Kind. Courteous. Soft-spoken.
To the people who know him, it’s unfathomable that Kaleb Belay, 25, could have provoked a police officer to shoot him multiple times. Yet, Philadelphia police say that’s just what happened Wednesday on the 4900 block of Hazel Avenue in West Philadelphia.
“I just can’t see him being an aggressive person toward anybody," said Nazareth Teklesenbet, who described Belay, a Temple University student and bookkeeper for a local restaurant, as a helpful and positive person at a community meeting Sunday afternoon that drew close to 100 people concerned about his shooting.
Two Philadelphia officers responding to a call for a person with a weapon and a report of a stabbing got out of their patrol car on Hazel shortly before 7 p.m. The officers reported that Belay came from behind a large bush holding a knife. The officers backed away and ordered him to drop the knife several times, but, police said, he kept walking toward them. One of the officers shot him multiple times in the chest, police said.
The department reported that Belay was holding a steak knife.
There did not end up being a stabbing victim associated with this incident, police reported Sunday.
Belay is charged with aggravated assault, possessing an instrument of crime, and simple assault, police said Sunday. He is being treated at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, where he remains under guard by police, said his lawyer, Simon Haileab. He was in stable condition, the lawyer said.
Court records show Belay has no previous arrests in Philadelphia.
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Neighbors at the meeting said the police account of Belay’s actions was at odds with how they know him. He had been studying finance at Temple University, they said, and was notable for his gentle, even introverted, demeanor. He is described as no taller than 5-foot-6 and weighing about 150 pounds.
Belay, an Ethiopian immigrant, moved to West Philadelphia about 10 months ago. His immediate family is in Ethiopia, and he has some relatives in Virginia. The night he was shot, he had plans to go to work.
“He was due to come in and do payroll work that night,” said Saba Tedla, the owner of Booker’s Restaurant & Bar on Baltimore Avenue, where Belay had worked his way up from busing tables to bookkeeping within the last year.
Though he was a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, his shooting has shocked the community, where many have ties to Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea.
“He is new to this community, however, as an Ethiopian community we do stand by our own,” said Lula Abera, a board member at the Ethiopian Community Center at 44th and Chestnut Streets, where the meeting was held.
There are from 7,000 to 10,000 Ethiopians living in the Philadelphia area, Haileab said.
People at the meeting were measured in their comments, but expressed concern and anger, particularly Tedla, who said she was disappointed that this happened in Philadelphia.
“He’s being treated as a criminal because he is currently under arrest at the hospital,” she said. "There is no crime that has occurred except his shooting."
Haileab credited the police with being communicative and transparent about their investigation, and allowing Belay to have visitors even though he is considered in police custody. The Police Department has agreed to not question Belay without Haileab present, the lawyer said.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office reviews all police shootings, spokesperson Ben Waxman said Sunday, and an investigation into Belay’s shooting is underway.
The purpose of the meeting was to mobilize support for Belay. Haileab is seeking video footage that might have captured the shooting. The officers involved were from the 18th District, which has not been equipped with body cameras, police said.
“We are actively conducting an investigation to protect Kaleb’s interests,” Haileab said.
He also is organizing fundraising to help Belay cover the costs of multiple surgeries and what will likely be a long recovery, and for his legal defense. He also hopes to raise money to help Belay’s mother travel from Ethiopia to visit her son.
“I can’t even speculate as to what she knows and what she’s been experiencing,” Haileab said. He anticipated holding a fundraiser next week.
Haileab said it remains unclear how well Belay will recover from his wounds. He is able to communicate, mostly nonverbally, Haileab said, but is not fully aware that he is in police custody and faces criminal charges, and has not been able to provide his own account of what led to his being shot.
“He’s not out of the woods,” Haileab said. “He has a long road of recovery ahead of him.”