When are police justified in shooting a suspect? That question has become the center of a roaring debate around policing in America, largely because the public and media have started to notice that unarmed suspects – mostly men of color – keep getting gunned down by cops.
Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland says it was unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, triggered by a white officer shooting and killing an unarmed black teenager, that made him first consider publishing a comprehensive database on HPD officer-involved shootings.
“Sometimes external forces cause us to change and force us to move in a direction where we've been resistant to move,” McClelland told reporters Thursday as he unveiled the new database on police department's website. The data included on HPD's new web page goes back to 2013 and includes each time an officer has fired his or her weapon, either on or off duty.
We took a look at the website today and here are a few takeaways:
Suspect had a “weapon” in majority of cases
Since the start of 2013, HPD officers have fired their weapons in 83 separate incidents, some of which included multiple suspects shot at by cops. In 67 of those cases, HPD lists at least one suspect having some sort of weapon (in two 2013 cases, the suspect weapon is listed as “unknown”).
In 46 of those cases, it's pretty easy to understand why a cop fired: the suspect had a gun. Like last December, when an officer responded to a call about a suicidal man with a pistol on the far north side of Houston. According to a synopsis of the case provided by HPD, the suspect ignored officers' instructions numerous times before reaching for his waistband. “[T]he officer, knowing the suspect had a pistol, fired at suspect,” according to the HPD synopsis. The man was taken to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
In other instances, suspects were technically unarmed but “physical force” was listed as a weapon, as in the case of a 26-year-old black man suspected of a robbery last March. The man had one hand cuffed when he broke free from the officer, who then “followed the suspect, maintaining a safe distance, as the suspect would walk and then stop to threaten the officer,” according to an HPD synopsis of the incident. Ultimately, the officer “felt that the suspect was intent on injuring him or that the suspect wanted the officer to shoot him.” The officer obliged, shooting the suspect in the chest and killing him.
Several drivers were shot by cops because officers feared suspects were trying to run them over during traffic stops – with the weapon is listed as a “vehicle” by HPD. Others were shot by officers because they wielded knives, scissors, BB guns, glass shards and even metal poles.
Since 2013, unarmed suspects shot at 14 times
In 2013, HPD shot at unarmed suspects just 4 times. While cops shot at unarmed suspects 5 times in 2014, HPD data shows that cops here have fired on unarmed people that many times in just the first half of 2015.
There are incidents like this one from 2013, where an officer responded to a domestic disturbance and encountered a man who refused to leave his apartment. “As an officer approached the back window it exploded outward putting the officer in fear of his life and fired into the apartment,” HPD's synopsis of the case states. “There were no injuries and suspect sent to a psychological center.” There's also the officer who fired on a suspect he caught trying to break into his cruiser this year while the officer was refueling it, or the cop who, responding to a domestic disturbance this past April, fired his gun at a charging pit bull and hit the dog's owner in the leg instead. One off-duty cop, who claimed he saw a car burglary in progress in Fort Bend County, fired his weapon at six unarmed teenagers.
Since 2013, HPD officers have shot and killed at least two unarmed suspects, most recently on April 15 when, according to an HPD synopsis of the case, a suspect fled in his car during a traffic stop, struck two cars, and then “refused to comply with the officers and was shot when his actions led the officers to believe that he was reaching for his weapon.” (The identity of the man who was killed was not immediately available.)
Another police killing made headlines last year when a Harris County grand jury failed to indict the officer who fired the gun. On the night of January 16, 2014, 26-year-old Jordan Baker was shot and killed by Juventino Castro, a veteran HPD officer moonlighting as a security guard at a strip mall off 5700 West Little York. Castro, apparently on-guard following a string of recent burglaries in the area, stopped Baker in the parking lot because he looked “suspicious” and supposedly matched the description of the robbery suspects – the description being black and wearing a hoodie.
Police later said there's no reason to think Baker had anything to the robberies at the strip center. Yet, according to police, "a brief struggle and foot chase ensued" when Castro tried to stop and talk to Baker. Police claim Baker, for some reason, stopped running at some point, turned around toward the officer and reached for his waistband, even though he was unarmed. Castro fired once, killing Baker.
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Nearly every unarmed suspect shot at by Houston cops was black or Hispanic
Of the incidents in which HPD officers shot at suspects who were later found to be unarmed, virtually all were people of color (this doesn't include unarmed suspects who were arrested along with gunmen in, say, a burglary or robbery attempt).
Cops shot at eight unarmed Hispanic men and 10 unarmed black men since 2013, HPD's data shows. This includes the off-duty HPD officer who, claiming he saw a car burglary in progress, shot at six unarmed teenagers (two black, four Hispanic) in 2013.
Cops shot at just one unarmed white man during that time.