Fatal police shooting of startup founder puts Austin’s diversity problem in the spotlight
For years, Austin has made headlines as an evolving tech hub where startups, large companies and investors alike have flocked to set up a presence.
But as 2022 closes, the Texas capital is in the news for a very different, tragic reason — being 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 fatally shot outside of 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 discover that things looked out of place in his home, according to his brother, Johann. The affluent neighborhood had recently become a target for criminals — to the point that one homeowner had felt so unsafe after being robbed that she moved out. The new owners proactively hired 24-hour-security to stand guard in front of their house.
A few weeks prior, Moonesinghe had purchased an assault rifle to protect himself should a burglar attempt to enter his home. In what would turn out to be a sadly prophetic warning, his neighbor and inKind COO El Khattary had cautioned, “A brown man with a big gun doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.”
It turns out he had reason to be concerned.
Moonesinghe had reportedly talked earlier with his neighbor across the street, expressing concern that someone might be in his home, and retrieved his rifle as he looked around his property. With his front door open, Moonesinghe yelled for whoever might be in his home to get out. He also shot his rifle into the home. The neighbor’s security guard called 911.
According to Moonesinghe’s brother, Ring camera footage showed police arriving at his brother’s property with no sirens or lights, with one of the officers fatally shooting Raj.
“The police didn’t announce themselves or give him time to put the gun down,” Johann told TechCrunch. (A video of the incident can be seen here. Warning: It may be inappropriate for some viewers.)
The officers said they performed life-saving measures on Raj, before he was ultimately pronounced dead at a local hospital.
It was two days later, though, before Raj’s family knew what happened to him. The police at first held a press conference, saying that “a white man” had been shot but did not disclose details.
“We were super confused,” Johann said. “We knew the cops were there, and we couldn’t get a hold of Raj. At first we thought it was him, and then we thought it wasn’t. They said they killed a white man who had been shooting up the neighborhood. We didn’t know what to think.”
The incident took place at 12:30 am on Tuesday, November 15. But the Moonesinghe family claim they were not notified by police of Raj’s death until the evening of Thursday, November 17.
“Raj was awesome, absolutely phenomenal. He just went out of his way to help other people,” Johann told TechCrunch. “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me and my family. The hardest part for me is that it was avoidable.”
“We’re lucky that we have a very strong family, incredible friends and super supportive people around us,” he continued. “It‘s not only hard to lose somebody you love, but it’s doubly, triply hard because of the way the police handled it.”
TechCrunch reached out to the Austin Police Department (APD) and was referred to a December 1 press release stating the department continued to investigate the shooting.
At the top of the release, Raj was described as a deceased Middle Eastern male. In the body of the release, the APD said the 911 caller had described a man with a gun “as a white male, wearing a grey robe and dark pants.”
In that release, the police department identified Officer Daniel Sanchez as the individual who fatally shot Raj. Sanchez is reportedly on administrative leave pending the department’s investigations. In its statement, APD said that it would conduct two concurrent investigations into the incident — a criminal investigation conducted by the APD Special Investigations Unit in conjunction with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, and an administrative investigation conducted by the APD Internal Affairs Unit, with oversight from the Office of Police Oversight.
After moving to Austin about five years ago, inKind this year leased 22,000 square feet of office space that was Facebook’s first office in Austin. Business is going well, according to Johann. The startup, which launched in 2016 by funding restaurants by purchasing large amounts of food and beverage credits upfront, has raised $27 million in growth equity and $130 million in debt over the past year and has about 74 employees. It’s operating at a $48 million run rate, Johann said.
“What makes me really sad is that startups are very, very hard, and Raj worked so hard for years and years. And now that the company is really on a rocket ship, he’s not here to enjoy that,” he added.
Johann told TechCrunch he also feels “guilty” because of the decision several years ago to move the startup he helped co-found with his brother, Andrew Harris, Matt Saeta and Miles Matthias to Austin from Washington, D.C. An early investor in Uber and Twilio, Johann said he was hoping to relocate to a state without taxes. Seattle and Miami were also considered.
“Obviously the shooting was not my fault,” Johann told TechCrunch. “But I don’t believe this would have happened in another place. I’m gay and brown, grew up in LA, and lived a long time in D.C. The only time I have ever experienced racism was when I moved to Austin.” While the brothers’ family is from Sri Lanka, the pair were born in Los Angeles.
Khattary told TechCrunch he views the city’s lack of diversity as “a weird thing” considering its so-called progressive reputation, and called police treatment of people of color “disheartening.” For example, during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, 19 officers were accused of seriously injuring protestors. Earlier this year, the officers were indicted for using excessive force.
“Clearly, there’s something in Austin and Black Lives Matter in 2020 highlighted a lot of it,” he told TechCrunch. “This is a nationwide problem but Austin definitely has more than its fair share. In this case, the officer perceived him [Raj] as a major threat and didn’t give him a chance.”
The contrast between the city’s progressiveness and a population that is mostly “very hospitable” and incidents such as this one can be hard for outsiders to grasp, Johann said.
“I don’t think there’s overt racism. It’s more unconscious biases, with people making judgements around others in a split second,” he added. “And that’s really problematic. I do believe that if Raj were white, he probably wouldn’t have been killed.”
Austin’s lack of diversity is not a new problem. As TechCrunch reported in March, the percentage of Black residents, for example, steadily decreased over time to an estimated 7% in 2020. Many of Austin’s neighborhoods resemble those seen in Silicon Valley, with largely white and Asian residents and far fewer Hispanic and Black people.
Johann doesn’t want his brother to have died in vain. While he says he currently doesn’t “feel safe” in Austin and that it’s hard for him to consider asking other people to move here, he also knows that they can’t just move inKind.
Instead, he’s hoping to help change Austin “to make it a place that’s safe for everyone.”
“I hope that the Austin police even start the dialogue, give us some answers and explain to us what they’re going to do differently so this doesn’t happen again,” Johann said.
He also wants to potentially raise capital that would go toward specifically investing in companies that through data, improved security cameras and other tech could possibly help prevent what happened to Raj from happening to others.
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