The following was written by a police officer and TTAG reader who we’ll call TS:
It would be easy and, in principle, correct to withhold final judgment in any officer involved shooting (OIS). Until all the facts are known, until they’re compared and contrasted and weighed against each other, any analysis of an OIS may be fatally flawed. But it is also true that human nature leads us to draw conclusions from available information, so that we can learn something from the experience. Those conclusion often depend on our perspective. Take the case of a fatal OIS of double amputee Brian Claunch (above) in a Houston group home on Saturday; as reported by CNN and the AP [via PoliceOne] . . .
Police responded to a report of an aggressive man threatening fellow residents at a group home. Mr. Claunch was a diagnosed schizophrenic sitting in a wheelchair. He was waving a metal object in a threatening manner at people in the home. At some point after the police arrived, Claunch managed to corner one of the officers.
At a distance described as “inches to a foot,” Claunch attempted to stab the officer. At which point the other officer fired his weapon and killed Claunch. Keep in mind that mentally ill people can display surprising strength and exhibit extremely erratic, unpredictable behavior.
At the time of the shooting, the officer claimed he didn’t know that Mr. Claunch was holding a pen. If Claunch was trying to stab the officer in something not unlike a frenzy, the officer’s inability to identify the object seems reasonable. It can be impossible to identify something small waved around quickly.
Now stop and consider this deadly encounter from a non-police perspective (as has been pointed out here at TTAG, police are legally civilians, so I won’t use that term).
Imagine you find yourself in a confrontation with a mentally ill person. He’s agitated and aggressive. He refuses to listen when you tell him to calm down. He corners you and tries to stab you with a slender, pointed metal object that’s long enough to reach any number of vital organs.
Are you justified in defending yourself? Are you justified in defending a friend or family member if they’re the ones who are cornered and threatened? Legally, if it’s a credible threat in the process of being delivered you’re good to go.
The main question about this unfortunate fatal incident: were there errors in tactics or judgment before Claunch cornered the officer, police or home staff procedures that could have prevented the deceased from presenting a lethal threat in the first place?
We don’t have sufficient information to make that call.
But we do know a simple fact: once there’s a credible lethal threat—a slender, pointed metal object slashing towards your neck (carotid), leg (femoral), chest (aorta) and any number of highly vulnerable body parts from a close range qualifies—there are only a three ways the encounter can go.
Fight, flight or freeze. The officers were unable to maneuver to escape Mr. Claunch’s clutches and reposition themselves at a safe[r] distance. Feezing was not an option; Claunch was in the throws of launching an attack. From the sound of things, fight was the officers’ only realistic option.
Out of uniform, your options to avoid these sorts of violent confrontations are pretty good. However, if you’re a law enforcement officer on duty and the call comes in, that’s where you’re going. What you do once you’re there depends on what you can do, what you have to do and what you’ve already done. And not necessarily in that order.
While commentators have been quick to condemn this regrettable incident as a lopsided attack indicating excessive force, many deadly police – citizen encounters defy easy explanation. If you look beyond the headlines and read between the lines, chances are you won’t find hard answers. But you stand a good chance of asking the right questions.
We can judge now or judge later. But it seems that Mr. Claunch did more than enough to seal his fate. Did the police do too little to take him into protective custody? We my never know. But unless and until we do, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. The people who survived the attack deserve a fair and full accounting. Who knows? They may even get it. Watch this space.