What started as a routine check on Keshawn Thomas, a 27-year-old Black man who was sleeping, intoxicated, in his green Camaro at a gas station in Albuquerque, ended when cops fired 16 shots and killed him.
All three policemen who fired shots that day claimed to have seen Thomas holding a gun that was later found in the cab of his car with a single bullet in the chamber. Police can be seen retrieving a weapon after the shooting in body-camera footage of the episode. They also shared photos of an additional magazine found in the car.
Still, the August incident led to protests, sparring between cops and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and a lawsuit filed by the family for further video and documentation of the incident.
Now, experts who reviewed body-camera footage shared by the Thomas family with The Daily Beast have called into question what they say amounted to a deadly mix of verbal badgering and tactical missteps.
And the family has filed notice that they are suing for the loss of Thomas’ life, according to their lawyer.
“Instead of de-escalating the situation, they escalated—all while talking trash,” David Thomas, the man’s father, told The Daily Beast.
Thomas’ family said that their son’s killing is another example of how the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) continues to hurt community trust in police, making the case that even as the feds have imposed—and, more recently, loosened—oversight of APD, questions remain in the community about the department’s reform efforts.
“This is bad,” argued Dr. Kalfani Turè, a policing expert, assistant professor at Mount St. Mary’s University and fellow at Yale, upon reviewing footage supplied by The Daily Beast. “And I would place all the liability at the foot of Albuquerque PD.”
Gilbert Gallegos Jr., a spokesperson for the Albuquerque Police Department, told The Daily Beast, “In this instance, Thomas admitted to being intoxicated, and yet he was handling a firearm. Thomas also told officers the firearm was in the trunk, but it turned out to be inside the vehicle. He asked to be allowed to go in the car to retrieve a phone. But no phone was ever found in the car.”
Attempts to reach the officers who took part in the shooting—Marcos Flores, Kenneth Skeens and Dustin Ketchum—were unsuccessful. None of them have been charged with a crime.
In a statement, Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, told The Daily Beast, “The department is under a DOJ consent decree and we strictly follow constitutional policing and this is an example [of] current training. This training is confusing and often puts officers at risk, in an effort to preserve the constitutional rights of an individual.”
In their public press conference in September, the Albuquerque Police Department showed parts of officers’ body-camera video, including when Thomas initially exited the car, right before the shooting, as well as the shooting itself. Neither Thomas’ hands nor the gun were clear on body- camera footage in the key moments before the shooting took place.
But the presentation did not include the more heated parts of the exchange with officers, as captured on additional body-camera footage obtained by the family.
In appraising that video, Turè pointed to what he described as a series of missteps.
These included, according to Turè, who is himself an ex-cop: police swearing at and then threatening an intoxicated Thomas with arrest after saying he was not in trouble, and allowing Thomas to reach into his pockets multiple times and return to the cab of the car after he acknowledged he had a weapon.
Turè explained that he took no “joy” finding fault with cops.
“When [Thomas] finally sits on a curb. He says, ‘Look, I’m not going to be pressed.’” said Turè. “It’s like an officer is like, like an instigator, really. The instigator comes in, starts up the conflict, and then steps out or steps away from it.”
In a press conference last month, Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina conceded that the incident was not exactly an example of pristine policing in practice.
“We can be better at controlling our frustrations and the way we communicate with individuals,” he said. Still, Medina did not blame officers.
“We’ve seen the whole gamut of this during the whole course of the past year in our community, where the mixture of firearms and alcohol have led to tragic results for the community,” he said.
Thomas’ father pushed back on the chief’s claims, alluding to the local police force having a long history of misconduct that has drawn sustained federal attention, including, as the union leader acknowledged, from the Justice Department.
“No,” David Thomas countered in an interview on Friday. “The reason we’re having problems out here in Albuquerque and why not only myself but a lot of people don’t trust the police department is because police are not being held accountable.”
On Aug. 28, police arrived at the scene of the eventual killing after being called by a concerned bystander: a worker at a Valero gas station. The woman had dialed 911 to ask that someone check on a man whose car had been parked at the station for hours.
Extended body-camera footage shows police quickly escalating the encounter from initial expressions of concern to eventually cursing at and threatening Thomas.
Thomas’ car was off, and cops woke him up by asking him to come out—noting to each other they could not charge him with drunk driving.
“You’re not in trouble, just stand up and get out,” one officer requests, also asking him to sit down.
Thomas complies, then notes: “I’m not going to have a seat” and proceeds to light a cigarette, moving slowly, and obviously very intoxicated.
“You don’t want to have a seat, [sic] do what I’m telling you, then we can do this the hard way,” says an officer.
They begin to bicker about whether or not he had an open container in the car, and police begin to cuss at Thomas.
“Alright my dude. I haven’t give you guys a hard time, shoot,” says Thomas before leaning against the side of the car.
“Yeah you did. I told you to take a seat, you said no, then you want to play fucking dumb and say you don’t have an open container when it’s right there in the cup holder,” an officer replies.
The swearing and arguing intensifies, with one officer asking, “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m going through a hard time,” Thomas replies.
When cops ask why he would be drinking in a car, at risk of hurting himself or others, he replies: “I haven’t hurt anybody.”
Then, later, a cop asks, “What that fuck’s your problem?”
Thomas begins to respond in kind.
“Don’t ask me what the fuck my problem is … don’t hit me with aggression cause that’s not the way fucking police work.“
Turè, the policing expert, suggested Thomas was spot on in his (less-than-sober) analysis.
“He calls it,” Turé told The Daily Beast. “I’m just sitting here like, ‘He calls it. He’s like, ‘That’s not how policing is supposed to be.’ He’s expecting professionalism and he’s not getting it.”
Turè noted that procedural justice—the perception of a fair process by those interacting with police—has been identified as a key pillar for the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. And, he said, Thomas’ death was preceded by the opposite: swearing, escalation, and mixed messages.
“How does this destroy police-community relations? How does this affect trust? In street vernacular, he ‘gives a clinic’ in a few seconds. He never uses the word procedural justice, but he damn sure comes close to it. It’s unfortunate he lost his life,” Turè added.
There is one bright spot in the video, said Turè. Officer Skeens arrives as backup and levels with Thomas about why he needs to move away from the pumps and sit down: because smoking next to a gas pump is dangerous.
“I respect that, bro,” Thomas says, before moving over to the curb and sitting down as asked.
After a moment of calmer conversation, things take a turn for the worse.
In the body-cam footage, Thomas is asked to call someone to pick him up. He asks to retrieve a phone from the car before informing cops he had a gun in the trunk, and hands an officer a pistol magazine from his pants pocket.
“All right, cool, I’ll give it back—no worries… just go grab your phone,” responds one of the officers.
That was an odd decision, according to Ian Adams, a policing expert at the University of South Carolina.
“From a tactical perspective, why is he being allowed back in the vehicle, after evidence that a weapon is found already in his pocket? ” he told The Daily Beast.
As Thomas slowly rifles through the front of his car, Officer Flores suddenly screams, “Gun, gun, gun!” and the three officers drop Thomas in a hail of 16 bullets.
The position of Thomas’ hands and gun at that moment are not visible in any of the body-cam videos released. The gun was found to have a single bullet in its chamber, but no magazine, according to APD. Another magazine was found in the car.
“Fuck, why did he do that?” a cop later exclaims on body-camera footage.
The event is still under investigation by APD, but the three officers were expected to return to work in September, according to the Albuquerque Journal, which previously reported on the case.
Neither APD nor the police union would comment on the current work status of the officers.
“I think that this is a major officer safety issue and officer training issue, and therefore Albuquerque owns this liability for this loss of life,” repeated Turè.
Thomas’ family concurs. After reviewing the extended body camera footage, his father called the video “horrifying.” Thomas’ parents and great uncle also said that their son legally owned the firearm, which was not disputed by police.
Laura Thomas, Keshawn’s mother, recalled her son as a young person who loved his brother, video games, sports, and had a newfound passion for travel.
“With your kids, you know what you have and what you don’t have, you know,” she told The Daily Beast. “Like I tell the attorney, if I know my son was about that life and want[ed] to shoot people and into gangs, into all that crazy life, I could accept it, I will fully accept it. But I know my son, and the community knows him so well, that is hard to accept for him to go out like this.”
For his part, Thomas’ great uncle Ronnie Thomas cited APD’s ugly history, and questioned why anyone should believe what cops say.
“As far as the actual shooting, anybody with common sense would go, ‘How did it even get to that point?’”