Police fatal shooting of startup founder shines spotlight on Austin’s diversity issue ExamPaper

Rajan

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

Austin has made headlines for years as a developing technology hub where startups, large companies, and investors gathered to establish a presence.

But at the end of 2022, the capital of Texas hits the headlines for an entirely different, tragic reason: the sudden death of a startup founder at the hands of a police officer.

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

The 33-year-old had returned from a two-week trip to find that things in his house seemed out of place, according to his brother Johann. The affluent neighborhood had recently become a target for criminals — to the point that a homeowner felt so unsafe after a robbery that she moved out. The new owners proactively hired 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 break into his home. In what would turn out to be an sadly prophetic warning, his neighbor and in-kind COO El Khattary had warned: “A brown man with a big gun doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.”

He appeared to have reason to be concerned.

Moonesinghe had reportedly previously spoken to his neighbor across the street, expressed concern that someone might be in his home, and picked up his shotgun while looking around his property. With his front door open, Moonesinghe yelled at anyone who would be in his house to get out. He also fired his shotgun into the residence. The neighbor’s security guard called 911.

According to Moonesinghe’s brother, CCTV footage from Ring showed police arriving at his brother’s property without 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 ExamPaper. (A video of the incident can be seen here. Warning: It may be inappropriate for some viewers.)

The officers said they took life-saving measures on Raj before he was eventually pronounced dead at a local hospital.

However, it took two days later for Raj’s family to know what had happened to him. Police first held a press conference and said “a white man” had been shot, but did not release details.

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

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

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

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

ExamPaper contacted the Austin Police Department (APD) and was referred a press release dated December 1 mention the department continued the investigation into the shooting.

At the top of the release, Raj was described as a deceased Middle Eastern man. In the body of the release, the APD said the 911 caller described a man with a gun “as a white male, wearing a gray robe and dark pants.”

In that release, the police identified Officer Daniel Sanchez as the person who fatally shot Raj. Sanchez is reportedly on administrative leave pending the department’s investigation. In its statement, APD said 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 of the Police Supervision Service.

After moving to Austin about five years ago, this year in Kind Rented 22,000 square meters of office space that was Facebook’s first office in Austin. Business is going well, says Johann. The startup, which launched in 2016 by financing restaurants by purchasing large amounts of food and beverage credit upfront, has raised $27 million in growth capital and $130 million in debt over the past year and has about 74 employees. It operates at a $48 million run rate, Johann said.

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

Johann told ExamPaper that he also feels “guilty” because of the decision several years ago to move the startup he co-founded with his brother, Andrew Harris, Matt Saeta and Miles Matthias, to Austin from Washington, D.C. Johann, an early investor in Uber and Twilio, said he hoped to move to a state without taxes. Seattle and Miami were also considered.

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

Khattary told ExamPaper that he considers the city’s lack of diversity “a weird thing” given its supposedly progressive reputation, and called the police treatment of people of color “disheartening.” For example, during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, 19 officers were accused of seriously injuring protesters. Earlier this year, the officers were charged with using excessive force.

“Obviously there’s something in Austin and Black Lives Matter in 2020 has highlighted a lot of it,” he told ExamPaper. “This is a nationwide problem, but Austin certainly has more than its fair share. In this case the fromproudly noticed him [Raj] as a great threat and gave him no chance.”

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

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

Austin’s lack of diversity is not a new problem. Like ExamPaper reported in March, the percentage of black residents, for example steadily decreased over time estimated 7% in 2020. Many of Austin’s neighborhoods resemble those in Silicon Valley, with mostly white and Asian residents and far fewer Hispanic and Black people.

Johann does not want his brother to have died in vain. While he says he doesn’t “feel safe” in Austin right now and it’s hard for him to ask other people to move here, he also knows they can’t just move in Kind.

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

“I hope the Austin Police Department will open the dialogue, give us some answers and explain to us what they are going to do differently so that this doesn’t happen again,” Johann said.

He may also want to raise capital that could be invested specifically in companies that, through data, enhanced security cameras and other technology, could potentially help prevent what happened to Raj from happening to others.

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