In a report evaluating the state's first collection of officer-involved shootings, the City of Houston appears to be a microcosm of one of the Black Lives Matter movement's most resonating protests: that people shot by police are overwhelmingly young black men.
According to University of Texas law professor Amanda Woog's findings, nearly one quarter of all officer-involved shootings in Texas happened in Houston's metro area. Of those shot by Houston police officers, 75 percent were black, compared to 12 percent across the state as a whole. The median age of those shot in Houston was 22, compared to 32 in the rest of the state.
But those findings come with an asterisk, Woog said. The AG's report only covers shooting incidents that occurred from September to December 2015, given the new law requiring Texas police agencies to submit reports on officer-involved shootings to the AG didn't kick in until then. A closer look at all of HPD's officer-involved shootings in 2015, however, shows that the basic premise — that young men of color are the ones most often shot at by Houston police officers — does not change. Nor does it change going back to 2005, the earliest data available on HPD's website: Of roughly 400 people shot at by police since then, just over 50 were white — the rest were almost all black or Hispanic.
Last year specifically, of the 47 people shot at by police in 30 incidents last year, 40 were either black (26) or Hispanic (14); four were “unknown.” More than half were under the age of 25. Police wounded 17 people, five of whom were unarmed, and killed 12, including one unarmed man, Frank Shephard. Last year, we found that, between January 2013 and June of 2015, police shot at eight unarmed black men and ten unarmed Hispanic men; by comparison, police shot at just one unarmed white man during that time period.
But missing from the stats provided by HPD is any detailed explanation of why police felt justified to shoot and, in some cases, kill. HPD's online database offers just two- to four-sentence narratives about the incidents (far more detail than is required on the forms submitted to the Texas Attorney General's Office, which provide no more vague descriptions, like “on view robbery.”) In the majority of cases, it seems the officer fired because the suspect pointed a gun, flashed it or appeared to be reaching for one. But explanations almost never go any further than "he reached for his waistband" or "the officer feared for his life."
“It would be great if there was a narrative component to this [reporting] law,” Woog said, “because when you see that same boilerplate language being used, it takes you a step back— it doesn't really get you any closer to an understanding.”
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In one case in HPD's database, police pursued an unarmed black man into the woods and shot him because “the officer believed he saw a weapon so he discharged his firearm at the suspect - striking the suspect and another officer.” In another, they shot an unarmed Hispanic man after he “raised his hands above his head as if to surrender then quickly dropped them toward his waist.” And in Frank Shepard's case last April, Shepard fled police in his car, then surrendered after slamming into two other vehicles. He stepped out and put his hands up, but when he appeared to reach back into his car (officers apparently thought he was reaching for a gun), that's when police killed him.
Cases involving mental health crises only raise more questions, Last year, HPD reported two incidents in which a responding officer shot at a mentally ill person — one of which was fatal.
The first case was that of Alan Pean, who in August checked himself into St. Joseph Medical Center downtown because of severe panic attacks. After nurses couldn't get Pean, who had a history of bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder, to stop leaving his room naked, they called security guards, one of whom was an off-duty HPD cop. Police say Pean grew aggressive when guards entered his room unannounced. When he wouldn't calm down even after one officer tased him, one of the guards shot him in the chest, then handcuffed him on the ground.
During another fatal incident last October, another man had barricaded himself in his room with a gun. As for why police ultimately killed him, this is the only explanation given: "The suspect exited the location with a firearm, failed to follow commands and was shot by a SWAT officer."