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A Family Mourns

Amid speculations and released video footage, the relatives of Marcus Peters want people to know who he was.

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Princess Blanding addresses a crowd of reporters outside Second Baptist Church around 12:30 p.m. on Friday, May 25. It’s been less than an hour since Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham released the footage captured by the body camera on Officer Michael Nyantakyi, who shot and killed Blanding’s 24-year-old brother, Marcus-David Peters on May 14.

“I am extremely appalled that Chief Durham attempted to defend the actions of the officer who killed my brother, Marcus-David Peters,” Blanding says. “Marcus needed help, not death. The body camera footage released by the Richmond Police Department confirmed what I already knew. Marcus was unarmed, clearly in distress and in need of help, and instead of receiving help, he received two fatal bullets.”

Blanding goes on to say that Nyantakyi, Durham and the entire Police Department failed to protect and serve.

“Who are police trained to help? Who are they serving and protecting?” she asks. “The police officer had the opportunity to use pepper spray or hand-to-hand combat, but he chose deadly force.”

Blanding and her uncle, Jeffrey Peters, met with Durham for a private viewing of the footage on Wednesday. She says she asked the chief whether it’s “safe to assume that all Richmond police officers are equipped with a baton and pepper spray, and Chief Durham confirmed yes.” She says he did not confirm if Nyantakyi was carrying pepper spray that day.

The Police Department also released footage of Peters in and around the Jefferson Hotel, where he worked as a security guard. Peters removes his shirt shortly before entering the building, interacts with someone through a window, and later returns to his car, fully undressed. Durham says he cannot share specifics about Peters’ interactions inside the hotel, as that is part of the ongoing criminal investigation.

The footage from Nyantakyi’s body camera reveals that within 18 seconds, the officer warns Peters that he will use force. Peters charges at the officer, who attempts to subdue Peters with a stun gun. Durham says the weapon only struck Peters with one of two prongs. Nyantakyi then quickly fires his gun at close range. Other officers on the scene try to render aid to Peters, and Nyantakyi is advised by another officer to return to his vehicle. Peters died at the hospital of two gunshot wounds to the abdomen, after midnight.

After sharing the footage with a roomful of reporters and answering questions, Durham notes that reports and social media posts have questioned the department’s protocol when dealing with a person in a mental health crisis. He says becoming a psychologist, psychiatrist or mental health counselor requires at least five to eight years of training.

“Our police department gives our officers 40 hours,” Durham says of mental health training. He goes on to say that the public’s expectations of police protocol go beyond this shooting, and that people “expect us to go out and get it right.”

“We’re wearing a lot of hats, ladies and gentlemen. And when incidents come like this, and folks just want to beat us up without having the facts, that hurts ladies and gentlemen,” Durham says. “It hurts the morale of the men and women of my department, and it hurts me.”

Now that her brother has been laid to rest, Blanding says she wants justice and to see the Police Department develop new, more effective methods for dealing with people in a mental health crisis. She reiterates that her brother needed “help, not death.” When asked what she thinks help from the officer should have looked like, she does not speculate because she wasn’t there for the training, but adds that she looks "forward to Chief Durham releasing the training that officers were provided.”

Blanding and her family also want people to know who Peters was. She says she has no knowledge of any mental health or drug-related struggles in his past, and they want the public to know that his behavior in the moments leading up to the shooting was unlike him.

“My cousin was initially depicted as the naked crazy man, that makes him seem barbaric,” says Peters’ 28-year-old cousin, De’Geon Briggs. “That strips him of his humanity and puts him in an animalistic connotation.”

Peters was a member of an enormous family — in addition to his 11 brothers and sisters, he had “too many cousins to count,” plus a gaggle of nieces and nephews. He and Blanding used to greet each other by reciting song lyrics from the movie “Hustle and Flow.” One of his favorite catchphrases, which cracked up his family and students alike, was “What the ham sandwich?”

A 2016 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, Peters played piano, loved his mom’s homemade vinegar turkey wings, and once wanted to become a surgeon after one of his sisters survived a car accident and went through rigorous rehab.

Going to college made Peters realize he wanted to be close to his family — many of whom live in Water View in Middlesex County — and Briggs says it only makes sense that he ultimately chose teaching as his profession. “That compassion for humanity shifted to the children, but it no less spoke to who he was.”

Peters was new to education, about six months into his career as a biology teacher at Essex High School. He was one of the only black male teachers on the faculty, and Blanding says he was able to relate to his students in a way that other teachers couldn’t.

Blanding describes the Essex population as “high needs,” and notes that her brother was able to draw from his own childhood experiences to connect with his students. Before moving to Virginia the family lived in Newburgh, New York, which Blanding says was a “rough neighborhood.”

“Our students were able to work with a teacher who looked like them, and that they could relate to,” she says. “He was able to build those relationships with them and the rapport that made it real, as opposed to those that came from an environment that’s nothing like theirs.”

He taught biology, but he wanted to offer his students, many of whom live in high-poverty neighborhoods, practical life skills too — things like how to dress for an interview, write a résumé, and appropriately handle anger and anxiety.

According to Blanding, school administrators created an education for employment class for Peters to teach starting next fall. He was also working with a colleague to create a youth community center “for all kids to be able to have a safe, positive place for them, to just encourage and empower them.”

Sitting on her front porch next to Briggs and cousin Tommy Boyd, Blanding is calm and composed. She speaks with sad but steady determination when describing the upcoming battle of grieving her brother while also pursuing legal options. But at the mention of Peters’ passion projects, the class and the youth center, she closes her eyes and takes a few sharp breaths.

“He wanted to help motivate those that were not motivated,” Blanding says shakily. “Between the class being on his schedule next year and being able to have a facility where he could do the youth program, he was so excited.”

Boyd, 37, describes Peters as a firecracker. He recalls when his cousin would run around with a fake microphone and sing a line from the Mystikal song “Did I Do That?”

In the days following Peters’ death, Boyd has reminded his younger family members what they’ve been taught about interacting with police officers: If you get pulled over, keep your hands on the wheel. Don’t ask questions, just do as you’re told. Be polite and compliant. In a recent conversation with his 16-year-old nephew, Boyd says the teenager looked at him and said “But uncle, they still might shoot me.”

“How do I respond to that?” Boyd says.

Blanding echoes that sentiment.

“What do we tell our young black sons and daughters, my young nieces and nephews that are coming up?” Blanding says. “How do we make them feel safe and confident that when they call the police that they won’t be killed? It makes it really hard for us to continue to tell our youth that the police are here to protect and serve because that’s not what we’re seeing.”

The family has hired personal injury lawyer Jonathan Halperin, and Blanding says she is determined to reform the system so that officers have “more tools in their toolbox” for dealing with people in distress. She says she’s willing to work with the Richmond Police Department.

Following the ongoing criminal investigation, a prosecutor will determine whether the officer’s use of deadly force was justified.

A community meeting is scheduled for Saturday, May 26. Blanding says Peters’ family and community organizers will discuss plans for a march and rally the following weekend.

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