We’d like to open this piece by telling you how many people each year are killed by police in the United States. Problem is, we can’t even take a stab at that number, because that data simply isn’t collected by anyone.
If it seems strange that statistical data on the heaviest act a police officer can undertake- the killing of a citizen- is not collected in a society where literally everything is statistically analyzed, then you’re probably a reasonable person. And while it is undeniable that police in general take their right to use lethal force very seriously, and deploy it only as a last option, it’s inevitable that there will be cases like these. Police are human beings, and people sometimes make questionable decisions- it’s just that for most of us, those don’t involve whether to pull the trigger.
10. James Peters
When officers respond to a 911 call about a drunk and disorderly man threatening neighbors with a gun, they generally tend to arrive prepared for anything. When this scenario played out in February of 2012 in a suburb of Scottsdale, Arizona, it’s fair to assume officers may have been wholly unprepared for their belligerent, possibly armed suspect to also be toting around an infant.
The neighbor that made the 911 call had related that 50 year-old John Loxas had kicked their trash can into the street while pushing along his 9-month-old grandson in a stroller. The neighbor had barely had time to protest before Loxas had produced a pistol, pointed it, and inquired as to whether the neighbor had a problem. By the time police arrived, Loxas was back in the house- but answered the door with the child in his arms. There was a “black object” in one of his hands, and as Loxas attempted to go back inside the house, officer James Peters- standing about six yards away, by the driveway- shot him in the head with a rifle, killing him instantly.
Police rescued the infant, and then found a pistol hidden in a couch in the living room, within reach of where Loxas fell when he was shot. The object in his hand, however, turned out to be a cell phone- largely the reason that Loxas’ family was able to obtain a multi-million dollar settlement from the city of Scottsdale. Peters’ six fatal shooting incidents since 2002 may also have been a factor.
9. Johannes Mehserle
In a notorious and explosive case out of Oakland, California, transit officer Johannes Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison in 2009 for the shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was unarmed, in a subway station on January 1 of that year. The incident, which was captured on video via a bystander’s cell phone, was one of the more racially divisive such cases in recent years. Mehserle, who is white, claimed that he had intended to pull his taser, not his pistol, when he show down Grant, who was black.
Mehserle had originally been charged with murder- a probable first for an on-duty police officer in California- and it’s not difficult to see why. Grant had been restrained by other officers and was lying face-down with his hands behind his back when he was shot. Protests and some rioting followed Mehserle’s involuntary manslaughter conviction, as many obviously thought he had gotten off easy.While it does seem like a relatively brief prison sentence for such a crime, it’s also very difficult (even with video) to ascertain without a doubt that the killing was intentional. This did not stop a federal appeals judge from ruling that Grant’s family could move forward with a civil trial, which is ongoing as of this writing.
8. Devaney Braley
Lakewood, Colorado police officer Devaney Braley was cleared of any wrongdoing in the 2009 shooting death of Eugene Velarde, who had been fleeing from police on foot when he was shot four times. The possible criminal charges against Officer Braley faded when it was determined that it was reasonably possible that the suspect had been reaching for a pistol in his waistband. This case, however, received later scrutiny after another high-profile shooting involving Braley- this time, of a fellow police officer.
Mistaking his colleague for an armed suspect during an early morning pursuit, Braley shot and killed officer James Davies as the result of a laundry list of missteps by the Lakewood police department in responding to a shots fired report. A poorly-planned search and noise interference from a police helicopter, were found to have contributed, according to a report by the shooting review board. In addition, fingers were pointed at extreme officer fatigue; Davies had failed to report his position or identify himself to Braley, probably as a result of working for nearly nineteen hours straight. Unfortunately, the incident commander that day, and Officer Davies himself, appear to ultimately bear more responsibility for Davies’ tragic exit than Officer Braley, who friends say is a great cop.
7. Charles Kleinert
A bizarre incident in Austin, Texas, has former police detective Charles Kleinert under scrutiny. Kleinert was in Benchmark Bank gathering information about an earlier robbery when Larry Eugene Jackson came to the door asking to be let inside. So began a series of events that ended with Jackson dead under a bridge, shot once in the back of the neck by Detective Kleinert.
Jackson began by misidentifying himself to the bank manager, who found his behavior and demeanor suspicious and reported as much to Kleinert. Jackson again gave a false identity; while the meat of their conversation is unclear, Kleinert says it became evident that Jackson was intending to “defraud” the bank in some way, and at this point Jackson fled. Kleinert then made a decision to give chase, and once made he followed through to the bitter end.
After losing sight of Jackson, Kleinert slightly broke with protocol by enlisting a civilian to drive him around and assist in his search. The pair eventually managed to find Jackson walking alongside a creek. While what exactly happened next is still unknown, the two somehow ended up scuffling under a bridge, and Kleinert’s gun was fired – whether intentionally or accidentally is not known. It’s also not known why chase was given in the first place, when no crime had been committed and Jackson was clearly shown on the bank’s video should police have wanted to find him later.
In late-October 2013, Kleinert retired from the police force, prompting his department to abandon their internal investigation of the case. However, a civil and criminal case against Kleinert is still pending.
6. James Forcillo
In a sign of the times, another shooting incident in Toronto, Canada, caught on video and posted to YouTube, sparked a public outcry. Said video is partially responsible for second-degree murder charges filed against one of the officers involved, within less than a month of the incident.
As previously mentioned, it’s exceedingly rare for police officers who kill in the line of duty to be charged with murder; in this case, 18 year-old Sammy Yatim, a Syrian immigrant, was shot nine times after he pulled a knife on a streetcar and refused to drop it. Such cases typically result in manslaughter convictions, as murder requires intent- something that Canadian authorities must believe they see in this case, say legal experts. Of course, public pressure may have a part to play as well- pressure brought on by the proliferation of the YouTube video of the shooting. Said video as well as eyewitness testimony will come into play in the trial of Toronto police constable James Forcillo, which is forthcoming as of this writing.
5. Ian Birk
Seattle police officer Ian Birk made a quick decision upon seeing a man with a three-inch carving knife lurching across the street in September of 2010. He pulled over, got out of his patrol car and ordered the man to drop the knife. When he did not comply, he repeated the request at least three more times. Then, he shot 50 year-old John T. Williams four times, killing him.
While it may seem like a somewhat clear-cut case, those who knew the victim claim differently. Mr. Williams was chronically drunk and deaf in one ear, and had “profound cognitive challenges,” according to a spokeswoman for the Downtown Emergency Services Center, a shelter for alcoholics where Williams had lived. Friends and relatives say it is highly likely that Williams- a wood carver who was holding a block of cedar in his other hand- either didn’t understand the officer, or simply didn’t hear him.
This is particularly problematic in light of a recent Justice Department review of Seattle police procedures, which found that when their officers used force, it was done unconstitutionally almost 20% of the time. While no charges were filed against Birk, he resigned mere months after the shooting.
4. Leonardo Quintana
Officer Leonardo Quintana of the Austin, Texas police department approached two men sleeping in a car at around 5:00 one morning in May of 2009. Officer Quintana, according to a later report by an independent bureau, would make several mistakes in the next minute or so, the most crucial of which being this: he failed to activate his dashboard camera, which “would have captured the entire event.” An event which left one of the car’s occupants dead, and other injured.
Also, said the report, Quintana failed to follow that most basic of police procedures: identifying himself as an officer. The report noted that in those early morning hours, “…the ambient lighting was poor, the officers were wearing dark-colored uniforms”, and Quintana’s identity was in no way obvious to the man in the drivers’ seat, Nathaniel Sanders, upon awakening. Quintana spotted a gun in Sanders’ waistband, whereupon there was a brief struggle for it- after which Quintana stepped back and fired through the rear window of the car, striking both occupants.
Part of the reason for the independent report was a perception of bias on the part of the official report conducted by the Austin P.D. And while the Austin city council paid out three quarters of a million dollars to Sanders’ family in a wrongful death lawsuit, Quintana was merely suspended for fifteen days for failing to activate his dashboard cam.
3. Cleveland Shooting
On the evening of November 29, 2012, Cleveland police engaged in a high-speed chase involving a car with two unknown occupants. The car was thought to be involved in an incident of shots fired close to the Justice Center downtown, but no gun, bullets or spent shell casings would be found inside. Yet, at the culmination of the chase that officers were ordered to terminate minutes before, driver Timothy Russell and passenger Malissa Williams were cut down in an unbelievable Bonnie and Clyde-style rain of 137 bullets, fired by thirteen different officers.
The order to terminate the chase came as a result of known potential hazards in the area, and it’s not known whether officers from different departments were unclear on who was being ordered to call the chase off. And while leading police on such a chase in such a scenario certainly speaks to the possibility of some kind of illegal activity, community leaders and protesters blasted the response as “murder by the police”.
While none of the officers directly involved were terminated as a result of the incident, let alone charged with any crimes, the fallout among the Cleveland PD was extensive: one sergeant was fired, and nine were suspended; a lieutenant and a captain received demotions, and no less than 75 officers were punished for a wide variety of violations of rules and protocol stemming from the event.
2. Pasadena Shooting
The 2012 fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Kendrec McDade, by white Pasadena police officers Jeffrey Newlen and Matthew Griffin, threatened to become another Trayvon Martin-style firestorm when the officers were cleared of wrongdoing by an internal review in March 2013. Unfortunately, the officers were responding to a call about an armed robbery that never happened- the man who called 911, Oscar Carrillo, told the dispatcher that assailants armed with guns had robbed his taco truck. He later admitted that he had lied about the guns, so that police would arrive more quickly.
The officers were thus prepared for an armed subject when they spotted McDade running near the scene of the robbery. They would later say that McDade appeared to be fiddling with his waistband, and that he charged at them as well. After he was shot seven times, police realized that he was fiddling with (once again) a cell phone.
Despite calls for criminal charges by Kendrec’s family and community, the two officers remain on the job. However, while they were cleared by their peers, separate investigations by the L.A. County Board of Independent Review and the FBI are still in progress as of this writing.
1. Chicago Shooting
Finally, in a bizarre twist on the cases we’ve heard thus far, we have the 2005 story of Howard Morgan. Morgan is a former Chicago police officer and transit cop who officers say, after being pulled over for driving the wrong way down a one-way street, simply drew his service revolver and starting shooting. Officers returned fire and shot Morgan no less than 28 times. Somehow he survived, but since police say he was the one who started shooting, he’s now serving a 40-year prison sentence.
In 2007, a jury dismissed most charges against Morgan, but deadlocked on the charges of attempted murder; as opposed to acquittal, the judge bizarrely declared a mistrial, and ordered Morgan to be tried for murder again. A 2012 jury found him guilty, and the lengthy sentence followed. Morgan’s supporters, who have gathered over 15,000 signatures on a petition to free him, say that Morgan never returned fire, let alone instigated the shooting. They also say he was never tested for gunpowder residue, and that the testimony of the four officers involved (three of whom were wounded) was not enough to decide guilt.
Both his detractors and supporters make convincing and succinct cases. As Michael Shields of the Fraternal Order of Police said, “He pulled out a gun and shot at officers 17 times … he hit three officers. He deserves to go to prison.” Meanwhile, Morgan’s wife Rosalin counters with, “Four white officers and one black Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad police man with his weapon on him – around the corner from our home – and he just decided to go crazy? No. That’s ludicrous.”