Watch CBSN Live

Video of kneeling suspect being swarmed by cops and held at gunpoint causes outrage

A video of an unarmed black man kneeling before police officers as they aim their guns at him is going viral and sparking outrage online. A woman named Sky Holsey captured the Hawthorne, California, incident and posted the nearly five-minute live video on Instagram.

Holsey's video shows the man kneeling on the ground with his hands behind his head, facing away from officers. When she first started the video, four cop cars had already converged on the man. She didn't know why he was being detained, but police were responding to a call about a robbery at a nearby gas station, some 15 miles southwest of Los Angeles.

"My first instinct was to jump out [of my car] and record," Holsey told CBS News.

The first officer on the scene was a woman, according to Holsey. "I kind of understood her perspective of pulling the gun out, because she was a smaller woman," Holsey said. "But when the second officer pulled up... he drew his gun as well." Then a third did the same.

When the fourth car pulled up, a female officer got out and pulled out an even larger gun — which police later noted was a "less lethal 40 mm device" that uses blunt projectiles instead of bullets. 

"I was so nervous. I was nervous for the boy," Holsey said.

In the video, Holsey questions why the officers are all pulling their guns on the man, and she starts to communicate with the suspect.

"I have no weapons!" the man yells to the police. The suspect, identified by Hawthorne Police as 24-year-old William Ewell, was accused of stealing from a gas station in the town just outside of Los Angeles.

In the video, Holsey is heard telling Ewell to relax. "Relax. Because they will shoot you. They killed my boyfriend in 2015. Yes, he was killed by the police," she said.

Holsey told CBS News her boyfriend, who is the father of her children, was shot and killed by the L.A. County Sheriff's department in December 2015. "It broke my heart, because I didn't think our system was so corrupt. I didn't think this is how life went — until it happened to me," Holsey said. 

Her boyfriend, Leroy Browning, had crashed into the side of a Taco Bell and was suspected of driving under the influence. At the time of the incident, according to local reports, police said Browning resisted arrest and grabbed hold of a deputy's gun, prompting another deputy to open fire. An investigation by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office concluded that the deputy "acted lawfully in self-defense and in defense of others."

In her video, Holsey tells the officers that she is streaming the incident live. She told CBS News she felt it was her duty to do so. "I feel like we have nobody to stand up for us. So, in that moment, I had to stand up for him, for myself. I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I didn't intervene in some way."

As more squad cars converged on the scene, Holsey asks the officers, "Is all that necessary?" She said by the end of the arrest, she saw at least seven cop cars arrive.

Holsey became upset and through tears pleaded with the officers: "I don't understand why you all have guns drawn on him right now. Are you going to kill him?" 

Holsey continued to plead with the officers: "Can someone put their guns down and come get him," she said through tears. Sky Holsey

Then, seven officers, some with their guns still drawn, walk up to Ewell and handcuff him. One officer walks over to Holsey and explains in a calm tone of voice that they had gotten a call about a robbery and that the man "loosely matches the description." The officer adds, "It said a weapon was involved, that's the only reason he gets held at gunpoint, OK? It's just for our safety and everybody around's safety."

Holsey kept the live video rolling as the officers arrested Ewell.

A gas station employee accused Ewell of trying to steal from the sation's mini mart, the Hawthorne Police Department said in a statement about the arrest. After an argument with a female cashier in the store, employees forced Ewell outside and he threw a garbage can at one, according to the police department's statement.

A police officer on routine patrol just happened to be in the area. An employee pointed to Ewell and told the officer Ewell assaulted a gas station employee. 

"Simultaneously, a witness called 911 to report a robbery that had just occurred at the location and that there were possible weapons involved," the department's statement said. The nearby officer drove across the street to detain Ewell and after assisting officers arrived, he was handcuffed. 

Another suspect was also arrested and officers are still trying to locate a third. The investigation is ongoing. Holsey said she has been summoned to meet with the district attorney's office in July to discuss the incident.

The police statement did not mention if Ewell was charged with a crime. The Hawthorne Police Department has not responded to CBS News' request for comment.

On Twitter, the police department responded to several comments regarding the arrest. When someone asked why one officer was pointing a gun toward Holsey, the department said "she is standing in the line of fire at her own decision."

When another Twitter user said Holsey saved Ewell's life by putting her own life in danger, the department tweeted back: "officers asked her to move but she refused. no big guns. that is a less lethal 40 mm device. 2 minutes of the video is edited out."

Another commenter wrote, "We know how many heavily armed officers it takes to arrest one unarmed suspect so, just wondering, how many Hawthorne PD officers does it take to change a light bulb?" 

"[N]ot sure if unarmed until person is detained. love your humor though," the police department responded. 

After Holsey's video went viral on Instagram, many people drew attention to it across social media platforms. Holsey received a barrage of comments — both positive and negative. Some praised her for saving Ewell's life, others argued the officers did not act out of line.

Holsey said she can't even keep up with all the messages she's received about the video. She said this is not the first time she's recorded an incident like this, and she's glad her post can help expose police conduct.

"This is not a hard job. [Police officers] are supposed to be trained for this, you're supposed to be trained to defuse the situation quickly. Because me, at the gas station, I should never have to deal with that," she said. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue