In recent months, reports of unarmed victims shot and killed by law enforcement has dominated news.
And while the number of individuals killed at the hands of officers in “justifiable police homicides” is somewhat unknown (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bureau of Justice Statistics puts the estimate at 400 per year), the actual number is hard to pinpoint.
Take it from a report in FiveThirtyEight:
Some reporting has put forward one of the only figures available: the approximately 400 “justifiable police homicides” each year since 2008, according to the FBI’s annual Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR). That data point has appeared with heavy caveats in a string of media reports, including in USA Today, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Washington Post.
The statistic might seem solid at first glance.
But these estimates can be wrong. Efforts to keep track of “justifiable police homicides” are beset by systemic problems. “Nobody that knows anything about the SHR puts credence in the numbers that they call ‘justifiable homicides,’” when used as a proxy for police killings, said David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri who specializes in policing and the use of deadly force. And there’s no governmental effort at all to record the number of unjustifiable homicides by police. If Brown’s homicide is found to be unjustifiable, it won’t show up in these statistics.
In short, people keep getting killed by police and no one knows exactly how many lives are taken a year by officers.
But in the wake of so many unarmed deaths, tracking another disturbing trend will be difficult — victims killed by officers while holding fake weapons. These shootings will most likely be filed under “justifiable police homicides,” but it’s important to point out that in the past year, a number of people have been killed holding toys.
Here, we highlight a few cases to bring awareness to the incidents that make us question police policy and training when it comes to using force, recognizing a real threat, and firing their weapons.
Details surrounding Crawford’s death remain murky — Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine refuses to release surveillance video from Aug. 5 that shows the 22-year-old in the Ohio Walmart where he was shot. What we do know is that Crawford was shot by officers while holding a Crossman MK-177 air rifle BB gun that was sold in the same store.
While walking around with the Walmart product, a customer called 911, telling the dispatcher the man was pointing the rifle at other customers. That same caller later retracted his original statement, telling The Guardian that Crawford didn’t point the fake gun at anyone. Family attorney Michael Wright did watch the video, and told media the police gave Crawford no signal before they opened fire. The officers maintain that they did give Crawford two chances to drop the gun and then fired their weapons when he did not comply.
Wright says otherwise. From NPR: “This was the unjust killing of John Crawford,” Wright said. “There’s absolutely no indication that the police gave Mr. Crawford any kind of signal. And let me make the caveat, in the event they did give a signal to Mr. Crawford, he was not aware, because the video does not show him turning towards the officers or even acknowledging their presence.”
Wright is still petitioning for the pubic release of the surveillance video. The officers involved have since returned to work.
Darrien Hunt’s sobbing mother has told numerous media outlets the story of her biracial son who lived in a predominantly white city — police shot him because he was black. But Utah police maintain they shot the 22-year-old because he was brandishing a sword and lunged at them.
Witnesses tell a different story. From MSNBC: “…witnesses saw Hunt running from the officers as they fired on him, that he was shot six times from behind and that he fell and died about 100 yards from where police initially made contact with him.”
An independent autopsy showed Hunt was shot in the back of his body. Attorney Randall Edwards and witnesses say the “weapon” Hunt was carrying was actually something one would get at a carnival.
Edwards said the alleged weapon that Hunt was carrying at the time of his death had a blunt edge and was largely decorative – something “you might win at a carnival for knocking over stuffed animals.”
“When you look at those facts, the report from the pathologist and witness statements, it appears clear that the story that has been given out by the County Attorney that he was brandishing a sword and lunging at the officers is at least questionable,” Edwards said. “There were no gunshot wounds from the front, so the question then is what happened. There are only 3 people on earth, 2 people on earth now, who know what went down between those officers and Darrien and one of them is dead.”
Hunt was also the third person shot by Utah police in three days. An investigation is ongoing to determine if the officers, who have not been disciplined as of yet, were justified in using deadly force.
Andy Lopez was just 13-years-old. He was holding a fake rifle when he was shot to death by California police. And the officer who shot him didn’t wait 10 seconds between the time he told the teen to put down the toy and the firing of shots.
Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus shot at Lopez eight times (seven made contact) in Santa Rosa on Oct. 22, 2013. Gelhaus said he was scared for his life after the teen raised the barrel of the gun towards the police cruiser. He was put on administrative leave pending an investigation.
During that time, it was revealed that Gelhaus had some issues with guns in the past. In August 2013, he pulled a gun on a man during a traffic stop. But in July 2014, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced the decision not to file criminal charges against Gelhaus.
Lopez’s family and friends, disheartened by the decision, spoke to NBC about their heightened fear of law enforcement and lack of trust in the system:
Daniel Lopez brought his 12-year-old son to the rally. He said the DA’s decision deepens his fear of law enforcement.
“The same thing can happen to him or to any of us,” Daniel Lopez said.
Community organizer Nicole Guerra, whose son was Lopez’s friend, said it is ridiculous that “police can use the excuse they were in fear of their lives.”
“Kids are in fear because they know cops can get away with it,” Guerra said. “He should have known that was a toy.”
They plan to continue protesting the decision not to charge Gelhaus.
PHOTO CREDIT: Handout