JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – While the world’s attention focused on the trial of former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, news filtered out of Honolulu on the 14th of April that a South African national had been fatally shot following an encounter with police.
Lindani Myeni’s death has received little coverage in the US, bar local reports in Hawaii, but it has been bigger news and even led to protests in South Africa, which has its own difficult and complicated legacy of police violence.
And in the weeks since he died, the 29-year-old’s family have struggled to get answers about the circumstances that led to cops opening fire on an unarmed man.
Honolulu Police Department (HPD) Chief, Susan Ballard, told reporters at a press conference the day after Myeni was shot that three officers responded to a “burglary in progress” at an address in Coelho Way in Nuuanu at about 8.10PM.
To those who knew Myeni, especially his widow, Lindsay, the idea that he was committing a burglary as the police reported, just does not match his character.
Myeni moved to the US after his 2017 marriage to Lindsay, whom he met while she was on a Christian mission two years earlier. On the day he died, Lindsay said the couple spent the day at a beach with their two children after which her husband took a drive to “clear his head”.
Not only was Myeni unarmed, he had not harmed any of the residents of the property. Body camera footage appears to suggest the police did not identify themselves before the shooting. The identities of the police officers involved remain unknown. A spokesperson for the HPD told VICE World News: “The investigation is ongoing. No further information, including the names of the officers, is being released at this time.”
Myeni’s family and the HPD agree on little about the incident that led to his death. His family accepts that Myeni was at the address in the Nuuanu neighbourhood where he also resides. According to the 911 call that set the incident in motion, a woman can be heard saying “Please leave!” as the dispatcher asked for the woman’s name and address.
“Someone entered my house,” the woman is heard to say on the call.
On the call, the dispatcher asks if the woman knows the man in her house and she says she does not but mentions that he is “Lindan” from South Africa. As the dispatcher assures the caller that officers were en route, the woman can be heard to become increasingly frantic as she sobs, while an inaudible conversation can be heard in the background.
It’s unclear why Myeni was at the residence. He arrived by car and took off his shoes before entering. A lawsuit filed by Lindsay against the City and Council of Honolulu as well as the three responding officers does not provide clear reasons for his presence. But it suggests that Myeni might have mistaken the home for the ISKCON Temple – a nonsectarian temple that describes itself as a "community dedicated to spiritual education – that is “immediately adjacent” to the home. The lawsuit says that the temple and the property were “originally a single parcel that was later subdivided but remain connected,” and they both share similarities such as hedges and circular driveways. The lawsuit says that Myeni could have been making an enquiry about the home itself as it has been listed on Airbnb; the home had been the subject of multiple complaints that it was being operated as an illegal vacation rental. On the 911 call, the woman can be heard to tell the dispatcher that “I don’t know whether he knows our owner or not,” reinforcing the lawsuit’s Airbnb argument.
Whatever the reason for his presence, James Bickerton, the lawyer representing the Myeni family, told VICE World News in an interview that it was definitely not a burglary as the police claim. “He went to the house in his car, pulled up in the driveway, entered at the same time as other people going in and entered with them and then removed his shoes. All of that is consistent with our theory that he believed he was entering the temple next door, which is a similar large building with porticos and a fence,” Bickerton said.
“He was just in the wrong place and it wasn't a burglary. There was no crime committed, when it was pointed out that he was in the wrong place, we understand that he left peacefully and he was probably in the process of putting on his shoes and trying to figure out where the right building was.”
Bickerton said the secrecy surrounding the identities of the police officers involved was one of the reasons the lawsuit was filed just six days after the incident, as a ploy to extract information from a police department he said was withholding information and putting out a “false narrative”. As part of their search for more information, Myeni’s attorneys intend to depose the woman who called 911, Shiying “Sabine” Wang; her husband, Da Ju “Dexter” Wang, who seemed to be in conversation with Myeni while his wife was on the phone; and the registered homeowner, James H. Hall.
Myeni was sitting in his car when the police arrived as the woman who called them stood by the front door of the home yelling “that’s him!” repeatedly. In a statement, Bickerton says the inaudible conversation in the background of the 911 call was between Myeni and the caller’s husband and that this “distracted” Myeni. According to HPD Chief Ballard, Myeni approached “Officer Two” as “Officer One” told him to stop. In the 911 call and 55-second bodycam footage released by police, an officer can be heard shouting “Get on the ground!” They did not identify themselves as police. Attorney Bickerton argues that on a dark night, with flashlights in his face and a gun pointed at him, there was no way Myeni could have known they were police officers ordering him to get on the ground. With unknown people shouting at him, Bickerton said Myeni had “the natural reaction that people would have. It’s either fight or flee.” Myeni, who played amateur rugby in South Africa, chose to fight.
“Many of us might have chosen to flee and perhaps shot in the back,” Bickerton said.
“It was his legal right to do that, and it was a rational and logical and fair judgment. It’s not necessarily the same judgment that other people would make in that situation. But I feel that in that situation, you don't know who is pointing the gun at you. In fact, this is a key point. If someone is pointing a gun at you with a flashlight and telling you to get on the ground and they are not saying that they are the police, you can be pretty sure they are not the police. Now, if someone is not the police, ordering you to lie on the ground at gunpoint at night is quite terrifying. And you believe you're about to be executed. So I can certainly see why he made the decision that he did.”
In the bodycam footage, which is often dark and sometimes makes it difficult to make out what’s going on, a struggle ensued. Acting HPD Deputy Chief Allan Nagata said at a press conference that Myeni attacked the first officer and the third officer issued a Taser warning. The Taser was deployed but was “ineffective,” according to Nagata. The video then showed Myeni and the third police officer having a fight – Nagata called it an assault on the officer.
Myeni then “charges” at the first officer, Nagata said. The video shows the first officer pointing his gun, and a single gunshot can be heard. The shot missed and there was another brief struggle in the video. Myeni tackled the officer and punched him several times in the face and head, from which he passed out, according to the police. One of the officers fired three rounds at Myeni. Then someone yelled “Police!” after the shots were fired.
Deputy Nagata admits the police did not identify themselves but he says Myeni should have known who they were regardless. “They didn’t identify themselves, but hey, let’s be honest. They’re in uniform, right? They’re coming there with the police cars. And they told him: Get on the ground,” Nagata said. “They have their radio, their uniform. Although it is dark, it’s pretty clear.”
Bickerton said: “This whole situation was created by improper policing, by breaking basic rules that when you order someone to lie on the ground at the point of a gun, you must tell them that you're a police officer carrying out your police duty. That didn't happen here and so with tragic consequences.”
Myeni’s belongings including his phone and wedding ring are still with the police, Bickerton said. The lawsuit also seeks compensation for Lindsay “because now a single mother has to raise two young babies by herself.”
The incident is being investigated by the police as well as the Honolulu prosecutor, Steve Alm. It is the second shooting death involving HPD officers in April. And although Bickerton is hopeful that the prosecutor’s investigation will be independent, a reporter who covers law enforcement in Honolulu told VICE World News that the investigation is unlikely to bring much success. The reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak openly about their opinions of local law enforcement, said there was no culture of accountability or transparency within the force. Data shows that there is a “significant disparity” in the HPD’s use of force against Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians and Black people. But Chief Ballard insisted in her press conference that race had “nothing to do” with Myeni’s killing.
The city’s Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board will also review the case — even though the board has not met since early 2020 and there are more than a dozen cases pending before it.
Protests have been held in Honolulu and South Africa over Myeni’s death. Members of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party and the youth wing of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) took their protests to the US embassy in Pretoria. Sihle Zikalala, the Premier of the Kwazulu-Natal Province where Myeni hails from, called on US President Joe Biden to intervene in the matter.
A spokesperson for South Africa’s foreign ministry, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), did not respond to multiple requests for comment.