The Gloucester County NAACP on Tuesday denounced the fatal shooting of a shoplifting suspect in a strip mall parking lot by Deptford police over the weekend and said it planned to investigate.
Civil rights leaders are launching their own probe into the death of LaShanda Anderson, 36, of Philadelphia, who was shot twice after she allegedly tried to run over two police officers in a parking lot of Deptford Crossing during an attempted getaway, said chapter president Loretta Winters.
Authorities say Anderson ignored commands to stop as she drove toward the officers and one of them fired in self-defense, striking her.
The Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office is investigating the incident and whether the use of force was justified.
But Anderson's family and civil rights leaders believe it may be difficult to determine what happened because there is no dashcam or body-camera footage. A niece called the shooting "another senseless killing of an unarmed African American woman."
Winters said the NAACP plans to try to push Deptford Township to join a growing number of police departments nationwide that have dashcams and body cameras. She plans to meet with Mayor Paul Medany and local and county law enforcement officials.
"I can't get it past my mind that someone who was shoplifting ends up getting killed by police," Winters said Tuesday. "Does shoplifting mean a death sentence?"
Medany and Deptford Police Chief William Hanstein did not respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday. Prosecutor Charles Fiore was unavailable for comment.
The Prosecutor's Office will review the case to determine whether the officers complied with the state Attorney General Office's guidelines for appropriate use of force. It is believed to be the first fatal police-involved shooting in Deptford and is the first in the county since 2015, said office spokesman Bernie Weisenfeld.
Anderson and her alleged accomplices, Chanel Barnes, 27, and Raoul Gadson, 43, both of Philadelphia, have extensive criminal records and a pattern of arrests for shoplifting. Gadson, charged with assault and robbery, remained at large Tuesday. Barnes is in the Salem County Jail on a shoplifting charge after prosecutors filed to detain her, Weisenfeld said. Barnes faces a detention hearing on Thursday in Superior Court in Woodbury, he said.
Anderson was arrested more than 15 times over the last 18 years, repeatedly for shoplifting but also for more serious charges, including firearms violations and attempted murder. Gadson has been arrested numerous times on charges including theft and drug dealing. Barnes has been arrested seven times for shoplifting.
The two police officers went to the strip mall Saturday in response to a report that a man and two women were shoplifting. A security guard in a Marshalls store recognized one of the suspects from a state police bulletin about a retail theft ring targeting the chain.
A county dispatcher advised the officers that one of the suspects was wanted in connection with a homicide. It was unclear what homicide the dispatcher referred to, he said.
Upon arrival, the officers saw Gadson struggling with security guards who confronted the trio as they tried to leave the store. An arrest complaint against Barnes said the three left with more than $3,443 in stolen merchandise in a suitcase. Gadson ran off, while the two women jumped into a rented Nissan Armada.
Anderson, who was driving, accelerated toward the officers and struck one, a patrol captain with 27 years on the force, with her open driver's-side door, prosecutors said. Witnesses said she then "accelerated straight at the [other] officer."
The second officer, a sergeant and 17-year veteran, fired three shots at Anderson, causing the car to veer and narrowly miss him, prosecutors said. Anderson was struck twice and was pronounced dead at the scene, Weisenfeld said.
Stanley King, a Woodbury civil rights lawyer who has filed several wrongful death lawsuits against police in South Jersey, questioned whether the officer should have fired shots into a moving vehicle. King is not involved in the case.
"This is a real questionable shooting," King said. "I just don't know whether that level of force is justified."
According to the state attorney general's guidelines and restrictions on the use of deadly force, "discharging a firearm at or from a moving vehicle entails an even greater risk of death or serious injury to innocent persons. Due to this greater risk, and considering that firearms are not generally effective in bringing moving vehicles to a rapid halt, officers shall not fire from a moving vehicle or at the driver or occupant of a moving vehicle unless the officer believes" there is imminent danger to the officer or another person and there are no other available means to avert the danger, the guidelines say.
The names of the officers involved in Saturday's shooting have not been released. The captain struck by the car door was uninjured. The sergeant has been placed on paid leave pending the completion of an investigation into the shooting.
Without footage showing the events leading up to the shooting, it could be difficult for investigators to determine if the shooting falls within the guidelines, King said. Authorities have not provided details on where Anderson was struck or where the officer was standing when he fired.
"No body camera? No dashboard camera? How could Deptford justify not having those pieces of equipment in this day and age?" asked King.
Winters, of the NAACP, agreed, saying, "This is to protect everyone."
Weisenfeld said investigators hope that exterior security cameras in the area may have captured the incident. There are several stores in the strip mall, located across from Deptford Mall.
Community activist Walter Hudson of the National Awareness Alliance, a civil rights group, called on investigators to release any audio and camera footage located that captures events leading up to the shooting.
"With climate and conditions of the police and community relations in America, when there is a shooting death of black and brown people in America, we must demand transparency in the investigation," Hudson said. "We cannot take their account as to what happened."
Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have police body camera laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New Jersey spent $1.5 million in 2016 to acquire 1,000 body cameras for state troopers.
Experts say dashboard and body cameras help hold officers and residents more accountable, and make it easier to review complaints from the public. Having arrest footage could also help prevent costly legal battles between complainants and municipalities, they say.
Deptford challenged a state law passed in 2014 requiring all municipalities to outfit new police patrol cars primarily involved in traffic stops with dashboard cameras, saying the mandate without state funding would unduly stress its budget. A state board agreed and struck the mandate down in 2016.
Medany, in a 2015 interview with the South Jersey Times in Woodbury, expressed skepticism about the use of dashboard and body cameras.
"We've had police officers for years – what happened to the day where we trained and trusted police officers and their judgment? I trust my cops; do they make mistakes? Sure. But are [cameras] the be-all and end-all?"