One April night thirteen years ago, a police sharpshooter killed Jake.
Jake (I have disguised his name) was my step brother-in-law, husband to one of my wife’s step-sisters. He was a big man who tried to act bigger, but he was a pussycat with his wife and infant daughter. His wife had to monitor his medications for a mood disorder and he was normally compliant. I would never have described him as dangerous; he just talked big. He was a guy struggling to come to terms with his past, trying to do the right thing moving forward. Mostly, I think he was succeeding. He had his wife to help.
His perfect life would have been as a mountain man. He was an enthusiast of black powder, muzzle loading, single-shot hunting rifles. I think he owned only one of them and I never once heard of him actually shooting anything except targets. When he and I took my kids and our nephews fishing, well, those are some of the better memories I have of him, those and our conversations about religion.
He was part Native American, proudly so. He had left conventional Christianity (he never really had much to do with it in the first place) for a religion of nature, as he thought his grandfather had practiced it. To me it seemed like animism, Disney-like talking grandmother trees. He wanted to believe he was deeply connected to creation. Fair enough. I never teased him about it. If it brought him some solace I would not have denied him that.
On the night of his death, he had gone to a religious meeting. While there, he had fumbled a ritual and was told he was forbidden from wearing a sacred headdress until he learned things better. He returned home testy, angry, belligerent, and he didn’t want any medication. His wife left the house and called police. She thought they’d come, help calm him down, and he’d take the medication, simmer off, and everyone would go home. Eight hours later as the police had convinced him to do, he put his daughter in the carrier and placed her on the front porch. Turning to return inside the house, he was shot in the back. He had a knife, but no one said he was brandishing it about.
Yet he had been doing his big talk to the police, about his barrels of black powder and how if people just didn’t leave him the hell alone he’d blow up the house, the neighborhood, and everyone else just for good measure.
His wife was sequestered, confined to a police cruiser. No police officer interviewed her. No one asked what kind of guns he had in the house or how many barrels of powder. She had no chance to explain his medications. Maybe for the first time in Jake’s life, somebody truly believed all his big talk. So the police shot him while he was in tight proximity to a baby in a baby carrier. Police say their sharp shooter was aiming for Jake’s leg, over a distance of perhaps twenty yards.
His wife did not know anything about what was happening over the eight hours. No one spoke with her, not until a police chaplain showed up to tell her Jake was dead. The county attorney ruled it was a justified police killing. His widow filed a wrongful death suit, for which I was deposed as a potential character witness. The case ended before it even started; the judge granted a pro forma motion to dismiss with prejudice.
Last year the local newspaper did a feature on “suicide by cop,” covering police shootings. A sidebar included a brief re-cap of Jake’s death and several others, as told by police records. No one, again, asked his wife anything.
Given more time, I think Jake would have come out looking shame-faced, abashed, and feeling deservedly foolish. The police would have known that, had they but asked his wife for details, sought more information, and only told Jake, “Take the pills, you idiot.”
The number of deaths reported among law enforcement officers in 2013 is the lowest it has been in fifty-three years. The number of officers killed by gunfire last year was the lowest since 1887. In 2013, the number of police shootings of felony suspects, 461, was the highest figure in two decades, representing a consecutive increase over the last three years. Every year, we are on a course for more like Jake.
Russell E. Saltzman is a former dean of the North American Lutheran Church. His latest book Speaking of the Dead, is available from ALPB Books. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His previous articles can be found here.
Image adapted from Flickr.