Editorial: Weare shooting raises troubling questions
The Weare police and Attorney General Joe Foster, who is investigating the fatal Aug. 14 shooting by two Weare officers of a fleeing suspect, have some explaining to do. The suspect “failed to stop when he was told to stop. As a result, a chase ensued,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Susan Morrell said of Alex Cora DeJesus, a 35-year-old Manchester resident with a history of arrests for dealing small quantities of drugs. DeJesus was the target of an undercover sting near a Dunkin’ Donuts in Lanctot’s Plaza on Route 114 in South Weare.
Press releases issued by the attorney general’s office confirmed that several Weare officers and two confidential informants participated in the sting operation and that DeJesus’s death resulted from a gunshot to the head. The authorities have not, however, explained what prompted the officers to fire on DeJesus, whether he was armed, or if he possessed illegal drugs. It is also unclear whether DeJesus was fleeing on foot when he was wounded or in the vehicle he drove away and crashed with police officers in pursuit.
Thorough investigations take time, but in this case, at a minimum, the attorney general’s office needs to inform the public about police policies regarding the use of deadly force.
“Stop or I’ll shoot,” is not the law of the land. Law enforcement officers may not fire on fleeing suspects, or known criminals for that matter, simply to prevent them from getting away. Deadly force may only be employed when an officer needs to defend him- or herself or a third party from the imminent use of deadly force, or to prevent the escape of someone the officer believes will seriously endanger human life if not apprehended without delay.
This has been true since 1985, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the case of Tennessee v. Garner. Edward Garner was the unarmed 15-year-old boy shot and killed by a Memphis police officer as he was scaling a chain-link fence to flee. Garner had just burglarized a nearby house, and he died with the $10 he stole. Tennessee’s law at the time allowed police officers to use deadly force to stop any fleeing suspect. Garner’s father sued the police over the wrongful death of his son. In a split decision written by Justice Byron White, the court said, “It is no doubt unfortunate when a suspect who is in sight escapes, but the fact that the police arrive a little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the suspect. A police officer may not seize an unarmed, non-dangerous suspect by shooting him dead.”
In the Weare case, press interviews with DeJesus’s friends and acquaintances, and his lengthy criminal record as a small-time drug dealer, suggest no history of violence on his part. Nor, friends say, was he believed to possess a gun. If, in attempting to flee, DeJesus used his vehicle as a potentially deadly weapon to threaten the lives of officers or others, the use of deadly force by police would be appropriate. Whether he did so should be easily determined.
Police officers have dangerous jobs that can require making split-second life or death decisions, and police actions must be considered first from the point of view of an officer in a charged situation. But the death of anyone at the hands of the police requires explanation, and the sooner the better.
We await the results of the attorney general’s investigation into DeJesus’s death.