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Police shootings of children spark new outcry, calls for training to deal with adolescents in crisis


Stavian Rodriguez squeezed his 15-year-old body through the drive-through window of the Okie Gas Express convenience store, poking his hands out first so police could see that they were empty. He jumped to the ground, holding his hands in the air, then lifted his shirt to reveal a gun tucked into his front waistband. Using the tips of his thumb and index finger, Rodriguez gently pinched the end of the barrel far from the trigger and dropped the weapon to the ground.

As the gun hit the pavement, Rodriguez reached for his rear pocket; a volley of bullets burst out and the teenager sank to the ground, surveillance and camera footage show. Dozens of Oklahoma City police officers had responded last November to the 911 call at the convenience store, where Rodriguez was a robbery suspect. Five of them shot 13 bullets into the teen, from his head to his feet.

He is one of 112 children who have been fatally shot and killed by police between Jan. 1, 2015, and Monday, according to a Washington Post database that tracks fatal police shootings. Over the same period of time, 6,168 adults were shot by police.

"They knew he was a child. They were joking about whether he was in there calling his mom," said Cameo Holland, Rodriguez's mother, referring to conversations recorded on officers' body cameras. "No one was asking, 'How do we tactically approach this so no one dies today?' "

The five officers who fired shots into Holland's child are now facing first-degree manslaughter charges. This is a rare response by prosecutors who tend to side with police investigators who routinely clear officers of wrongdoing. Prosecutors must also consider whether they can persuade jurors, who tend to trust police more than other witnesses. The department said the officers shot because they perceived a threat, and the officers' attorneys say the shooting was justified.

The long-standing question of how fatal police shootings of children could be avoided and lives spared has engulfed the nation in recent weeks. The debate was renewed by the death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who was killed by an officer on March 29 in Chicago and further fueled by another fatal police shooting of a knife-wielding 16-year-old, Ma'Khia Bryant, on April 20 in Columbus, Ohio.

Three other children were shot and killed by police during the three-week span between Toledo's and Bryant's deaths.

Police leaders have asked the public to withhold judgment in the Toledo and Bryant cases until the investigations into their shootings are complete. But they acknowledge that communities are less likely to listen as they become increasingly weary and distrustful of police. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in April showed that 55% of Americans said they were not confident that police are adequately trained to avoid excessive use of force - up from 52% in July and 44% in 2014.

Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he hopes the public will recognize that officers are faced with instant life-or-death decisions and that even a child can be dangerous, especially if armed.

Of Officer Nicholas Reardon, who shot Bryant, Yoes said: "I assure you he wasn't focused on her age. He was focused on the knife. He was looking to save a life. Even children can pose a threat."

Lawrence Miller, a clinical, forensic and police psychologist based in Palm Beach County, Fla., said there is no national standard or set of protocols regarding how officers should handle encounters with children.

He and other police training experts said they know of no academies or programs that offer specialized training to officers in this area as they do for other segments of society, such as the mentally ill.

"They need to talk to them like they are children, not yell a bunch of commands at them," Miller said.

Of the 112 people younger than 18 who have been fatally shot by police, according to The Post's database, five were shot and killed by Columbus Police Department officers, the most of any single agency. Nine other departments had multiple fatal shootings of children. In the other 87 departments with such shootings since 2015, one child's death was recorded.

The database shows that the circumstances leading to the shootings of children are varied, with about half beginning with a robbery, a traffic stop, a stolen car or a 911 call. Most of the incidents took place during daytime hours; one appears to have involved alcohol use by the child; 19 of the children were experiencing a mental health crisis at the time of the shooting.

The database shows that children are frequently armed with a gun or a knife during these fatal police encounters, but not as often as adults who die by police gunfire - 63% of the time for children vs. 76% for adults.

Sixty-six percent of the children who died in police shootings were Black, Latino, Asian or Native American compared to 44% of adults who were racial minorities.

Children also were more often shot while running from police: 50% compared to 33% of adults.

The youngest of the children who have died were 6-year-olds - Kameron Prescott in Texas and Jeremy Mardis in Louisiana. Both were killed as police fired at but missed the suspects who were their intended targets.

The renewed focus on shootings of children owes much to their visibility: Videos of the Toledo and Bryant killings went viral, prompting national protests and stinging rebukes of police from high-profile celebrities and politicians.

Public pressure prompted police officials to quickly release body-camera video of the incidents. In one, Bryant, who was Black, appears to be swinging a knife at two girls before she is shot. In another, Toledo, who was Latino, is running from police before he stops and turns, tossing an object that police say was a firearm. A split second later, after turning toward the officers with his hands raised, he is shot in the chest.

Among the 112 deaths of children in the database, five incidents have resulted in officers being criminally charged, according to a Post analysis. Four officers in three cases have been found guilty on charges that ranged from murder to aggravated assault. An officer in a fourth case faced a single homicide charge, which allowed jurors to chose between murder or manslaughter, but they ultimately acquitted him.

In the fifth case, the five officers who fired the lethal shots at Rodriguez last year were charged in March with first-degree manslaughter. They have pleaded not guilty. No trial date has been set.

Prosecutors dispute the police department's and the union's characterization of the events that led to Rodriguez's death. The department initially said in a news release that the teen was shot because he "did not follow officers' commands" and had been "holding a pistol" when he climbed through the window.

"Our brave officers leave their families behind and walk into dangerous situations every day to protect and serve this community," Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 123 Vice President Mark Nelson said in a statement several days after the shooting. "Officers often provide commands in tense moments to ensure the safety of all individuals involved. Police training and experience tells us furtive movements and a lack of following commands present a deadly threat."

Since then, additional videos became public - from police body cameras, news camera crews and surveillance cameras - and a more complex picture of what happened that night in November began to emerge.

Court documents say security footage from inside the store, along with a police interview with the clerk, shows that the robbery began with Rodriguez pointing a gun at the employee as he demanded money. Another teen, 17-year-old Wyatt Cheatham, loaded packs of cigarettes into a backpack. (Cheatham entered a guilty plea on April 19 on a felony charge of robbery with a firearm.)

Both youths left the store briefly, and after about two minutes, Rodriguez returned alone and demanded more money, according to court records.

The clerk escaped through a window and used a security system to lock Rodriguez inside, court records say. He called 911 and officers poured into the parking lot within minutes, several taking cover behind the gas pumps.

For more than 10 minutes, officers yelled conflicting and overlapping commands to Rodriguez as he hid inside the store, video and court documents show. In charging documents, prosecutors said there appeared to be no commanding officer organizing the response.

Police body-camera videos also captured officers joking about Rodriguez and the robbery during the standoff. "He's probably calling his mom," one says. Another says, "Oops," and Officer Bethany Sears laughs and adds, "I messed up," speculating on the teenager's state of mind as he hides.

Minutes later, Rodriguez stuck his hands through the window and pulled himself through. On a half-dozen videos, officers can be heard simultaneously yelling different commands at him - "Hands!" "Facedown! On the ground!" "Drop it!"

A strobe light from at least one of the patrol cars - often used to disorient suspects - flashed into Rodriguez's face.

As he dropped the gun to the ground, the teen reached for his left rear pocket.

At that moment, Officer Sarah Carli fired a 40 mm foam projectile that struck the teenager, according to prosecutors.

Almost immediately, the other officers fired at him, the video shows. "A cellphone was recovered from the left rear pocket he had his hand in at the time he was shot," the prosecutors' affidavit said.

On a body-camera video, Rodriguez winces in pain as officers yell at the teen to show his hands. Officer John Skuta can be heard repeatedly muttering "Damn it."

Then officers quickly huddle, video shows, and one of them tells Officer Brad Pemberton to shut off his body-camera video. Police are only required to leave their cameras on when they are interacting with the public, according to department policy.

Pemberton, Sears, Skuta and Officers Jared Barton and Corey Adams were those charged with first-degree manslaughter, which carries a sentence of between four years and life in prison.

Attorneys representing the officers who have been charged say the shooting was legally justified because Rodriguez reached toward the back of his pants after he dropped the gun. At that moment, they say, officers thought he could have been reaching for a second weapon.

"This case is ultimately about whether each individual officer responded to a perceived threat in a way that was reasonable and in accordance with the law," the attorneys said in a joint statement. "Five officers, with similar training, came to the same conclusion when the suspect made a sharp movement toward his waistband after being told to show officers his hands and get on the ground. While the results were tragic, the officers' actions were reasonable and legally justified under the circumstances created by an armed robbery suspect."

David Thomas, a forensics psychologist and former police officer, said there is a natural assumption that officers know how to respond differently in tense encounters if it becomes clear that they are dealing with a child.

"They think they will put on their father's hat or mother's hat and be able to sit down and talk to a child without being a macho cop," he said. "Or have a big brother or big sister conversation. Training for this - it just doesn't exist."

Miller, the Florida psychologist, said that children's responses to police commands are often found "at both ends of the spectrum." They are either quickly compliant or, he said, become confused or defiant and attempt to run away.

"They are egocentric, impulsive, unpredictable," Miller said of teens. "They are less likely to show the kind of restraint adults tend to, unless there is a mental illness or drugs involved."

Thomas said it would be helpful for officers to learn more about development of the human brain, which is not complete until someone reaches their mid-20s. That can make teens more impulsive.

Miller said officers often put themselves and children at risk by underestimating them, especially if they are slight in build. He said the Rodriguez case is an example of this, as police joked about the unfolding scene, and, in some cases, stood out in the open at the window where they knew the teen would have to exit.

"It should never have never gotten to that point. Being a child, in a sense, worked against the decedent. If it was an adult, they would have taken cover," Miller said. "They would have probably had him strip down to his skivvies so they wouldn't have to worry about whether he had a weapon on him."

Holland, Rodriguez's mother, said without the video that documented how police handled the incident, prosecutors would have been left with the version of events that the police department presented after the shooting.

In 66% of the database incidents involving children, there is no video documentation. Sometimes the only witnesses who support an officers' contention that a shooting was justified are fellow officers at the scene.

The 2016 fatal shooting of 13-year-old Tyre King falls into this category. Like Bryant, the Black teen was fatally shot by a Columbus officer.

The officer, Bryan Mason, said the teen was reaching into his shorts for a weapon - which turned out to be a BB gun - when Mason shot and killed him. A fellow officer backed up Mason's description of the incident, court records show. However, three civilian eyewitnesses, including a nun, said they did not see this movement, instead saying the teen appeared to be trying to run away, according to court records.

It was Mason's fourth shooting - and the first fatal one - in six years, personnel records show. City officials said the shooting was within department policy, as they determined his previous three shootings had been, and a grand jury declined to bring charges. Mason's attorney did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment. Mason could not be reached for comment.

In all five incidents in which children were shot by police, the Columbus department determined that the shootings were justified.

"This is never an outcome Columbus police want to see. Any loss of life is tragic, even more so when it involves a juvenile," said Columbus Public Safety Director Ned Pettus "Each of these incidents is singular and has to be evaluated on its own merits and circumstances. Our priority every day on every call is to protect life and safety."

Dearrea King, the teen's grandmother, said police need to understand why children - particularly those who are racial minorities - sometimes do not comply with their commands.

"These kids are running away because they are afraid," said King, who has a lawsuit pending against the city. "They are trying to get someplace safe because they do not trust the police."

Like Mason, three of the Oklahoma City police officers involved in Rodriguez's shooting had also been cleared in previous shootings. In each case involving the Oklahoma City officers, the person they shot died.

Holland said she worries that when departments justify police shootings, future shootings could be fueled.

"They are used to shooting people and they are used to not having a lot of consequences," she said. "How do you [kill] multiple people and are somehow still fit to carry a gun? Supposedly they are traumatized from these shootings. If they are so traumatized, why don't they do something different?"

Published : May 13, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Kimberly Kindy, Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins, Ted Mellnik