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Fatal police shooting of startup founder puts Austin’s diversity issue in the spotlight

Fatal police shooting of startup founder puts Austin’s diversity issue in the spotlight

Fatal police shooting of startup founder puts Austin's diversity issue in the spotlight

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Rajan “Raj” Moonesinghe (right) and his brother Johann Moonesinghe (left) pictured with their cousin (center) Credit: Johann Moonesinghe

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For years, Austin has made headlines as an evolving tech hub where startups, large corporations, and investors have flocked to establish a presence.

But at the end of 2022, the Texas capital is making headlines for a very different and tragic reason: to be home to the sudden death of a startup founder at the hands of a police officer.

On November 15, inKind co-founder Rajan “Raj” Moonesinghe was shot dead outside his South Austin home in what his family and colleagues describe as a senseless accident that could have been avoided.

The 33-year-old had returned from a two-week trip to find things had no place at home, according to his brother, Johann. The affluent neighborhood had recently become a target for criminals – so much so that a landlady felt so unsafe after being robbed that she moved out. The new owners have proactively engaged 24 hour security to stand guard outside their home.

A few weeks earlier, Moonesinghe had bought an assault rifle to protect himself if a burglar tried to enter his home. In what would turn out to be a sadly prophetic warning, his neighbor and inKind COO El Khattary had warned: “A dark-haired man with a big gun doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

Turns out he had reason to worry.

Moonesinghe reportedly spoke earlier with his neighbor across the street, fearing someone was at his home, and retrieved his gun as he looked around his property. With his front door open, Moonesinghe shouted at anyone who might be in his house to come out. He also fired his rifle into the house. The neighbor’s security guard called 9-1-1.

According to Moonesinghe’s brother, Ring camera footage showed police arriving at his brother’s property without sirens or lights, with one of the officers fatally shooting Raj in the back.

“The police didn’t announce themselves or give him time to put his gun down,” Johann told TechCrunch. (A video of the incident can be viewed here. Warning: it may be inappropriate for some viewers).

Officers said they took life-saving action on Raj, before he was eventually pronounced dead at a local hospital.

It was two days later, however, before Raj’s family found out what had happened to him. Police first held a press conference, saying “a white man” had been shot, but gave no details.

“We were super confused,” Johann said. “We knew the cops were there and we couldn’t reach Raj. At first we thought it was him, then we thought it wasn’t. They said they killed a white man who was shooting at the neighborhood. We didn’t know what to think.

The incident took place at 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday, November 15. But the Moonesinghe family say they were not informed by the police of Raj’s death until the evening of Thursday 17 November.

“Raj was awesome, absolutely phenomenal. He just went out of his way to help others,” Johann told TechCrunch. “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me and my family. The hardest thing for me is that it was preventable.

“We are lucky to have a very strong family, incredible friends and very supportive people around us,” he continued. “HeNot only is it hard to lose someone you love, but IIt’s doubly, triply difficult because of the way the police handled the situation.

TechCrunch contacted the Austin Police Department (APD) and was referred to a December 1 press release that the department continued to investigate the shooting.

At the top of the release, Raj was described as a deceased man from the Middle East. In the body of the statement, the APD said the 9-1-1 caller described a man with a gun “as a white male, wearing a gray dress and dark pants.”

In that release, the police department identified Officer Daniel Sanchez as the individual who shot and killed Raj. Sanchez is reportedly on administrative leave pending department investigations. In its statement, the APD said it would conduct two concurrent investigations into the incident – a criminal investigation led by the APD’s Special Investigations Unit in conjunction with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, and a administrative investigation conducted by the DPA’s Internal Affairs Unit, with oversight by the Police Oversight Office.

After moving to Austin about five years ago, inKind this year leased 22,000 square feet of office space it was Facebook’s first office in Austin. Business is good, according to Johann. The startup, which launched in 2016 by funding restaurants by pre-purchasing large amounts of food and beverage credits, has raised $27 million in growth capital and $130 million in debt over the course of the past year and has approximately 74 employees. It operates at a rate of $48 million, Johann said.

“What makes me really sad is that startups are very, very tough, and Raj has worked so hard for years and years. And now that the company is really on a rocket, he’s not there to enjoy it,” he added.

Johann told TechCrunch he also felt “guilty” over the decision several years ago to move the startup he co-founded with his brother Andrew Harris and Miles Matthias to Austin from Washington, DC. An early investor in Uber and Twilio, Johann said he hoped to move to a tax-free state. Seattle and Miami were also considered.

“Obviously the shooting wasn’t my fault,” Johann told TechCrunch. “But I don’t believe it would have happened anywhere else. I’m gay and brown, grew up in Los Angeles and lived in DC for a long time. The only time I experienced racism was when I moved to Austin. While the brothers’ family hails from Sri Lanka, the couple were born in Los Angeles.

Khattary told TechCrunch he views the city’s lack of diversity as “a strange thing” given its supposedly progressive reputation and “disheartening” police treatment of people of color. For example, during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, 19 officers were charged with seriously injuring protesters. Earlier this year, the officers were charged with excessive use of force.

“Obviously there’s something going on in Austin and Black Lives Matter in 2020 highlighted a lot of that,” he told TechCrunch. “It’s a national problem, but Austin certainly has more than its fair share. In this case, the ofstronger saw him [Raj] as a major threat and didn’t give him a chance.

The contrast between the city’s progressiveness and a mostly “very hospitable” population and incidents like this can be hard for outsiders to grasp, Johann said.

“I don’t think there is overt racism. It’s more of an unconscious bias, with people making split-second judgments about others,” he added. “And that’s really problematic. I believe if Raj was white he probably wouldn’t have been killed.

Austin’s lack of diversity is not a new problem. Like TechCrunch reported in March, the percentage of black residents, for example, steadily decreased over time for about 7% in 2020. Many Austin neighborhoods resemble those of Silicon Valley with largely white and Asian residents and far fewer Hispanics and blacks.

Johann does not want his brother to have died in vain. While he says he doesn’t currently “feel safe” in Austin and finds it difficult for him to consider asking other people to move here, he also knows they can’t. just move to Kind.

Instead, he hopes to help change Austin “to make it a safe place for everyone.”

“I hope the Austin police will even start the dialogue, give us answers and let us know what they are going to do differently so that this does not happen again,” Johann said.

He also wants to potentially raise capital that would be used to invest specifically in companies that, through data, improved security cameras and other technology, could eventually help prevent what happened to Raj from happening. to others.

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