Another young teen of color is dead at the hands of police officers — this time on a reservation in Wisconsin. Officials claim that 14-year-old Jason Pero was brandishing a butcher’s knife and lunged at officers responding to a call about a dangerous male. Meanwhile, family and tribal witnesses say Jason was a gentle teen who wouldn’t hurt anyone.
One cop is now on paid administrative leave as the investigation continues into why — once again — a police officer responded to a child with deadly force.
According to multiple news reports, Pero — an 8th grader – was home from school with the flu when he left his house and encountered Deputy Brock Mrdjenovich. The Wisconsin Department of Justice stated that the Ashland County police department received a phone call just prior reporting that a male matching Pero’s description was walking down the street with a knife — a call that Department says that Pero made himself.
When Mrdjenovich confronted Pero, the boy allegedly refused to drop the knife and even lunged twice at Mrdjenovich, causing Mrdjenovich to eventually shoot Pero twice — including at least once in the chest.
“DCI has determined Jason Pero was the same person that called 911 reporting a man with a knife, giving his own physical description,” The Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) released in a statement. “Initial information indicates that Pero had been despondent over the few days leading up to the incident and evidence from a search warrant executed on Pero’s bedroom supports that information.”
Was Pero depressed, and was he trying in some way to kill himself when he reportedly lunged at an officer with a sharp weapon? Even if that is in fact the true story, the question remains as to why police remain unable to disarm a suspect without killing him in the process, especially when that person has no gun — and even more so when we are talking about a child.
“Be clear,” writes The Root’s Kirsten West Savali, “Even if this child were holding a knife—which has not been proved—he did not deserve a bullet through his heart. But that is the state’s instinct when they see children of color as neither children nor human beings worthy of protection.”
It’s a view we saw all too clearly when 18-year-old Michael Brown was gunned down in Missouri, despite having no weapons on him. We saw it again in Ohio when 12 year old Tamir Rice was killed by police within seconds of their arrival at a Cleveland park. The officers couldn’t even take the time to realize that the “weapon” Rice was playing with was only a toy gun.
It’s clear that when police are confronting a person of color, their first instinct is no longer to disarm or de-escalate, but to jump quickly to lethal force to protect themselves from what they view as a threat on their lives. Yes, even if that “threat” is a teenage boy too young to shave.
Pero’s community is reeling from the violence he faced at the hands of those who are supposed to be trusted to keep the peace, and it is not surprising that they appear so far to doubt the details released by the Department of Justice on Pero’s motive, his alleged attack on an officer and the other actions leading to his murder. They aren’t wrong to be dubious, either: This isn’t an isolated incident, but a steady pattern of violence against communities of color.
If there is any justice to be found for Pero’s family and community, it will be found only when police are trained to disarm, to de-escalate and to see some other way to respond to a child than to instinctively shoot him in the chest.