For years, the ongoing epidemic of Black people dying at the hands of police has only continued. And the list of names and families becomes longer as police departments across the country and politicians at all levels reject any type of reform.
And in the six years since 24-years-old Ashtian Barnes was shot and killed by Harris County Precinct 5 Constable Roberto Felix Jr., Harris County and Houston Police Department have also added themselves to the list.
The norm in America is for the families of these tragedies to carry on with business as usual. But, the fight for justice and accountability isn’t stopping anytime soon for Barnes’s family and attorneys.
According to 2013-2020 statistics, based on population, a Black person was 2.8 times more likely to be killed by the Harris County Sheriff’s Department than a white person.
Court documents showed that Deputy Felix initially pulled over Barnes for a routine traffic stop, specifically an unpaid toll violation, on April 28, 2016.
According to video footage, Felix tells Barnes he’s being pulled over for an unpaid toll violation as soon as he approaches the vehicle. In response, Barnes informs Felix the car is a rental, and he’s on his way to get it washed before dropping it back to the owner.
Next, Felix asks for Barnes’s license and registration, to which Barnes replies that the car is in his girlfriend’s name. Moreover, while Barnes is looking for his identification, Felix says, “Don’t go digging around.”
Next, while slightly touching his firearm Felix yells at Barnes again, “Don’t go digging around! I smell marijuana. Is there any marijuana in the vehicle?”
Barnes tells Felix his ID is in the trunk, to which Felix commands Barnes to open it, and he complies. Instead of searching the trunk, Felix opens the driver’s side door asking Barnes to step out of the car.
Next, the footage shows Felix jumping into the car and shouting, “Don’t fucking move. Don’t fucking move,” before jumping into the moving vehicle and firing two shots in point-blank range, both hitting Barnes as the car accelerates.
In March 2021, Felix was dismissed from the use of deadly force charges after a criminal court decided his actions were not objectively unreasonable.
But after the family and attorneys requested another look, U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennet agreed to open the case to inspect if Felix used excessive force against Barnes and examine his actions leading up to the shooting.
“We felt we provided a pretty strong legal argument that the judge had not fully considered another avenue to prove excessive force instead of the use of deadly force,” Ashley Fernandez Dorsaneo, Texas Civil Rights Project senior attorney of criminal justice, said to the Signal. “He agreed with us. And we’re able to kind of have a second bite at the apple.”
According to Dosaneo, in this timeline of the civil case, a summary judgment with experts will testify if the officer’s conduct was reasonable or not. Then after additional legal briefs and arguments, Judge Bennet will decide the next steps in the case.
Barnes’s story unfolded like so many other Black and Latinx people who have died at the hands of police, a tragedy for the family and community isn’t an isolated incident.
And in reality, is normal in the United States.
Christopher Rivera, TCRP’s Criminal Injustice Outreach Coordinator, said that while the goal is to get Barnes and his family justice, the long-term goal is also advocating for disarming traffic cops to ensure public safety for all residents.
“We want to put a stop to having armed traffic enforcement,” Rivera said. “We want to put a stop to minor traffic fines and fees. And we want to end having the odor of marijuana be any reason for search and seizure or cause for arrests.”
With this in mind, Barnes’s attorneys also determined the unpaid toll violation was not for him but a previous owner of the rental.
But beyond the statistics, alarming numbers, and advocacy toward reform is a grieving family who will never see or hug Barnes again.
“I’m not going to say it’s gotten easier because it hasn’t,” Aledra Barnes, Ashtian’s sister, told the Signal. “We just hold each other up. That’s our new normal, making sure we don’t fall.”
Janice Barnes, Ashtian’s mother, said six years after his death, the reality of Barnes not being in the family house is still a shock every day she wakes up.
“I even got a build-a-bear for my 50th birthday with his voice recorded in it so I can still hear his voice when I want,” Janice said. “My son was a people person. Ashtian had friends who admired him. Lovable kind of guy and always made his presence very comfortable with everyone.”
Both Aledra and Janice describe Barnes as cool, determined, protective, family-oriented, flashy, and a goofball. His family also said at the time of his death he was in school training to become a barber and studying in a medical assistant program.
Aledra said right before her brother’s death, the family had a conversation about police brutality and injustice in light of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who died in police custody after being pulled over in a routine traffic stop. Bland was found dead in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas, in July of 2015.
“We were supporting when it was Sandra Bland, but now we need the support,” Aledra said.
Janice also said she’s still baffled on why Deputy Felix decided to pull the trigger to end his life instead of taking Barnes to jail.
“He didn’t have to die that day,” Janice said. “Doing what you’re asked to do when the police pull you over was a general rule being a young man.”