What we know about the West Philly police shooting of an Ethiopian immigrant

The DA’s office has launched an investigation into the shooting of 25-year-old Kelab Belay.

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Updated 8:30 a.m.

A 25-year-old man is in stable condition after being shot in the chest last week by a Philadelphia Police officer.

Kelab Belay, a West Philly resident and immigrant from Ethiopia, is hospitalized at Penn-Presbyterian Medical Center, per a WHYY report, while he recovers from a near-fatal encounter with a Philly cop.

It’s an incident that rocked West Philadelphia’s Ethiopian community — evidenced by the 100-plus people who gathered Sunday night at the Ethiopian Community Association of Greater Philadelphia to discuss the shooting and seek support.

“Ultimately, this young man is not a threat to this society,” Saba Tedla, the owner of Booker’s Restaurant and Bar and Belay’s employer, told WHYY. “He’s a civilized student, individual. I don’t understand how he could’ve been a threat to anybody.”

So how’d we get here? What went down on the night of March 6, and what’s coming next?

Here’s everything we know — so far — about the West Philadelphia shooting.

What happened?

Shortly before 7 p.m. last Wednesday, two Philly police officers were called to respond to a stabbing. Per their account, they arrived at 49th Street and Hazel Avenue to find Belay emerging from behind a bush, wielding a knife.

The officers backed away from Belay, instructing him to drop the five-inch blade. When he refused and continued toward them, per an Inquirer report, an officer shot him several times in the chest.

Wounded, the 25-year-old was carted off to the hospital for treatment to his gunshot wounds. Following the incident, police found the steak knife on the scene — but no apparent stabbing victim.

Who is Kelab Belay?

Belay is a newcomer to Philadelphia — having immigrated alone just 10 months ago. He has some relatives in Virginia, but other than that it seems most of his family remains in his native Ethiopia.

After he got here, Belay enrolled in finance and risk management classes at Temple University. Neighbors described him as gentle and quiet, perhaps introverted. And even though he discontinued his studies for the spring semester, reportedly following the death of his father, Belay kept up his job at Booker’s Restaurant and Bar.

He was doing well — in fact, Tedla had recently promoted him from busing tables to bookkeeping. Belay was supposed to come into work, she said, the night he was shot.

“He’s a people pleaser. He’s not somebody who even speaks aggressively or negatively toward anybody,” Tedla told WHYY.

While undergoing medical care, Belay has been charged with aggravated assault, simple assault and possessing an instrument of a crime.

Who is the officer?

Philadelphia Police identified the shooter on Monday afternoon as 27-year-old Officer Kevin Pfeifer.

There’s not much info out about him yet — other than that he’s a four-year department veteran of the 18th district, according to 6abc. The Inquirer did not find Pfeifer’s name connected to any previous shootings.

How has the PPD treated officers who’ve shot citizens?

Historically, it’s extremely rare for Philadelphia police to be punished following gunfire that kills or injures citizens. Philadelphia went almost two decades without charging any cops with homicide.

That’s why it came as such a shock when, in September of last year, District Attorney Larry Krasner announced he would charge an ex-Philly cop with murder. Out on $50k bail, Ryan Pownall now awaits his trial for third-degree murder in the killing of Juniata man David Jones.

Undoubtedly, the upcoming legal action will set the precedent for how Philly handles officer-involved shootings in the Krasner era.

Still worth noting: Philly’s number of officer-involved shootings have decreased pretty substantially over the years — from 59 in 2012 down to 14 in 2017.

What’s the precedent for officer shootings of knife-wielding suspects?

Nationally, officer shootings are not that uncommon in response to folks wielding knives.

Just in the first few months of this year, it’s happened in New York, Memphis and Lexington, Michigan. In December, a man was shot by police in Philly’s Port Richmond neighborhood after he ran into a neighbor’s home with a knife.

Instances like these almost always spur a police investigation, and oftentimes relegate the officer in question to desk duty or suspension. But rarely is the shooter found guilty of a crime or forced off the job permanently.

Roughly 1,000 officer-involved shootings happen every year in the United States. But in the last 12 years, just 80 cops have been arrested on murder or manslaughter charges for on-duty shootings — and only 35 percent of those officers were convicted.

Though not a shooting, a fatal case similar to Belay’s made national headlines back in 2015. Six Baltimore police officers were indicted that year after arresting a man named Freddie Gray for carrying an illegal switch blade in his pocket (which was later determined to be just a regular knife).

The arrest was so rough that Gray broke his neck and later died in jail. Three officers were found not guilty, and three had their charges dropped.

What’s next?

While Belay remains hospitalized, his lawyer Simon Haileab is developing a fundraiser to pay off his impending medical and legal expenses. He’d like to raise enough money to help Belay’s mother visit him in the hospital — all the way from Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has launched an investigation into the shooting. Pending its completion, Pfeifer has been put on desk duty.

 

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