Her brother was shot by Long Beach police; she worries the system hasn’t changed, despite backlash

Shawnese Armstrong stood quietly near the rear of the crowd last month as protesters raged against police brutality. Punk-rock music boomed throughout Downtown’s skyscrapers as activists gripped megaphones and called out for the defunding of police institutions.

As they marched through Long Beach, they held signs with names like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—the two high-profile examples of Black men and women dying at the hands of police that sparked a wave of nationwide unrest.

Armstrong carried a sign with a different name, her brother’s.

“I’m living the pain every day,” Armstrong said.

On May 7, 2016, Long Beach police fatally shot her 20-year-old brother Lionel Gibson, believing that he was carrying an Uzi submachine gun. He was actually carrying a CO2 BB gun. Police fired multiple volleys at Gibson while he was on the ground, saying he kept trying to get up and reach for the gun even after being wounded.

Gibson’s death grabbed headlines in Long Beach, but it didn’t get anywhere near the nationwide level of attention garnered by Floyd, Taylor or Michael Brown.

Like Armstrong, many of the recent protesters were frustrated by the ever-growing list of people of color who suddenly rise to fame when they’re killed by police.

“It’s just like, every day, it’s always something,” she said. “You turn on the TV and it’s just another incident with the police and an African American, or a woman or a Mexican. I feel like it’s got worse, but now people are more aware.”

In Long Beach, things have improved, at least statistically. City documents show decreasing levels in police shootings. There were eight police shootings in 2017, and by 2019, that number dropped to three.

Despite this, Armstrong feels distrust in the overall system. She said her mother wanted to see the officers who shot Gibson face jail time. The District Attorney’s office reviewed her brother’s death and determined officers acted within the law. The Long Beach Police Department also found that the officers acted within policy.

The family turned to civil court alleging police used excessive force. The case carried on for three years before Long Beach agreed to settle the lawsuit for $2 million in April 2019.

“The settlement value is the only indication of guilt you will get,” said Peter Carr, one of the attorneys who represented Gibson’s family.

Carr believes the District Attorney’s office, which relies on and works closely with police officers throughout the county, should not be in a position to exonerate them when they kill someone.

“The irony is, in every other relationship, it would be a conflict of interest,” Carr said.

Despite enormous pressure from Black Lives Matter protests already causing some police departments to change their policies on how officers use force, Carr argued real changes won’t happen until the relationship between the District Attorney and prosecuted police officers is broken up and reviewed by outside sources.

“I don’t think it will change until the District Attorney cares,” he said. “You would have to have a District Attorney that’s detached from the prosecution’s office.”

The Long Beach Post reached out to the police department and asked if officers would still have shot Gibson, if all other things were to stay the same, given the recent protests and demonstrations.

“We will not speculate on how circumstances would change now,” Arantxa Chavarria, a spokeswoman for the LBPD told the Long Beach Post in an email, “but we can ensure you we do have a multi-level review process that thoroughly reviews these incidents so that we can continue to improve our enforcement encounters.”

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Sebastian Echeverry is the North Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of his grant-funded position with the Long Beach Post. If you want to support Sebastian's work, you can donate to his Report for America position at lbpost.com/support.
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