This story is over 5 years old.

Being white may have saved the Florida face-eating suspect from being shot by police

There are stark differences between how police handled the case of 19-year-old Austin Harrouff and a previous Florida cannibal attack that involved a black suspect.
August 20, 2016, 1:12pm
Image via Martin County Sheriff's Office

When police in Florida found 19-year-old Austin Harrouff on Monday gnawing on a man's face, they quickly sprung into action. The first responding officer fired her Taser at the Florida State University student, who was wearing a blue polo shirt and a red "Making America Great Again" hat. Then, when two other sheriff's deputies arrived, they unleashed a canine and kicked him repeatedly. Finally, they pulled him off the victim before taking him to the hospital, where he remains in stable but critical condition.


One thing they didn't do: fire a weapon.

Harrouff allegedly stabbed two random people to death, then attacked a neighbor who tried to interrupt his rampage. And yet despite the grisly scene, Harrouff somehow survived his confrontation with the cops. At a time when fatal officer-involved shootings of black men are under scrutiny nationwide, some have questioned whether Harrouff's race factored into the police decision not to shoot him.

"Crazy how cops were able to subdue a white guy turned zombie, but [they're] out here killin' black men at traffic stops for no reason," one Twitter user wrote.

"I'm convinced that a literal zombie fucking apocalypse could come and cops would still only shoot the black ones," said another.

Shaun King, a prominent voice in the Black Lives Matter movement, compared Harrouff's case to the infamous "Causeway Cannibal" attack four years ago in Miami. In that incident, black man Rudy Eugene was found naked, eating the face of a man he had just attacked. Like Harrouff, Eugene's zombie-like behavior led to speculation that he was using the drug bath salts — a claim that was ultimately disproven. Martin County Sheriff William Snyder suggested that Harrouff may have been high on flakka, an amphetamine-like drug, but the toxicology test results are still pending.

Related: Police are freaking out over drugged-up flakka 'zombies'

Unlike Harrouff, Eugene was shot almost immediately by the first Miami cop who stumbled upon the gruesome scene.

"A part of the definition of white privilege is having options unique to you because of your skin," King wrote for the New York Daily News. "Clearly, those benefits even extend to a rampaging cannibal."


Speaking to VICE News on Thursday, King said he plans to hold up Harrouff's case as an example of how police ought to behave when they find people of color in the midst of mental health crises. He referenced a recent incident where police in North Miami wounded a black caregiver for an autistic man, even though the man was unarmed and on his back on the pavement with his hands up when the cops responded to reports of a suicidal person.

"They did everything they should have done with literally 200 other cases I've written about with black men and women and children who did not deserve lethal force and got it anyway," King said of Harrouff, stressing that he does not believe the officers should have shot him.

'If you can have unending patience when you roll up on Silence of the Lambs, you need to have something comparable when you roll up on a situation that's nothing like that.'

"It's not to say that if you're going to shoot person A, you better shoot person B," he said. "It's to say that if you can have unending patience when you roll up on Silence of the Lambs, you need to have something comparable when you roll up on a situation that's nothing like that — that's 95 percent less threatening — yet they use exponentially more force."

Sheriff Snyder vehemently denied that race played any part in how his deputies handled the situation, saying they decided not to fire at Harrouff in part because they were worried about wounding his victim, who they thought was still alive.


"The idea that our deputies would think, 'This is a white man, I can't shoot him, I should take more time,' it's unconscionable, that's racism in its ugliest form," he said. "I don't believe for one second — I know these deputies, I know my people — that is beyond the pale, that is not anything — if you know my deputies, nobody would accuse them of that. The color of the skin is irrelevant. It was all tactics. Race had no bearing on it."

Snyder said Martin County has only had two officer-involved shootings during his four-year tenure, and the most recent one involved a white robbery suspect who threw an object at the arresting officers.

"I was in the middle of arresting a black male for murder prior to this [interview]," Snyder said. "We didn't shoot anybody there."

Related: The US government will track killings by police for the first time ever

Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the state's largest police union, said that a key difference between Harrouff's case and Eugene's was that the Miami cop was alone when he discovered cannibal attack. The officer said he opened fire after Eugene did not obey commands and growled at him.

"It's subjective to the moment," Puckett said. "How the officer feels, what he thinks he can reasonably handle by himself, the level of threat. You see somebody eating a person and you're by yourself, shooting seems like a reasonable option. When you have multiple officers and you feel like you can pull him off without shooting and hitting the victim, who I think they thought was alive, you go ahead and do that."


Puckett acknowledged that race may have played a factor in Harrouff's case, but he argued the decision not to shoot was made in the spur of the moment. It's not as if the officers pondered Harrouff's skin color before deciding not to open fire — they were merely reacting to the situation as it unfolded, Puckett said.

'The color of the skin is irrelevant. It was all tactics. Race had no bearing on it.'

"I'm not living in a vacuum, I understand the racial component, I get it," Puckett said. "When I read about it, it was one of the first things I think a lot of us thought — it's an interesting way to approach it. But I don't know how you can judge it if you're not on the scene."

Further fueling criticism of Harrouff's case is the fact that some media coverage has highlighted his academic achievements, suggesting the vicious attack was out of character. He was enrolled in his high school's International Baccalaureate program and later studied exercise science at Florida State, where he was a member of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity. Harrouff's sister reportedly told police her brother was a "nice young man who would not hurt himself or anyone else."

But according to the Florida Sun-Sentinel, Harrouff was a bodybuilder who had publicly discussed using steroids in the past. His parents said they were having dinner with him in Jupiter, Florida, on the night of the attack when he suddenly "started acting strangely and claimed to have superpowers." He stormed out after getting into an argument with his father and was arrested around 45 minutes later, about three miles away. His victims were 59-year-old John Stevens and 53-year-old Michelle Mishcon Stevens. The couple's good Samaritan neighbor, Jeffrey Fisher, was released from the hospital on Thursday.

Related: North Miami police shot an unarmed black man who was on his back with his hands up

Harouff faces a litany of charges — including two counts of first-degree murder and one count of resisting arrest — when he is released from the hospital.

While investigators are still working to determine what led to the grisly flesh-eating attack, Puckett says the officers who arrested Harrouff faced a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. It's a feeling that's widespread among law enforcement nationwide at the moment, the union chief said.

"I think officers feel right now no matter what they do, if they use deadly force they'll be criticized, if they don't they'll be criticized," Puckett said.

King didn't quite see it that way. He heaped praise on the deputies for exercising restraint — but said his only request is that more officers do the same with people of color.

"I think what they did with this young man was excellent," King said. "I need to be clear on that: I'm not saying you should have killed him like you killed everyone else. I'm saying the exact opposite. I think it was an example of amazingly patient long-suffering police work that I just don't see with black folks anywhere."

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton