Bennie Branch’s family raises concerns about 2019 deadly Tacoma police shooting report

TACOMA, Wash. — The family of 24-year-old Bennie Branch, who was shot and killed by a Tacoma police officer, is raising new concerns about the 2019 fatal shooting that’s now being reviewed by Pierce County prosecutors who will determine whether it was justified.

Branch’s mother Brenda, who witnessed the shooting, told KIRO 7 last year that her son was shot in the back while running away from police following a traffic stop around 2:40 a.m. near 34th Street and Portland Avenue in Tacoma.

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Family said Branch had been in the area to check on his homeless mother who the initial officer on scene noted in a police report appeared to be sleeping in her car at the time. Investigators say Branch was initially sitting inside another car parked nearby with several other people when the first officer arrived for a parking violation and tried to leave the scene by getting into the car with his mother.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which handled the investigation, said Branch was armed with what investigators later determined was an airsoft gun. Branch did not have the airsoft gun in his hand when he was killed, according to a 247-page police report on the shooting, that states officers feared he was reaching for it.

“Bennie had seven gunshot wounds,” the police report states, citing an initial assessment. “One in the left arm, right arm into the right side, right side and three in the back.”

Investigators say officers were not hurt.

Angelina Smalls, Branch’s sister, noted the differences in what her mom said she saw and what the officer who killed Bennie described in those final moments, including where the airsoft gun was located and at what point it was removed from Branch’s body.

“Besides the night that it happened when they interviewed my mom, they never reached out to my mom,” said Smalls. “That was just kind of strange.”

Branch was sitting in a car with several other people near his mother’s car on the side of the street when a Tacoma police officer stopped because of the parking violation, according to the police report. The report states Branch ignored the officer’s commands to stay in the car and began to “fast walk” away while he “continued to hold on to his front waistband with his right hand” and said, “I am going to my car!”

After discovering that the initial driver had a weapon, the police report states the first officer, who had not yet identified Branch, believed Branch to be armed and relayed a description to responding officers.

Branch got into his mother’s nearby car that began driving away, the initial officer reported.

Tacoma police officer Ryan Bradley, who fired the fatal shots, arrived shortly after with a partner, McNeely, and performed a traffic stop, noticing commotion inside the car where Branch and his mother were, according to the officer’s interview with investigators, that’s detailed in the police report.

“He pulled out his firearm and gave Bennie commands to show his hands. Bennie never complied,” the investigator recounted officer Bradley saying in the interview. “Officer McNeely opened the front passenger door. He holstered his gun as Officer McNeely reached inside. Bennie crawled away from him and was climbing on top of Brenda who was still screaming.”

Bradley said he then deployed a taser twice that was effective on the second try, as a third officer arrived who became involved in the struggle, causing Branch to fall out of the car onto the ground, the police report states.

“He talked about the Taser no longer having an effect,” the investigator said in the police report of his interview with Bradley. “Bennie began to struggle with McNeely.”

During the struggle, Bradley told investigators that officer McNeely yelled that Branch had a gun, the police report said.

“And I looked down and as he was on his knees with his front facing towards me, I looked down at his front left jeans' pocket, and I saw the black backstrap of a firearm and like the swooping tang that would come in on a grip,” Bradley was quoted in the police report as saying during his interview. “And I could see that protruding from the top of his, of his front left pants' pocket."

Investigators say Bradley told them he pulled out his gun and fired after describing Branch, who was back on his feet again, as “reaching down toward his left front pants’ pocket,” believing “Bennie was going to shoot him, his partners or Brenda,” according to the police report, that states the officer said, “we attempted to do absolutely everything through our force continuum that we have on our department.”

Branch’s mother, Brenda, told KIRO 7 in an interview last year that her son never pointed the airsoft gun at officers and that it was not in his front picket as the police report describes. Brenda said officers found the airsoft gun while Branch was still alive on the ground, in his back waistband.

“And while they were kicking it out of the way, he got up because he was scared,” said Brenda in the 2019 interview. “And then the cop went, pow, pow, pow, shot him."

Officer Bradley described Branch as facing towards him “but slightly oblique,” according to the police report.

The police report said investigators had yet to recover any surveillance video of the shooting. KIRO 7 obtained cellphone video last year from a neighbor at the scene who raised questions about Branch running away from police when he was shot and killed.

"[Brenda’s] story has not changed from day one, that's what she said she remembers,” said Smalls. “That's why she said you didn't have to shoot him."

After Branch was killed, officers determined he had a misdemeanor warrant for his arrest and a warrant for a court order violation, according to the police report.

Following the death of George Floyd, protesters recently met outside a Tacoma police station chanting Bennie Branch’s name.

“There’s just so many inconsistencies,” said Omar Amili, a longtime family friend. “There’s no transparency.”

Amili, like Bennie’s family, would like to see an additional independent review of the case.

“While all this is about Bennie, this is about all these black men who are getting gunned down in these streets,” said Amili. “I just want to have accountability of police officers.”

The Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office said the case is currently under review to determine whether the officer was justified in killing Branch.

“Investigating detectives interviewed Ms. Branch once, and each of the involved officers were interviewed once,” said Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office spokesperson Adam Faber, who did not yet have a timeline on the review’s completion. “When our office is farther into our determination process we can decide if any additional interviews or clarifications are warranted.”

Tacoma police said officer Bradley has since returned to work.