500 Deadly Encounters With Police Officers Stir National Debate

The announcement this week that the officer who killed Eric Garner would not be tried for homicide has further fueled public debate as to the appropriate level of force police officers use while in perceived danger. In 2014 alone, over 496 individuals have died in incidents with law enforcement officers, some of whom did not posses a weapon.

As the year comes to a close, instances of possible excessive force on the part of law enforcement officers have shocked the country one after the other. Videos of violent altercations with police have been an especially potent ingredient in capturing the nation’s attention. These incidents have surfaced across the U.S. It appears states other than Missouri and New York have to contend with excessive force:

New Mexico – James Boyd

On March 16, 2014, Albuquerque police shot James Boyd, a white 38-year-old male, in the Sandia foothills above Albuquerque at his illegal makeshift camp. Boyd, a mentally disturbed homeless man with a criminal record, was attempting to set up camp in the foothills because local homeless shelters were closed.

Police were eventually able to negotiate with Boyd to vacate before shooting him as a perceived threat — a shooting at that time deemed justified by their department. Boyd later died due to his injuries.

Helmet cam footage and patrol car recordings leading up to the shooting paint a different picture of the event. Two hours before arriving to Sandia, officer Keith Sandy was recorded stating a willingness to use force.

“This f***ing lunatic? (unintelligible) I’m going to shoot him with a (unintelligible) shotgun here in a second,” said Sandy.

Debates have risen as to whether or not he intended to use a less than lethal Taser shotgun or live ammunition. Regardless, the shooting sparked a strong local outcry and a federal investigation of APD’s use of force track record. The Department of Justice’s investigation detailed a strong pattern or practice of excessive force, including deadly force, used by the APD since 2010.

Ohio – Tamir Rice

On November 22, 2014, Cleveland police responded to a call about a man pointing a gun at people in a park. Initial reports described the suspect, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black male, as 20 years old. Rice was playing in the park outside of Cudell Recreation Center with an airsoft replica weapon missing the orange safety cap, which signals a fake.

A report to 9-1-1 stated, “There’s a guy there with a pistol… and it’s probably fake, but he’s pointing it at everybody.”

This report of a possible fake weapon was not relayed to responding officers, according to the department. When the police confronted Rice, he was ordered to raise his hands. Instead, the boy raised his shirt, according to the police. Police are trained to treat any potential weapon as lethal and fired two shots into Rice’s stomach. Rice later died due to his injuries.

Rough surveillance footage shows Rice playing in the park with the BB gun before police arrive. Less than two seconds after police arrived, Rice was down, out of view of the recording. This incident prompted a scathing review by the Department of Justice regarding police competency and use of force in Cleveland.

Kansas – Joseph Jennings

On August 23, 2014, police and the local sheriff’s department responded to a call about an armed man carrying a gun outside of the Orschein Farm and Home hardware store. The suspect, Joseph Jennings, a 18-year-old white male, was released three hours prior from Ransom Memorial Hospital after an attempted suicide the day before.

Interviews and statements made by Jennings’ aunt, Brandy Smith, indicate that lethal force was not necessary. An attempt to subdue Jennings was made by Smith’s husband before police threatened him with deadly force. Jennings, according to Smith, puffed out his chest and made threatening motions toward police, prompting officers to use deadly force.

Jennings received onsite medical attention for his wounds and later died in an Ottawa hospital. Police have neither confirmed the amount of shots fired nor if Jennings had a weapon.

New York – Akai Gurley

On November 21, 2014, during a routine patrol of the ‘Pink Houses’ — meant to curb recent serious crimes — an innocent bystander, Akai Gurley, was shot as a result of an accidental discharge. The discharge came from rookie officer Peter Laing’s weapon on the eighth floor and struck Gurley in the chest while standing on the landing of the seventh. Gurley later died due to his injuries.

Prior to the incident, Liang drew his weapon and flashlight for additional safety while roving an unlit stairwell. His partner did not draw his weapon. No prohibitions exist for when or where a police officer may draw their weapon. Discretion and justification for drawing a weapon is left solely up to the officer.

A Reason-Rupe poll from October found 45 percent of Americans believe police are too willing to use lethal force.

These deaths and injuries have been viewed as symptomatic of a larger issue. Local police departments nationwide are becoming increasingly more militarized. Without oversight and sufficient training, many believe that incidents such as these will continue unabated. Body cameras are thought to be effective at providing oversight and eliminating uncertainties, prompting lawmakers to propose full, if not wider implementation of such equipment.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / A Katz