The Deadly Consequences of Carrying a Cell Phone While Black

The police officer who shot and killed 47-year-old Donnie Sanders won't be charged. Before him, there was Andre Hill, Stephon Clarke, and Flint Farmer.
March 4, 2021, 2:44pm
From left to right: Andre Hill, Stephon Clarke, and Donnie Sanders.
From left to right: Andre Hill, Stephon Clarke, and Donnie Sanders (Images via Facebook)

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When a Kansas City police officer pulled over Donnie Sanders for a minor traffic violation last year, the encounter didn’t end with a ticket or even an arrest. It ended in a hail of fatal gunfire.

At the time, the cop said he thought Sanders was holding a weapon. But a day later, the Kansas City Police Department determined the 47-year-old Black man was unarmed and only holding a cell phone. On Monday, after a year-long investigation, Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker decided not to charge the officer responsible.

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Sanders isn’t nearly the first Black man to be killed while holding a cell phone: There was 29-year-old Flint Farmer; 22-year-old Stephon Clarke; and most recently, 47-year-old Andre Hill. Over the last several years, cops have repeatedly said they confused cell phones for guns even though more than 96 percent of Americans own one. But because of the low standards set for police who make the split-second decision to use deadly force, they’ve often walked away from these shootings unscathed. 

“When you analyze the fact that cell phones have become ubiquitous and yet you don’t see an uptick in white people using cell phones and becoming victims of deadly force by police officers  to the same degree, it’s evident that race is the issue at the end of the day,” Gloria Browne-Marshall, a civil rights attorney and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told VICE News.

On March 12, 2020, a police cruiser, without its sirens or lights on, followed Sanders’ Chevy Tahoe on the way to his sister’s house around 11:15 p.m. after he was seen speeding down the street. When Sanders turned into an alleyway, the officer driving turned on the cruiser’s sirens and pulled him over. Police say Sanders then left his truck and started running. Dash-cam video from the incident shows the officer running toward Sanders’ car on foot before disappearing off-screen.

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Moments later, according to the dash cam audio, the officer demands that Sanders show his hands and that he drop whatever he’s holding four times. Seconds later, a volley of gunshots ring out. 

Sanders was hit three times and later died at the hospital. 

“An officer can always scream, ‘Hey, I feared for my life.’ God knows that term has been the most abused term of the 20th and 21st century.”

“We’ve lost our brother for nothing,” Sanders’ sister, Reshonda, told the Kansas City Star. “No citation, no ticket… Like, what did he do? He didn’t cause no harm to that officer. That officer’s life was in no type of harm or danger, none whatsoever, but now Donnie’s life is gone now.”

Several other Black families, tragically, share her sentiments.

In 2011, 29-year-old Flint Farmer was shot and killed in Chicago after police said he “pulled an object from his pocket.” That object was a cell phone, but the department concluded that the officer simply made a tragic mistake.

It also happened in March 2018 when Sacramento police followed 22-year-old Stephon Clarke into his grandmother’s backyard and shot him 20 times just moments later. Police officers initally said they saw him with a gun. Then they said it was a toolbar. But he was only carrying a cell phone. The officers, who also muted their body cameras after the incident, were not charged in the shooting.

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And just last December, police in Columbus, Ohio, shot and killed Hill as he was coming out of a garage at night with a cell phone in one hand. The officers had responded to a disturbance call and saw Hill go into the garage and asked him to come out with his hands up. Family later said Hill was there to drop off Christmas money for a family friend.

Only the officer responsible for Hill’s death saw serious consequences. The Columbus Division of Police fired him and renounced his actions. The officer is now facing murder charges.

“An officer can always scream, ‘Hey, I feared for my life,’” Dr. David Thomas, a retired detective and justice studies professor at Florida Gulf Coast University told VICE News. “God knows that term has been the most abused term of the 20th and 21st century.”

And it’s not always a cell phone. History shows that Black people have been perceived as threats regardless of what they’re holding: like a Subway sandwich, or even a wallet as they approach their home.

On Monday, the family of Victor Valencia—a 31-year-old mentally ill Black man who was shot and killed last year by a cop who confused a bicycle part for a firearm—filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department after the city’s Police Commission declined to reprimand the officer who killed him.

In those cases, the officers involved were cleared by their peers or by the judicial system. The investigation into the death of Casey Goodson Jr., who was holding a sandwich when he was shot and killed by a Columbus sheriff’s deputy, is still ongoing.

“Prosecutors fail to use the same degree of evidence, power of indictment and prosecution they’d use in a civilian-on-civilian crime when the person who's using deadly force is a police officer and the victim is a white person,” Browne-Marshall said. “Until the focus is placed squarely on the prosecutors to prosecute, there's not going to be any movement. We’ll continue to see the carnage we’ve seen for years now.”