Deadly use of force calls for ex­tra dis­clo­sure

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - LOCAL PERSPECTIVES - Michael Paul Wil­liams mwilliams@TimesDis­ mwilliams@timesdis­ (804) 649-6815 Twit­ter: @RTDMPW

There was no toy gun. No mo­bile phone. No pill bot­tle. No pocket to reach into. If the runaway imag­i­na­tion of po­lice of­fi­cers too of­ten leads to the fa­tal shoot­ings of un­armed black males, the death of Es­sex High School bi­ol­ogy teacher Mar­cus David Peters rep­re­sents a cu­ri­ous but no less tragic case.

The naked ap­pear­ance of Peters, a Hen­rico County res­i­dent, left noth­ing to the imag­i­na­tion be­fore he was fa­tally shot by a Rich­mond po­lice of­fi­cer along In­ter­state 95/64.

“Mar­cus-David Peters was the sev­enth per­son killed by po­lice in Vir­ginia so far this year,” said Claire Guthrie Gas­tañaga, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Vir­ginia. “We don’t know all the facts in this case yet, but it is dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand how a lone, naked per­son could be a se­ri­ous threat to the prop­erly trained law en­force­ment of­fi­cer.”

She called the shoot­ing of Peters “a uniquely trou­bling sit­u­a­tion” be­cause po­lice in the other cases this year shot peo­ple wield­ing var­i­ous types of weapons or per­ceived weapons. She ac­knowl­edged the dif­fi­culty for of­fi­cers to make a split-sec­ond judg­ment call. But in Mon­day’s shoot­ing, “it ob­vi­ously was clear that, as a naked per­son, Mr. Peters was not con­ceal­ing a weapon.”

Dur­ing rush hour, a Rich­mond po­lice of­fi­cer saw Peters driv­ing a sedan that struck a ve­hi­cle at the in­ter­sec­tion of Franklin and Belvidere streets be­fore flee­ing, po­lice said. The of­fi­cer fol­lowed him to the north­bound in­ter­state on-ramp off Cham­ber­layne Av­enue, po­lice said.

Ac­cord­ing to po­lice, Peters lost con­trol of his ve­hi­cle af­ter strik­ing two other ve­hi­cles on the ramp, and crashed into trees to the side. He ex­ited his ve­hi­cle naked and ran onto the in­ter­state.

Wit­nesses said they saw him danc­ing and rolling around on the high­way be­fore he re­turned to the on-ramp. Then, Rich­mond po­lice said, he charged the of­fi­cer and was shot af­ter the of­fi­cer’s Taser failed to dis­able him.

From the be­gin­ning of the pur­suit to the call that shots had been fired took less than 3½ min­utes.

On Wed­nes­day, the state’s Office of the Chief Med­i­cal Ex­am­iner ruled Peters’ death a homi­cide from gun­shot wounds to the ab­domen.

The Rich­mond Po­lice Depart­ment’s pa­ram­e­ters for the use of deadly force say it may be used on hu­mans only:

to “pro­tect the of­fi­cer or oth­ers from what is rea­son­ably be­lieved by the of­fi­cer to be an im­mi­nent threat of death or se­ri­ous phys­i­cal in­jury”;

to “pre­vent the es­cape of a flee­ing sub­ject when the of­fi­cer has prob­a­ble cause to be­lieve the sub­ject has com­mit­ted a felony in­volv­ing the in­flic­tion or threat­ened in­flic­tion of se­ri­ous phys­i­cal in­jury or death”; or

if the per­son’s es­cape “would pose an im­mi­nent dan­ger of death or se­ri­ous phys­i­cal in­jury to the of­fi­cer or to an­other per­son.”

Once Peters fled his mo­tor ve­hi­cle on foot, his great­est threat was to him­self.

Peters grad­u­ated summa cum laude from Mid­dle­sex High School in 2011 and would later grad­u­ate with hon­ors from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity.

His mother, Bar­bara Peters, told the Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch that her son was act­ing out of char­ac­ter. “Some­thing went ter­ri­bly wrong,” she said.

In the sad de­noue­ment, that much is clear, both in Peters’ pub­lic un­rav­el­ing and the po­lice re­sponse.

“One would hope that po­lice would re­spond to a sit­u­a­tion in which a per­son is clearly be­hav­ing er­rat­i­cally with con­cern for that per­son’s well-be­ing and how they might help or de-es­ca­late the sit­u­a­tion or avoid en­gag­ing the ob­vi­ously un­armed per­son phys­i­cally or di­rectly pend­ing the ar­rival of backup, rather than by draw­ing and fir­ing a firearm,” Gas­tañaga said.

On Wed­nes­day, Po­lice Chief Al­fred Durham once again pushed back against the idea that Peters posed less of a threat be­cause he was naked.

He cited a June 23, 2002, ar­ti­cle in The Seat­tle Times in which a King County, Wash., sher­iff’s deputy was fa­tally shot with his own gun by a nude, ag­i­tated man who had been run­ning in traf­fic, pound­ing on mo­tor ve­hi­cles.

Ac­cord­ing to the ar­ti­cle, “Wit­nesses and po­lice said the deputy ap­proached the man and sprayed him with pep­per spray in an at­tempt to sub­due him. The two scuf­fled, and the man grabbed the of­fi­cer’s gun.

“The deputy quickly re­al­ized he was in dan­ger and be­gan re­treat­ing, mov­ing away from by­standers as if to draw any gun­fire away from the crowd, ac­cord­ing to a wit­ness.”

But worst-case sce­nar­ios are a poor foun­da­tion for rea­soned pub­lic pol­icy. The ra­tio­nale for the shoot­ing of an un­armed civil­ian should not rest on a case clear across the coun­try that hap­pened 16 years ago.

I get it, Chief: Law en­force­ment is no pic­nic. We’re grate­ful for the job you do. But there’s sim­ply no way to sep­a­rate polic­ing from risk. It’s an in­her­ent part of the job.

If the ex­er­cise of lethal force tilts the odds too far in an of­fi­cer’s fa­vor, it’s a prob­lem for civil­ians, so­ci­ety and, ul­ti­mately, law en­force­ment. The un­armed must be given enough def­er­ence to sur­vive en­coun­ters with law en­force­ment.

Ade­ola Ogunkeyede, le­gal di­rec­tor of the Civil Rights and Racial Jus­tice Pro­gram at the Le­gal Aid Jus­tice Cen­ter, said Durham’s 2002 ex­am­ple was ex­treme.

“There has to be a point where you look at the data and say, ‘How com­mon is that ex­pe­ri­ence?’” she said.

“I’m sure in the RPD, they are do­ing train­ing on how to sub­due peo­ple in phys­i­cal con­tact. Be­cause if they’re not do­ing that, it’s a fail­ure at the academy level.”

“There’s still space be­tween non­lethal force that doesn’t stop some­one from act­ing in a way the po­lice of­fi­cer wants him to act, and then shoot­ing that per­son dead, where that per­son is com­pletely naked and does not present the im­me­di­ate abil­ity to use deadly force against that of­fi­cer,” Ogunkeyede said.

As Gas­tañaga said ear­lier, we don’t know all the facts, which of­ten are com­plex. We should be care­ful about pre­judg­ing.

But again, on this front, RPD is not help­ful as it wraps it­self in a cloak of se­crecy, from the lack of timely dis­clo­sure of the in­volved of­fi­cer’s iden­tity — “They’ve had plenty of time for do­ing ‘risk as­sess­ment’ prior to re­lease,” as Gas­tañaga points out — to its re­fusal to re­lease cam­era footage to the pub­lic, cit­ing an on­go­ing investigation into the shoot­ing.

Durham said the footage would be shown to Peters’ fam­ily, though the day and time had not been set.

“They’re mak­ing ar­range­ments for the loss of their son,” he said. “We haven’t even talked about that.”

Gas­tañaga pointed out the depart­ment’s re­fusal to re­lease the of­fi­cer’s body­cam video even as it asked wit­nesses to pro­vide po­lice with any videos or pho­tos that might have doc­u­mented the in­ci­dent. She called on RPD to re­lease any video footage and the names of any of­fi­cers in­volved; Rich­mond po­lice say there was only one of­fi­cer present.

Ogunkeyede at the Le­gal Aid Jus­tice Cen­ter echoed the call to re­lease the footage. “That goes part and par­cel with this idea of polic­ing trans­parency build­ing com­mu­nity trust.”

She dis­missed the idea that re­leas­ing the footage would im­pede the investigation into the shoot­ing. “The footage is what it shows,” she said.

The Le­gal Aid Jus­tice Cen­ter has been cam­paign­ing with the New Vir­ginia Ma­jor­ity and South­ern­ers on New Ground to make the depart­ment more ac­count­able on is­sues such as use of force, stop and frisk, and civil­ian com­plaint data.

The re­fusal of po­lice de­part­ments in Rich­mond, Ch­ester­field County and else­where to re­lease video footage makes a sham out of the body­cam ex­er­cise. If they have noth­ing to hide, or even if they do, they should come clean with the videos. Oth­er­wise, what’s the point?

The cur­rent ap­proach makes a mock­ery of com­mu­nity polic­ing, re­duc­ing it to a cheap catch­phrase.

To the ex­tent the Rich­mond Po­lice Depart­ment con­tin­ues to re­ject trans­parency, it will sac­ri­fice trust.


Mar­cus-David Peters, with his par­ents Bar­bara and Jerry Peters, grad­u­ated from VCU in 2016. He was shot and killed Mon­day by a Rich­mond po­lice of­fi­cer dur­ing an in­ci­dent along In­ter­state 95/64.

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