Will New Bedford finally find out what happened to Malcolm Gracia?
Malcolm Gracia was 15 years old when he was shot and killed by New Bedford police Detectives Paul Fonseca and Trevor Sylvia on May 17, 2012. The teenager was shot four times: thrice in the back and once in the side of the head. The shooting took place at the Temple Landing apartments, an affordable housing complex in the city.
While the events were caught on tape at the apartments, the hard drive from 16 cameras at Temple Landing was erased by state troopers on orders from the Bristol County DA’s office, leaving only one copy of the video—in the hands of the prosecutors. Fighting for access to that tape has been the singular focus of attorney Don Brisson, who is representing Gracia’s family in a lawsuit against the city.
The video evidence was held by prosecutors until last month, when Brisson was finally able to force prosecutors to turn over the tape. Due to a gag order, Brisson may not publicly share or reveal the contents. But as the family’s lawsuit against the city and police department proceeds through the courts, the truth about Gracia’s shooting may come to light. Brisson told BINJ that he was extremely limited in what he could discuss about the case, though he was able to say that he received the tape on Dec 17.
“At first, the defendant denied its existence,” said Brisson. “Today, we have the tape.”
Events leading up to the killing are still murky. What’s undisputed is that Gracia and some friends were hanging out by the basketball courts at Temple Landing. Police officers, acting as part of the department’s “meet and greet” program, New Bedford’s name for “stop and frisk,” were surveilling the courts when they saw what officers described in the police report as an “elaborate handshake” between Gracia and another teen. Police wanted to identify Gracia.
When police approached the group, Gracia began walking away. Police pursued him, there was a struggle, and Gracia was shot three times in the back and once in the side of the head.
The department cleared its officers of wrongdoing after an internal investigation.
Beyond that, it’s impossible for the public to know exactly what happened, which is why Brisson hopes the tape will be released to the public and the gag order be lifted.
Immediately after the shooting, police portrayed the incident as the result of an attack on officers by Gracia. Describing the teenager as “an imminent and deadly threat,” cops told local media that Gracia attacked officers with a large knife that had a hooked end to it. It was a struggle for life or death, according to police, and Gracia allegedly managed to seriously wound one officer, Detective Tyson Barnes.
Evidence unearthed by local activists, however, indicates that the wounds were superficial—one small abrasion, hardly the “serious knife wounds” described by police to local media. Since then, authorities have buttoned up and claim that litigation precludes them from making the same statements to the press and public they did while the case was open.
“What is so frustrating is that the defendants—the city of New Bedford, the chief, and the officers, when this all happened the DA, city, and mayor had no problem talking about Malcolm’s personal problems, his family’s personal issues,” said Brisson. “They put it all out there. But now that we have the truth about Barnes’ injuries, they don’t want to share any more information publicly.”
Further, said Brisson, though he can’t talk about the content of the tape, the tape’s existence has changed the police’s original tactic from six years ago—attacking Gracia’s character. The city and police fed local media background information on Gracia and his criminal record, attacked the family by bringing up Gracia’s father (who was himself shot and killed by police only a year earlier), and bemoaned the extent of Barnes’s injuries.
The police version of the story is reminiscent of how departments have justified killing black men for decades: impossibly strong, huge, and dangerous black men attacking poor defenseless police officers. Until the Black Lives Matter movement became a major civil rights struggle, police departments across the country were able to use narratives that made their victims the aggressors, oftentimes with the cooperation of local media.
But now some cases, like Gracia’s shooting from six years ago, are receiving fresh scrutiny.
“The narrative is out there, but it’s not the truth,” said Brisson. “That’s very frustrating to me.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. For more reporting like this check out binjonline.org, and to help support more journalism like this visit givetobinj.org.