April 20, 2024

Seattle woman who police said ‘had limited value’ is remembered as ‘brilliant’ and ‘full of hope’

After footage was released this week of a Seattle police officer saying 23-year-old Jaanhavi Kandula’s life “had limited value” on the night of her death, those who knew and loved her want the world to know that the opposite is true. 

Kandula was struck and killed by a different officer while she was crossing the street on Jan. 23. Officer Daniel Auderer, also the vice president of the police union, responded to the scene of the accident and was recorded on his body camera appearing to laugh about and make light of the woman’s death. 

“Yeah, just write a check,” Auderer was recorded saying on a phone call. “She was 26 anyway,” he continued, getting Kandula’s age wrong. “She had limited value.”

The footage has drawn nationwide outrage since its release Monday, but it’s been especially painful for those close to Kandula, who say they’re being forced to mourn all over again.

“It is truly disturbing and saddening to hear insensible comments on the bodycam video from an SPD officer regarding Jaahnavi’s death,” Kandula’s family said in a statement. “Jaahnavi is a beloved daughter and beyond any dollar value for her mother and family. We firmly believe that every human life is invaluable and not [to] be belittled, especially during a tragic loss.”

At Northeastern University’s Seattle campus, where Kandula had been pursuing a master’s degree, students and staff struggled to contend with what they heard in the recording. 

“It’s a second grieving,” said Khaled Bugrara, director of Northeastern’s graduate engineering programs and one of Kandula’s academic advisers. “As an educator, it’s my job to make sure these kids blossom in their lives and in their careers. And to feel it taken away from one of your students … it’s a horrible thing.”

Bugrara had been Kandula’s adviser since she moved from India to Seattle during the pandemic to start school at Northeastern. He described her as sharp, meticulous and full of energy. Despite facing family challenges during Covid, which forced her to travel back and forth between India and Seattle, Bugrara said she never faltered at school.

“She kept her head up, she made friends, and she became popular on the Seattle campus because of everything she was doing,” he said. 

As a woman studying software engineering, she was in the minority at school, Bugrara said. During one of their last interactions, Bugrara recalls her trying to convince him to bring more classes from the university’s flagship Boston campus to Seattle.

“She was a beautiful person, inside and outside,” he said. “She was so full of hope.”

In a statement to local media shortly after her death, Kandula’s family echoed this description. 

“Jaahnavi was a brilliant student with a bright future,” they said. “Jaahnavi’s smile was radiant, and her bubbly personality warmed the hearts of every person she came in contact with. She had an innate ability to connect with people from all walks of life.”

The Seattle Police Officer’s Guild posted an online statement Friday acknowledging the backlash to the footage and detailing some of Auderer’s conduct following the incident.

“Without context, this audio is horrifying and has no place in a civil society,” the statement said. “The video captures only one side of the conversation. There is much more detail and nuance that has not been made public yet.”

The Seattle Police Department did not respond to specific questions about the incident but referred NBC News to another statement posted Monday that said they were “in touch with the family of the victim pedestrian.” 

South Asian communities feel disrespected

Beyond Kandula’s immediate circles, Indian American community leaders describe an uneasiness in the community after the release of Auderer’s bodycam footage. The common sentiment, they said, is that “it could have been any of us.”

Niranjan Srungavarapu, president of the Telugu Association of North America, helped coordinate the repatriation of Kandula’s body in January. He said listening to the way she was described by officers undoubtedly stung for other South Asians, specifically those who share Kandula’s Telugu identity. 

“We were surprised and shocked to hear that kind of treatment of a young girl,” he said. 

Srungavarapu said that among immigrants there is already a fear of dealing with authorities, and incidents like this only worsen that. 

In the days after the release of the footage, TANA contacted the nearest Consulate General of India in San Francisco to make them aware of the situation, he said. The consulate posted a statement on its social media accounts on Wednesday. 

“Recent reports including in media of the handling of Ms Jaahnavi Kandula’s death in a road accident in Seattle in January are deeply troubling,” it said. “We have taken up the matter strongly with local authorities in Seattle & Washington State as well as senior officials in Washington DC for a thorough investigation & action against those involved in this tragic case.” 

Other community leaders called the footage “insulting” and questioned what the officer meant by describing her life as less valuable than others. 

“It could be my child, my daughter,” said Madhu Bommineni, president of the American Telugu Association. “It hits close to home because every family has someone coming from India and going to schools here. Justice must be served. This person shouldn’t be working.” 

Kandula was on track to graduate in December. Northeastern will award her master’s degree posthumously and present it to her family, the university said.

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