NEW BEDFORD — Fifteen-year-old Malcolm Gracia was walking to a store with a friend on a May night in 2012 when he briefly stopped at a basketball court at Magnet Park, where a small group of teenagers were hanging out. He stood by the bleachers, smiling as he chatted and smoked a cigarette. He greeted one with a quick handshake and fist bump.
At a police station a mile away, five officers assigned to the New Bedford Police gang unit were having dinner as they monitored a surveillance camera at the park. Sergeant Bryan Safioleas zoomed in on two teenagers he hadn’t seen before: Gracia, a Black teenager of Cape Verdean descent, and his 16-year-old friend, who was white.
He called the other officers over to look at the video on his computer, but no one recognized the pair. Safioleas would later tell investigators that Gracia used an “elaborate handshake” that he thought might be gang-related. He dispatched the four plainclothes detectives to the park to find out who the teenagers were.
“Just roll up on those guys,” Safioleas would say he told them.
In a matter of minutes, Gracia was dead, shot three times in the back and once in the head by police. A bloody knife was found by his side. Officers said they shot Gracia after he repeatedly stabbed one officer, then ignored orders to drop the knife as he rushed toward another.
Two months later, Bristol County District Attorney Samuel Sutter and the State Police concluded that the shooting was justified. Gracia suffered from mental illness and had stopped taking his medication, the report said. His father had been shot to death by police in Dartmouth three years earlier and he hated police. He had recently posted on Facebook a photograph of himself holding a knife with the words “ready to kill.”
“Gracia’s violent assault on Detective Barnes and his threatening advance on another detective was the sole cause of the escalation of this incident and was independent of any action of the police,” prosecutors found.
But Gracia’s family, along with many community advocates, never accepted that finding and pointed to the teenager’s death as a tragic symbol of broader problems in policing: the aggressive use of racial profiling that leads to unnecessary confrontations and the failure to resolve conflicts without fatal force.
Eight years later, his death is drawing renewed attention as protesters outraged by the killings of George Floyd and other Black men and women call for sweeping police reforms and racial justice. In New Bedford, a city that has long struggled with gang violence, community activists and the NAACP are calling for a fresh look at Gracia’s shooting and the police practices that led to the deadly encounter.
LaSella Hall, president of the NAACP’s New Bedford branch, said Gracia’s death should be viewed in the broader context of how police have historically treated people of color.
“If Malcolm Gracia was a white kid, would he be alive today?” Hall asked. “If that was the suburbs of Dartmouth, would that kid be alive today? We have to look larger than just these one-off incidents because we’ll miss it.”
The NAACP is seeking an independent investigation of Gracia’s case as part of a nationwide call for justice “for all of the Black or brown individuals who have been murdered or killed at the hands of the state,” Hall said. The officer that Gracia was accused of stabbing is Black. The other four officers involved in the incident are white and all remain on the force.
The NAACP is also pressing for broad police reforms, including the establishment of community boards with subpoena power to review killings by police, mandatory body cameras, and an end to “disproportionate use of surveillance in target areas of communities of color.” The group is urging the New Bedford police to rescind its High Energy Patrol Initiative, which has officers routinely question people to gather intelligence on gangs.
“Handshakes are not a reason to criminalize people,” said Erik Andrade, a local activist and cofounder of a group that has held protests demanding a review of Gracia’s case. “There was nothing in that video that you can’t go to a baseball field in Mattapoisett, Westport, Lexington, or Concord and see: young people sitting down and playing sports. There’s nothing criminal about that.”
Earlier this year, the city paid $500,000 to settle a wrongful death suit filed by Gracia’s sister, the personal representative of his estate, against the city and police in 2015, alleging negligence and civil rights violations. The settlement was reached after a judge refused to dismiss the suit, ruling that police illegally stopped Gracia and his friend, because the two weren’t doing anything wrong.
“They were simply walking away,” Superior Court Judge Thomas F. McGuire Jr. wrote in his May 2019 decision. If the case had gone to trial, a jury would have decided whether the shooting was justified.
Gracia’s sister, Christina, said she believes her brother was “murdered” and is determined to clear his name. Her lawyer, Donald Brisson, says authorities portrayed Gracia as “a bad guy” in the days after his death, but also said that evidence turned over during the wrongful death suit conflicts with the officers’ version of what happened. He contends that Gracia never stabbed the detective, a claim prosecutors call ridiculous.
He also points to this seeming anomaly: Police said Gracia was shot as he moved toward officers. How is that consistent with the autopsy finding that three shots struck him in the back, and the fourth was fired into the side of his head?
On the night of May 17, 2012, Christina Gracia said she was recovering at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford after giving birth to her daughter when a friend called to tell her that her brother had been shot. He had been taken to St. Luke’s.
She went downstairs to search for him when she saw a television report that he was dead. Hours later, detectives came to her room to tell her the news, she recalled. She demanded to see his body, but police wouldn’t let her, citing an “open investigation.” Later, she identified her brother from a photograph taken at the morgue.
Gracia still questions why something so ordinary drew police to the park that night and remains convinced that police had no cause to shoot him.
“Why did it happen?” Christina Gracia said. “He was more than they portrayed in the media ... he was a loving kid. He really focused on his family every day and his close friends.”
Gracia’s mother was unable to care for him and he lived with his sister, who was 11 years older. He struggled with mental illness, but found joy in music and was “extremely passionate and driven,” she said.
Sutter, the former district attorney, said the State Police investigation of Gracia’s slaying was overseen by two experienced and well-respected prosecutors and he believes it was thoroughly investigated and should not be reopened. Yet Sutter said he has come to believe in recent months that investigations of police shootings should not be handled by local district attorneys.
“We’ve reached a point where there is so much skepticism, mistrust, doubt, and controversy that an independent agency should be created,” Sutter said. The state should also track the use of force by officers in a statewide database that would include incidents in which officers de-escalated a situation without using force, he said.
Bristol District Attorney Thomas Quinn III said he has reviewed the case and found that the shooting was justified. He said he has no plans to reopen the case.
Last month, New Bedford’s mayor, Jon Mitchell, created a commission to review the Police Department’s policies on the use of force. He has urged protesters who are calling for an independent investigation to “take a hard look at the facts” and not accept allegations that are being presented as facts on social media.
A former federal prosecutor, Mitchell said he thought it was “a close call” whether police had reasonable suspicion to stop Gracia that night, “but on the question of use of force I don’t think it’s a close call at all.”
“The abrupt and extreme escalation of the confrontation was when Malcolm pulled the knife and used it on a police officer,” he said.
Video captures some of the last moments of Gracia’s life, but not the shooting itself. He is seen leaving the park just before two unmarked police cruisers arrive, then disappears from view. Minutes later, at 8:37 p.m., three gunshots are fired, followed by a pause, then three more shots, according to SpotShotter, a system that alerts police to gunshots as they happen. The shooting happened on Cedar Street, beside a housing development near the park.
While investigators portray the shooting as a clear case of self-defense, the Gracia family’s lawyer said the officers provided conflicting accounts that undermine their credibility. He said forensic evidence and medical reports support his contention that Gracia never stabbed the officer and was shot in the back while running away.
In court records, Gracia’s friend said the teenagers were walking on the sidewalk when Detective David Brown jumped in front of them and ordered them to put their hands behind their back. The friend said he asked why they were being stopped, but got no response. He kept telling the officer, “We weren’t doing anything.”
Brown told investigators he initially said,“Hey guys, what’s going on tonight? I just want to talk to you.” They seemed tense and refused to take their hands out of their pockets, which made him fear they were carrying weapons, he said. He ordered them to put their hands on a car so he could frisk them, but Gracia ran.
The officers said Gracia appeared to be trying to pull a weapon from his waistband when Detective Tyson Barnes grabbed him by the shoulders. Two officers said Barnes pushed him toward a building.
As the pair struggled, Gracia repeatedly stabbed Barnes with a hunting knife, according to the officers. That account was bolstered by two independent witnesses. A neighbor who watched the confrontation from his porch told State Police he saw Gracia repeatedly lunge at Barnes with what looked like a knife. Gracia’s friend said he knew Gracia had a knife and saw him making “a thrusting motion” toward Barnes.
“I felt like he was trying to kill me,” Barnes later told police.
Detectives Paul Fonseca and Trevor Sylvia told police they fired at Gracia after he ran toward them with the knife in his hand.
Sylvia said he was five to seven feet away from Gracia and “knew I hit him the first time ‘cause I saw the hole in his sweatshirt.”
Wounded, Gracia fell to the ground, but started to get back up and refused commands to stay down and drop the knife, the two officers said.
“I was actually going to run over and just tap him with the baton,” Fonseca told investigators. But Fonseca and Sylvia said they both fired again because Gracia was only a couple of feet from Sylvia, moving toward him with the knife.
The neighbor watching from his porch said he couldn’t see where the officers were when they fired at Gracia, but saw the teenager get back up as they were yelling at him to stay down.
Police were unable to determine from ballistics tests which officer fired the bullets that struck Gracia, investigators wrote in their report.
Brisson, the lawyer representing Gracia’s sister, said that shell casings indicate Gracia was shot from a distance. The wounds cited in the autopsy report don’t square with the claim that Gracia was moving toward the officers when they opened fire, he said.
But First Assistant District Attorney Patrick Bomberg, who oversaw the investigation, said shell casings don’t indicate the distance of a shot. He said the position of Gracia and the officers changed during the confrontation and investigators concluded Fonseca was behind Gracia when he shot him. One shot that struck Gracia in the back exited his chest.
“If this were a justified shooting, why doesn’t everybody’s story agree with the physical and forensic evidence?” Brisson said. “Malcolm runs away. Does that give them the right to hunt him down and shoot him in the back? And does that give them the right to kill him when he is not threatening them anymore?”
An EMS report filed in court says Barnes suffered a “sucking chest wound,” had difficulty breathing, and was administered a needle decompression in the ambulance to re-inflate his lung.
However, Brisson said Rhode Island Hospital records show he sustained a one-centimeter superficial chest wound. There was no blood on the white shirt he was wearing at the time.
“Malcolm didn’t stab Tyson Barnes,” said Brisson, alleging that Barnes was wounded by someone else.
“I think that’s a ludicrous statement that should not be taken seriously,” said Quinn, the Bristol district attorney.
Doug Louison, a lawyer who represented New Bedford and the police in the civil case, said the officers “did not set out that night with the intent to kill a 15-year-old boy.”
“It was an intentional, deadly force attack” by Gracia, he said.
In their report, investigators wrote that Gracia did not have contact with his father, Joseph Ramos, but had told friends he hated police because of his father’s death. Ramos suffered from mental illness and was fatally shot by Dartmouth police in 2009. Prosecutors found that shooting was justified because Ramos had allegedly attacked officers with a nail-studded pole and a screwdriver after they responded to a neighbor’s call that he was acting erratically.
Two years before their confrontation with Gracia, three of the gang unit officers — Barnes, Sylvia, and Fonseca — were accused of beating a man while he was handcuffed. A police sergeant told investigators he saw Sylvia knee the man in the abdomen while he was in a holding cell and ordered him to stop. The three officers denied they used excessive force and accused the man of assaulting police. The complaint was not sustained.
New Bedford police Chief Joseph Cordeiro, who was appointed in 2016, said he has met with local advocates and is focusing on building relationships through community policing. Several years ago, he implemented a “walk and talk” policy that requires officers to leave their cruisers for at least a half an hour each day to chat with residents and business people.
He said he is an advocate of body cameras for police officers and thinks the Legislature should make it mandatory.
“I think the lesson to be learned here is, how do we move forward?” Cordeiro said. “How do we prevent all this mystery as to what happened and what didn’t happen?”