LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The family of a popular barbecue chef killed in a clash with law enforcement said he was protecting his restaurant amid chaos caused when officers began pelting people with pepper balls.
They questioned the account by police, which released surveillance video they said appeared to show David McAtee firing a gun from the door as officers shot the projectiles. But the video, the family’s lawyer said, raises “more questions than it answers.”
Police and National Guard soldiers were trying to clear a crowd from a parking lot early Monday to enforce a curfew because of protests downtown, miles away. McAtee’s family is left wondering how he, a well-known community figure who fed police for free from his barbecue stand, ended up a casualty of the unrest.
“He’s like the heart of this block,” said Marvin McAtee, his business partner and nephew, who considered him a brother. He said McAtee was kind-hearted and calm, and would never set out to hurt police. “He always felt like he had to show respect to get it.”
The city was under curfew after days of protests demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was killed in her home in Louisville in March. The 26-year-old EMT was shot eight times by narcotics detectives who knocked down her front door while attempting to enforce a search warrant. No drugs were found in the home. The demonstrations also erupted over the death of a black man in Minneapolis — George Floyd — in an encounter with police.
Marvin McAtee said that around midnight on Monday, eight family members were milling around the restaurant on the main floor of the small, gray building set off from the busy intersection by a fenced lot. They had a room in the basement set up so he could stay the nights. They did not believe they were violating the 9 p.m. curfew because he considered it his home. David was tending to the grill outside when law enforcement rolled up.
A large crowd had gathered across the street, Marvin McAtee said. When law enforcement started firing pepper balls at them, some fled toward the barbecue stand. David McAtee’s niece was standing at the door, and was hit on the arm with one of the projectiles.
The scene was quick and confusing, Marvin said. He said David had a gun in a holster at his side, and he never saw him draw it and never heard him fire it. But if it did, Marvin said, he would have been firing at the people “bum rushing” his restaurant, but not at officers, who he considered his friends.
The videos show McAtee raising his arm past his doorway, but his hand is blocked from camera view. After he’s struck by a bullet, he stumbles back inside, drops a gun and falls to the ground.
Video from a different camera posted outside the building shows a beverage can on a table outside the door exploding and falling to the ground just before smoke emerges from inside the building, a possible indication that McAtee was fired upon first.
Guard soldiers and Louisville police fired about 18 shots, J. Michael Brown, secretary of Gov. Andy Beshear’s executive Cabinet, has said. McAtee died of a gunshot wound to the chest, the coroner’s office said.
Louisville’s interim police chief, Robert Schroeder, said Tuesday that the reason McAtee fired remains an unresolved question. He was asked Wednesday if the video showed McAtee shooting at police.
“That is something we don’t know,” he said. “It appears he was shooting a firearm. We do not know if he was targeting police. We do not know what he was shooting at. That is something that the investigation will have to reveal.”
Attorney Steve Romines, representing McAtee’s mother, Odessa Riley, said Wednesday that she wants “the truth” of what led to her son’s death. In a statement, Romines downplayed the video and questioned police motives for releasing it. Police said they did so to be transparent and said the video was obtained from security cameras at McAtee’s business and another business.
“The police continually refuse to release evidence in these type of cases because they say the investigation is ongoing, yet they choose to selectively release … video to try and bolster an untenable position,” Romines said.
Louisville’s police chief was fired this week after it came to light that officers involved in the shooting failed to activate their body cameras. That revelation only reinforced the mistrust that many in the community have toward police, said Rev. Frank Smith Jr., president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Coalition, who prayed with McAtee’s family hours after the fatal shooting.
“It speaks to the concern that our community has with policing — that they are enforcing laws without obeying their own regulations,” he said.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said Wednesday the city plans to pay for an independent review of its police department. Beshear also authorized state police to independently investigate the shooting, referring to the video as “only one piece” of the investigation into circumstances leading to McAtee’s death.
His family questioned why law enforcement used such extraordinary force to crack down on a curfew violation in this neighborhood, a predominantly African American and historically impoverished community, far from the downtown protests.
“They incited a riot, until then it was peaceful,” said Will Pitts, who said David McAtee was his uncle and he often spent time helping at the barbecue restaurant.
Pitts and Marvin McAtee said they don’t hate the police; they want the truth and they want an apology.
“Never in a million years would I expect to see David McAtee on the list of names of people who’ve been killed by police,” Pitts said. “The only way for him to get justice is if you could bring him back to life. Basically what I’m saying is there will never be any justice for what they did to him.”