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Friday rally raises questions about police shooting

Rally poster.jpg
Kunaan Smyth
A poster being circulated by Fairbanks organizers of a Friday rally for the family of Bishar Hassan.

The Fairbanks rally is scheduled for 5:30 this evening in front of Fairbanks City Hall.

On April 1, 2019, Bishar Hassan was shot multiple times by three officers who were investigating a report that an armed man was walking into traffic near downtown Anchorage. At the time, Anchorage police said that Hassan pointed what looked like a handgun at officers before officers shot him. It was later determined that Hassan was holding a BB gun.

Fairbanks rally coordinator Kunaan Smyth says the shooting didn’t occur in Fairbanks, but it resonated with people in the Interior.

"Many of us in Fairbanks want to stand together with Bishar Hassan's family. So that way they know that they're not alone. And so we can raise awareness and let people know his story," Smyth said.

Like the Alaska Black Caucus, who is organizing the rally in Anchorage, there are groups such as the Fairbanks Native Association’s Justice Task Force, and the Greater Fairbanks Branch of the NAACP who are working on improving communication with local law enforcement. Smyth says officers are welcome to the rally if officers come as participants.

"The police are more than welcome to join if they're willing to do so in their civilian clothes. But because of the number of people who anticipate participating, who have fear of police while in uniform, because of things that have happened in the past," they said. "We are trying to encourage keeping it as peaceful as possible."

The Fairbanks event will begin at 5:30, with an online connection to the rally in Anchorage.

Hassan’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Anchorage Police Department last year. Then in February, lawyers for Hassan’s family shared dash cam footage of the shooting with NBC news. The video shows officers immediately firing on Hassan after he pulled the BB gun from his waistband.

It sparked widespread conversation and concern. And it shed new light on what actually happened, says Celeste Hodge-Growden, president of the Alaska Black Caucus.

“When Mr. Hassan lay, dying, there was no aid rendered to him for over two minutes. Now that is very concerning, after he was hit, I believe, six times and shot at over 20 times,” she said.

Anchorage police have declined to comment on the footage.

Hodge-Growden says one of the reasons her group is holding the rally on Friday is out of concern over how the Anchorage police are trained to de-escalate dangerous situations.

She compared Hassan’s shooting to an incident earlier this month where an Anchorage man fired on officers in a lengthy standoff that resulted in one officer getting shot multiple times. The suspect, 28-year-old white man Dillon Spring, eventually walked out of the building and was arrested.

“I’m not sure how long that standoff was, but they deescalated to no end. And that brought about a positive ending, that that person is still alive,” she said.

Anchorage police officials also declined to comment on the difference in de-escalation tactics between the two cases, beyond stating that the situations were different and “each has its own dynamics which directly affect the tactics used as well as the outcome.”

In Anchorage, the rally comes as the police department continues to sort out a body-worn camera policy. Rally organizers the footage of Hassan’s killing wasn’t immediately available to the public. The Anchorage Police Department has been working on implementing a body-worn camera policy since voters approved the purchase of the cameras last year. APD officials say the draft policy is currently pending agreement with the police union. Under the policy, members of the public or affected parties could get footage through a public records request that -- according to police officials -- would “be processed in accordance with Municipal and State records release and privacy restrictions.”

The Alaska Black Caucus and other advocates have criticized the draft for not being accountable or transparent, with advocates concerned that footage of police shootings aren’t automatically released, and the lengthy process to get footage through a records request.

Rich Curtner co-chairs the Justice committee for the Alaska Black Caucus. He says the rally for Hassan taking place as police are putting through the body camera policy wasn’t intentional. He says the rally had been planned for months and coincides with the date Hassan was killed.

“Personally, we thought we would have body cams by now. And it’s just an illustration of the frustration of getting the body cams. They kind of go hand-in-hand as far as looking at what we want for accountability and transparency with the police department,” he said.

The rally in support of Hassan and further police accountability will be held Friday, April 1 at 5:15 p.m. in Anchorage in the parking lot at the intersection of 16th Ave and A Street, which is where Hassan was shot.