families who have had their lives changed forever as a result of the police. We’ve also been met with a system that feels like it is more willing at every step to protect public servants rather than protecting the very public they serve. Police kill 1,000 Americans every year, and they kill black people at a much higher rate than white people. Over the years, I’ve seen the videos of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray. I grew up having the conversation with my parents about how to act around police, but I never truly understood. I never thought this would become my reality.

Police killing black people is a pandemic, too

We became part of that story on May 4, 2016, in Temecula, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb that is consistently rated one of the safest cities in America. My brother Matthew was killed by two Riverside County sheriff’s officers, Sgt. Michael Hamilton and Deputy Rosa Calderon.

Like many 18-year-olds, Matthew was struggling to find happiness in life. After an unexpected breakup with his girlfriend, he called the police, afraid of his suicidal thoughts. When officers arrived at our family home, my mother welcomed them, thinking they were going to help. They didn't.

The two officers didn’t stop to talk to my mother so they could fully understand the situation. Instead of securing the scene or calling for additional backup, they followed my mother to her garage. She opened the door. And there stood Matthew, sad and alone.

The officers confronted Matthew, ordering him to drop the knife. When Matthew did not comply, they didn’t call for crisis intervention. They didn’t listen to the desperate pleas from my mother not to shoot her son. Instead of de-escalating the crisis, they pulled out their guns, opting not to employ any tools or techniques to apply less-than-deadly force.

Barely two minutes after they had arrived, several shots rang out in that garage, all while my mother, sister and 1-year-old niece could hear them.

According to Riverside County coroner Mark Fajardo, the shot to Matthew’s back was the fatal one, and it may have been fired when he was already lying on the ground. He’d been at least 15 feet away from the officers when they shot him.

Matthew was still alive on the scene, and he could be heard calling out for my mother — like any teenager would. She never got to say goodbye to him; instead, she was held back to give a statement to the police. I was living in New York at the time, and I’ll never forget the haunting screams from my sister over the phone as she held my niece.

The sheriff’s department issued a news release, with a sensational title to control the narrative, “A knife-wielding man was shot and killed during a confrontation with deputies.” They claimed Matthew advanced toward the officers with his knife. (Contacted by The Washington Post, the department declined to comment for this article.)

When police treat protesters like insurgents, sending in troops seems logical

Of course, then came the unions, the self-defense claims and the digging up of my brother’s past that he’d been working so hard to overcome.

My parents sued Riverside County for wrongful death. I think the trial was the hardest part. The law firm the county hired to defend the lawsuit seemed to blame my mother and Matthew for what happened. After six days where we had to dwell on the darkest day of our lives, the actions of the officers were found to be justified. But the pain of a senseless death being ruled justified wasn’t enough. The system also punished my family by ordering my parents to pay almost $18,000 in legal costs.

To this day, we’re threatened with litigation if we speak out. It’s been four years. We’ve stayed quiet, and I had no other choice but to forgive the officers and Riverside County. But that wound was opened last week when the mayor of Temecula, James Stewart, resigned because of an email he sent to a constituent stating, “I don’t believe there’s ever been a good person of color killed by a police officer.” (Stewart claimed he hadn’t meant it and that a voice-to-text translator had made an error transcribing his words.)

Those comments, amid the uprising nationwide, prompted a group of Temecula teens to research Matthew’s case. They’ve started a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures to demand the firing of Hamilton, who has since been promoted to sergeant.

There’s no cost to white people who call 911 about black people. There should be.

After the turmoil of the last few weeks, I’m left knowing that my brother was a good person. Perfect? No. But he was a good person. And his story is just one story. There are many, many more.

Across the United States, cities and counties are spending tens of millions of dollars just on lawsuits over police violence and killings. (Minneapolis alone, the city where this wave of protests began, paid out $25 million between 2003 and 2019.) Each one of those cases is someone’s pain.

I wish #DefundThePolice had been a thing before Matthew died. I definitely don’t think the majority of police officers are bad, and I would never want to abolish the police department, but I wish Matthew and other kids like him had someone else to call. I believe Matthew didn’t pose a threat to anyone — definitely not to the officers who came to our house — and he didn’t need armed sheriff’s deputies with only eight hours of de-escalation training to respond. He needed someone who could help him.

Cops prevent violence. But they aren't the only ones who can.

What if we put all that money spent to plaster over grief and pain that won’t ever go away — those millions and millions of dollars paid out after police shootings — in the hands of social workers, mental health and crisis intervention workers, addiction programs and homelessness efforts? These things prevent crime and make our communities safer. That would mean police with deadly weapons aren’t the ones asked to address all of our problems.

If Matthew was met with compassion, not force, he’d be a thriving young man today. I hope he’s not another black man that America will forget.