North Texas police reform advocates are seething after a Denton County grand jury on Thursday declined to indict the officer who killed Darius Tarver, a 23-year-old University of North Texas student, in January 2020.
A criminal justice major seeking his second degree, Darius was a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement. His father is a chaplain for the McKinney Police Department.
The night he was shot, Darius’ family says he was in a mental health crisis; the week before, he’d been in a devastating car wreck that resulted in a traumatic brain injury.
Darius’ father, Kevin Tarver, is angry at the grand jury’s decision, but he told the Observer he’s not discouraged. The system that allowed the officer who killed his son to walk free needs to change, he said.
“It was still murder regardless of what the verdict was, so does that make you angry? Yeah,” Tarver said. “But what do you do with the anger? I give it to God.”
Darius’ shooting occurred four months before that of George Floyd, the Black man whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Some on social media have also compared Darius’ case to that of Frisco’s Marvin Scott III, a 26-year-old Black man who died last week in police custody. Following Scott’s death, seven officers at the Collin County Detention Facility were placed on administrative leave.
Like Darius, Scott’s family says he was experiencing a mental health crisis, prompting social justice advocates to call for police reform.
“This is far too similar to what happened with #DariusTarver in Denton,” Denton County Democratic Party Chair Jennifer Skidonenko said in a tweet. “A good man experiencing a crisis that ended in his death instead of seeking help for him. Everyone involved has blood on their hands and we demand justice for #MarvinScottIII.”
This is far too similar to what happened with #DariusTarver in Denton. A good man experiencing a crisis that ended in his death instead of seeking help for him. Everyone involved has blood on their hands and we demand justice for #MarvinScottIII https://t.co/pAud1DX0e6— Jennifer Skidonenko (@SkidonenkoForTX) March 17, 2021
In January 2020, police were called to a Denton apartment complex after Darius began to smash neighbors’ exterior lights with a frying pan; he also carried a meat cleaver. Bodycam footage shows him calling out to his “heavenly father.”
Officers told Darius to drop his weapons. When he didn't, one used a Taser on him, causing him to flail his arms. Shortly after, Darius was shot and fell to the ground, and officers kicked the meat cleaver out of reach.
Attorney Lee Merritt, who represents the Tarver family, said the officers “let [Darius] get back up and grab the frying pan” instead of restraining him while he was on the ground. Then, Darius was shot two more times.
Darius’ mental state prevented him from complying with officers’ commands, and officers should have understood that he was in crisis, Merritt said.
“We see it all over this state and all over this nation,” Merritt said. “People are being killed by the police when they’re in desperate need of help. And that’s what Darius was: He was in need of help.”
Activist and community advocate Jessica Luther Rummel said the grand jury’s decision was "infuriating but unsurprising." Misinformation about Darius’ case — like the rumor that he’d stabbed an officer — has run rampant since last year, she said.
Even though police directed Darius into a well-lit area, it was only after they shot him that they appeared to notice the multiple lacerations on his face, which he sustained in his recent car accident, Luther Rummel said.
“They never saw him as a human being. Not once,” she said. “They didn’t look at his face, they didn’t want to touch him. They saw a rabid fucking animal, and they killed him like one.”
Neither Denton County District Attorney’s Office nor the Denton Police Department returned the Observer’s requests for comment.
Thursday, Denton City Council member Deb Armintor aired her frustration with the grand jury’s decision on Facebook. She emphasized that bodycam footage showed Darius praying to God in “a trance-like state” and that he posed no real threat to the police.
In the video, Armintor said she sees a small-framed man in a mental health crisis who’s outnumbered by officers 4-to-1. Police didn’t try to de-escalate and the use of deadly force was “totally unjustified," she said.
Armintor told the Observer the grand jury's decision was personal for her; she knows the family and Darius was her constituent.
Even though the officer who killed Darius has not been charged, Armintor believes he should have immediately been fired. Instead, he remains on administrative duty.
“What kind of message does that send to police that if something like this happens, you’re going to get off and get to spend some time behind a desk?” Armintor said.
“It’s not enough just taking this person off the street,” she continued. “You need to send a clear message that shooting an unarmed person having a mental health crisis is not something that will be tolerated.”
According to the Denton Record-Chronicle, officers Douglas Downing, Michael Hernandez, Latrice Pettaway and Ryan Spivey were involved. They were all back on duty within two months of the shooting.
In her Facebook post, Armintor named Downing as the one responsible for Darius’ death.
A petition by Kevin Tarver, which had 193,635 signatures as of Friday afternoon, called for the district attorney’s office to file criminal charges. It also demanded an independent special prosecutor and for the Department of Justice to investigate the case. Plus, Tarver wants all four officers fired and charged with Darius’ murder.
After his son died, Denton Police Department created a mental health division, Tarver said. Darius’ death has led to positive change, but Tarver said the police department and district attorney’s office have left the family in the dark; he only learned of the grand jury’s decision through the media.
Tarver has accused the police of a cover-up and says lies have clouded his son's death. “We’re not going anywhere," he said. “The truth will be revealed, and we will get justice. It may not be immediate, but I’m in it for the long haul.”
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