That is precisely what happened to two men, in two different states, over the past weekend.
Officer Shoots Unarmed Man Fatally in North Carolina
Early on Saturday morning, 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell, a former Florida A & M football player, was shot and killed by Officer Randall Kerrick of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina, says the Charlotte Observer. After being a car crash severe enough that he apparently had to crawl out the back window, Ferrell walked about a half-mile to the nearest residence.
When the owner of the house saw Ferrell, who is African-American, she called “police because she thought he was trying to rob her,” the Charlotte Observer reports. Officers who arrived at the scene said that Ferrell was acting “aggressively.” After one officer unsuccessfully fired a taser, Ferrell “continued to run toward them.” Kerrick fired several times at Ferrell, who was pronounced dead at the scene.
Two Bystanders Shot By Police Pursuing Unarmed Man
On Saturday night in New York City’s Times Square, police also fired at an unarmed African-American man, says the Guardian. Two bystanders, including a woman using a walker, were wounded as people ran for cover.
The man has been identified as 35-year-old Glenn Broadnax of Brooklyn. His behavior on Saturday night was erratic, according to the New York Times:
Witnesses and officials said that Mr. Broadnax had been darting in front of cars at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue starting about 9:30 p.m. At one point, he appeared to have been hit and knocked to the ground by a taxi, [Kerri-Ann] Nesbeth [a bystander] said. She said Mr. Broadnax then picked himself up again.
“He was very disoriented,” she said. “It’s almost like he didn’t realize what had happened. He started to walk toward the taxi as though he was going to confront the driver.”
At that moment, she said, a police officer intervened and tried unsuccessfully to move Mr. Broadnax out of the intersection.
Broadnax “reached into his pocket as if grabbing a weapon” as officers approached; two officers fired three shots, says the Guardian. With bystanders shouting at the officers not to shoot Broadnax, police tasered him and took him into custody.
Now in stable condition at Bellevue Hospital, Broadnax told authorities that “I had a mission to kill myself.” He had previously served at least four years in prison for robbery and had been arrested a number of other times. While some authorities have said that he appeared “emotionally disturbed,” police said that he does not have a history of mental illness. Broadnax has been charged with “menacing, obstructing governmental administration, riot, criminal possession of a controlled substance, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.”
Use of Excessive Force
North Carolina police officer Kerrick has been charged with voluntary manslaughter and is now in custody. According to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Rodney Monroe, Kerrick’s “shooting of Mr. Ferrell was excessive” and the police’s “investigation has shown that Officer Kerrick did not have a lawful right to discharge his weapon during this encounter.”
The two New York Police Department officers involving in the shooting of the two bystanders in Times Square are both “relatively new to the department,” according to commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. Both have been placed on administrative duty while the NYPD investigates.
While the FBI keeps detailed information on the numbers and types of crimes that are committed throughout the United States, there is no comprehensive tracking mechanism for police shootings. FBI spokespeople have said there is no mandate for them to keep such statistics and that it would take an act of Congress in order to establish a database. Congress, so far, has refused to ask for one.
Such a mechanism is needed. Both Ferrell and Broadnax were African-American; would police have used their guns if they had not been?
The shootings of Ferrell and of the two bystanders in New York City were certainly “excessive.” While the mental health history of both Ferrell and Broadnax is unclear, cuts in mental health services have meant that police have increasingly been summoned to deal with people displaying “erratic behaviors.” Law enforcement officers need far more training about how to assist such individuals. Unusual behaviors and even aggression can be a sign of distress but not a reason to pull the trigger on an unarmed person in search of help.