2004 was one of the hardest years my family ever faced. That September, we lost my brother, Herbert Hightower Jr., and our lives instantly changed. He was tragically killed by Seattle police just feet from our home while experiencing a mental health crisis. I remember waking up to chaos and thinking I was still sleeping, that the sirens weren’t real and my mother’s grief wasn’t real.
To this day, I struggle with accepting that I won’t ever see Herbert again — that he won’t get the chance to become the amazing father we knew him to be, the one who made everyone laugh and smile and cared about each of us deeply. And because officers of the Seattle Police Department chose to kill him, we as a family are left to pick up the pieces and still, 16 years later, have to fight for the truth of what exactly happened that night.
SPD’s account of what led to my brother’s killing changed many times. We were told at various times that he was both walking and running toward police when they shot him — the account changing with almost every visit. Similarly, the level of remorse and SPD’s supposed access to “non-lethal” weapons varied.
Police stated they found a note in Herbert’s pocket detailing that he was suicidal. It talked about how much he loved and will miss his family, holding his son, and he didn’t see any other way out from his pain. Like so many working-class people who don’t have access to adequate mental health services, his needs were met with a police presence that ultimately murdered him.
To be clear, none of the scenarios we were given justified police shooting my brother and refusing to implement any de-escalation tactics so he could’ve kept his life. And the lack of accountability or a consistent answer from SPD only added to the destructive ripple effects, felt within not only his family, but his community. His humanity wasn’t honored — it was dishonored — and he was deprived of the compassion needed to get him the help he deserved. The levels of pain and trauma we’ve endured for 16 years were compounded by the systemic lack of accountability and community support that followed.
For so many Black and Brown communities, the police have historically acted as an occupying force within our neighborhoods, unnecessarily escalating encounters that too often end in brutality and killings, in lieu of real solutions like defunding and reinvestment into mental health and other community support services.
After my brother’s murder, headline after headline absolved the officer of any wrongdoing and painted my brother as violent and aggressive. The coverage focused on the weapon the police stated Herbert had rather than the excessive force used by the officer. Sixteen years — and 120+ days — of public requests later, we’re still fighting for the answers SPD continues to deny us.
In response, we’re circulating a petition demanding the records be released now. We ask that you sign, share and help build the movement for justice. We have a new fire driving us: one inspired by the Justice for George Floyd and Black Lives Matter movements and by so many organizations and activists determined to rid this nation of systemic racism once and for all.
We’ve been fortunate to have the support of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who put forth legislation to defund SPD by 50% and create a community oversight board with powers to fire and discipline officers — a preventative step to avoid losses like ours — which her City Council colleagues rejected.
We were also fortunate to have local Seattle artist Takiyah Ward choose Herbert as one of the people featured on Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s customized cleats during the NFL’s #MyCauseMyCleats initiative, bringing our fight to a national stage.
We hope — along with so many other families who’ve lost loved ones to police murder, whose names we still don’t know — we’re nearing closer to justice on this arduous journey.
Please visit https://tinyurl.com/HightowerDonate
Read more in the Dec. 30, 2020 - Jan. 5, 2021 issue.