Heart-wrench­ing

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Dana D. Kel­ley Dana D. Kel­ley is a free­lance writer from Jones­boro.

It’s among the most trou­bling 10 min­utes of video you might ever see. The out­come is al­ready es­tab­lished, which gives it the de­meanor of a dread­ful count­down.

It’s only been about two weeks since Mar­ion po­lice were called to the scene of a youth ser­vices cen­ter where 16-year-old Aries Clark was re­ported for bran­dish­ing a pis­tol. De­spite con­stant plead­ing and beg­ging from of­fi­cers to put down his gun, the teen raised his weapon and was shot. He died the next day.

Orig­i­nally, de­tails were scant as of­fi­cials in­ves­ti­gated the in­ci­dent. Clark’s fam­ily mem­bers were faced not only with sud­den dev­as­tat­ing loss, but also the un­cer­tainty of how and why it hap­pened. Tensions ran so high that the teenager’s fu­neral was cut short by a brawl.

Ac­cu­sa­tions were hurled with­out re­straint, of course, as they al­ways are with any po­lit­i­cally charged sit­u­a­tion—and in­ter­ra­cial po­lice shoot­ings with black victims top that list.

Be­fore she had seen any of the in­ci­dent footage, Clark’s fam­ily at­tor­ney promptly called the shoot­ing “un­law­ful.” This week Arkansas District At­tor­ney Scott Elling­ton ruled oth­er­wise, and re­leased body-cam record­ings as ev­i­dence that the po­lice of­fi­cers were jus­ti­fied in their ac­tions.

The videos tell a tragic story. They also de­liver all the miss­ing de­tails.

The cam­era of one of the of­fi­cers who fired the fa­tal shots clearly shows Clark hold­ing a hand­gun at his side when po­lice ar­rive. It’s ev­i­dent from the on­set that Clark is not go­ing to obey the of­fi­cers’ com­mands.

This is the open­ing tran­script of the of­fi­cer’s con­ver­sa­tion, with the video time se­quence in paren­the­ses:

“Come on man, just drop it for me. (:03)

“Drop the gun. (:04)

“Drop the gun! (:05)

“Drop the gun!! (:07)

“Drop it. (:08)

“Drop the gun. (:09)

“Drop the gun. (:11)

“Drop it, man.” ( :12)

In the first 10 sec­onds, the of­fi­cer tells Clark to drop his gun eight times. In­ex­pli­ca­bly, Clark is de­fi­ant in his re­fusal.

Within the first 20 sec­onds, the of­fi­cer is im­plor­ing the teenager to co­op­er­ate.

He re­minds Clark that the two know each other, ask­ing if Clark re­mem­bers him (the of­fi­cer) giv­ing Clark a ride a cou­ple of weeks ago. The of­fi­cer as­sures Clark he’s there to help.

In­deed, ac­com­pa­ny­ing the con­tin­u­ous re­frain of “drop the gun” is a cho­rus of be­seech­ing sup­port: “We’re here to help you.”

When Clark moves omi­nously to­ward the of­fi­cer af­ter about a minute, the au­dio isn’t com­pletely leg­i­ble, but it sounds like the teenager is say­ing, “Do it.”

The of­fi­cer re­sponds “No, I don’t want to.”

“Do it,” Clark ap­pears to say at least twice more.

Video footage is a visual chron­i­cle of events, but it’s a blank screen when it comes to what’s go­ing on in­side peo­ple’s heads. All teenagers battle emo­tional angst; as adults later they rec­og­nize ado­les­cent tun­nel vi­sion for its short-sight­ed­ness.

But when the de­gree of emo­tional dis­tress ad­vances to be­hav­ior invit­ing self-de­struc­tion, and we see the path un­fold as on this video, it’s dou­bly heart-wrench­ing. That’s partly be­cause as adult ob­servers, we’re fully cog­nizant of how avoid­able it all could be.

At the same time, while we can hear the of­fi­cers on the video and see them tak­ing cover, most of us can never fully re­al­ize the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion they were in.

I’ve been around guns my whole life, and I wholly un­der­stand them to be lethal weapons. But I’ve never been in phys­i­cal prox­im­ity to a deadly firearm in the hands of some­one who also had deadly thoughts in their mind. Ev­ery move at that point be­comes a cal­cu­lated risk, with un­pre­dictabil­ity as a stan­dard, and life-and-death con­se­quences at stake.

Po­lice aren’t trained to solve hu­man­ity’s prob­lems, and never claim to be. Their train­ing is spe­cific to their job as law en­force­ment of­fi­cers, charged with pro­tect­ing so­ci­ety.

They know that it takes only a split sec­ond to raise and fire a gun. Po­lice have of­ten seen first­hand the dam­age bul­lets do to hu­man bod­ies. That doesn’t make them afraid; it makes them aware. Ac­cord­ingly, they treat armed sus­pects who refuse to com­ply with or­ders to dis­arm as threats un­til neu­tral­ized.

Even so, af­ter about nine min­utes, the of­fi­cers sur­round­ing Clark were try­ing to fig­ure out how to get close enough to dis­arm him.

Sadly, just sec­onds af­ter one policeman is heard on his body cam telling an­other that he thinks he can “get on him quick enough,” and starts to move around to Clark’s side, that’s when the teenager lifts and aims his gun.

Only af­ter fir­ing their weapons and ap­proach­ing the fallen teen did of­fi­cers dis­cover that the gun in Clark’s hand was a pel­let pis­tol.

Sui­ci­dal ac­tiv­ity among teens has been called a “silent epi­demic.” The Jason Foun­da­tion re­ports up­wards of 5,000 sui­cide at­tempts on av­er­age ev­ery day in Amer­ica by young peo­ple in grades 7-12. More than 100 are suc­cess­ful ev­ery week.

The root of the tragedy in Mar­ion will be ig­nored by po­lit­i­cal agenda ac­tivists who seek to ex­ploit such tragedies rather than solve them.

While fin­gers are pointed in dis­trac­tion, per­haps Aries Clark’s pub­lic­ity can bring needed fo­cus to teenage men­tal health as a press­ing issue.

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