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      Shot by the Police for Holding a Gun-Like Object

      February 24, 2014
      From the column 'Bad Cop Blotter'

      Photo via Flickr user Andrew Mason

      On Valentine’s Day, two police officers in Euharlee, Georgia, showed up at the home of 17-year-old Christopher Roupe to serve a probation-violation warrant on his father. According to a lawyer representing Roupe’s family, immediately after the teenager opened the door, an unnamed female officer shot him fatally in the chest. The officer, who's now on paid administrative leave, told the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which is now handling the investigation, that Roupe pointed a gun at her. But it's not at all clear that's what happened. Neighbor Richard Yates, who was interviewed by local-news station WSBTV, thought that Roupe was actually holding a BB gun and “playing a game” with another kid. (Yates also said he saw the female officer crying after the incident.) Tia Howard, another neighbor, told WSBTV that “they said” the boy had a Wii controller when he was shot.

      When I called him to ask about the incident, Euharlee police chief Terry J. Harget told me he had no comment or official statement except what had been given to TV stations last week. Harget added that he hoped the truth would come out and that the considered the event a tragedy, which it certainly is.

      It’s not an isolated tragedy, though. Police mistake various harmless items—Wii remotes, combs, wallets, pagers—for guns all the time. Frequently, you’ll hear that a suspect was “reaching for his waistband,” a common excuse/cliché in police shootings that often makes the officers more justified in letting one fly than they were. And it’s not just confrontations with suspected criminals that end in gunfire—sometimes the police simply spot a teenager with a toy firearm, or a man holding a hose nozzle, or a homeless man with a stick, and open fire.

      Naturally, cops get nervous when people hold objects that could be weapons, but in some situations, like Roupe’s, there’s no threat posed to the cops whatsoever. What’s more, if Roupe had been holding a gun, shooting him still wouldn’t have been justified. This is America, and the police don’t have a monopoly on guns. Occasionally, someone is going to answer a door holding a gun, maybe because he was in the middle of cleaning it, maybe because he just likes holding guns. (Hey, this is America.) That shouldn’t lead to a summary execution. As usual, the fix here is for cops to take a damn minute before resorting to lethal force, and for departments to train their officers to avoid reaching for their waistbands until they're certain that the kid opening the door is really a bad guy and not just a fan of fake weapons.

      Here are our bad cops of the week:

      –In Bastrop County, Texas, a sheriff’s deputy fatally shot a 47-year-old woman named Yvette Smith on February 16, and police have backed away from their initial report that she was armed. Deputy Daniel Willis responded to a disturbance call from a house at about 12:30 AM that morning—the report was that two men were fighting about a gun. When Willis showed up, one man was outside, and the other man was inside with some other people, and that’s where things get murky. The police first claimed Smith displayed a firearm and refused to obey a deputy’s commands, so Willis shot her. (She died at a hospital some time later.) A second report from the sheriff’s office said that they couldn’t confirm either the presence of a gun, or Smith’s noncompliance, so, uh, that’s bad. Willis has been put on administrative leave.

      –On Thursday, US district judge William Martini dismissed the lawsuit filed against the NYPD by Muslim groups over the NYPD’s campaign of spying on their communities in New Jersey after 9/11. The existence of this spying—which has, as far as anyone knows, never led to a single arrest or foiled terrorist plot—was revealed in a series of Pulitzer-winning Associated Press articles in 2011 and 2012. Judge Martini said the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the NYPD; in essence, he ruled that the “adverse effects” felt by these communities was a result of the AP stories on the spying, not the actual spying. If you don’t know you’re being watched, your constitutional rights aren’t being violated, right? A similar lawsuit from a group of Manhattan Muslims is still making its way through the courts.

      –The DEA in Georgia has made it easy for residents to snitch on potential abusers of prescription drugs—now it’s only a text away. Warning signs citizens are supposed to look out for include pharmacists who are driving fancy cars, customers who come in too often, and doctor’s prescription pads with overly neat handwriting. Text your tip to the hotline, and the DEA will follow up. (This program has also been instituted in Philadelphia.) Though prescription drug abuse can be fatal, and seems to be on the rise, this kind of snitching system will mostly just snag a few sad addicts, small-time crooks, and chronic pain sufferers who can’t get enough medication without addressing the demand or supply of the drugs. Though that sort of thing is usually enough for the DEA to call it a job well-done.

      –Speaking of the DEA, Peter Bensinger, former head of the agency, told Yahoo News on February 19 that pot legalization is dangerous. Bensinger, who headed the agency from 1976 to 1981, fears that children will be adversely affected, that people will drive under the influence, and that marijuana, with its dangerous health effects, will see an increase in use. Bensinger also apparently believes that Colorado and Washington state’s new anti-prohibition laws are “against federal law and the Constitution and our international treaties.” Blah, blah, blah. Nothing is surprising about a man who made his living on misery now fighting against the changing times—but the amazing thing is how out of date Bensinger already sounds. He’s losing, and he seems to know it.

      –Charges related to a June 2012 encounter with police could have earned Marcus Jeter, of Bloomfield, New Jersey, five years in prison for eluding the police, resisting arrest, and assaulting a police officer. But newly revealed dashcam footage has exonerated Jeter and led to charges of conspiracy, official misconduct, and assault by two Bloomfield cops. That dashcam tape initially didn’t surface until Jeter’s lawyer filed a request for records—and an internal investigation apparently failed to turn it up. That may be even more troubling than the incident itself, which involved the cops' pulling Jeter over and beating him up even though he was complying with their orders. The linked story is worth reading, but essentially the police beat up an innocent man, lied about it, and weren't caught in their lie thanks to some conveniently missing evidence.

      –It’s been a long, cold winter, but a New Jersey poodle is spending the season somewhere a bit warmer thanks to our Good Cop of the Week. Earlier this month, Bridgeton police officer Ronald Broomall was driving on patrol when he saw a small poodle nearly dead from cold and exposure. He grabbed the pup, put him on the dashboard of his cruiser to warm him up, then rushed him to a nearby animal hospital. Broomall saved the dog, now named Chance, and he is up for adoption.

      Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag

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      Topics: Christopher Roupe, police shooting, police misconduct, Bad Cop Blotter, wrongful arrest, nypd, dea, spying on Muslims

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