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Monday, September 24, 2012

The High Cost of Cops Shooting People in Wheelchairs

     On January 4, 2011, Randal Dunkin, a 55-year-old mentally ill man who had been born with polio and was confined to a wheelchair, was creating a disturbance in the street outside San Francisco's Department of Public Health building. That morning at ten o'clock, Dunkin started slashing tires with a knife, and throwing pieces of concrete at passersby. Someone called 911.

     An officer in plainclothes arrived at the scene first, and when he approached the agitated subject to disarm him, Dunkin, from his wheelchair, slashed the officer in the arm with the knife. (The wound, which was not life-threatening, required 21 stitches.) Following the assault, uniformed officers squirted Dunkin with pepper spray, and shot him with a bean bag gun. These nonlethal modes of force did not calm the subject down. As the erratic behaving Dunkin tossed the knife onto the street, Sergeant Noah Mallinger, from range of ten feet, shot him twice in the groin as he sat in his wheelchair.

     Following Dunkin's discharge from the hospital, the police transferred him to the city jail on charges of police assault, resisting arrest, vandalism, and brandishing a knife. San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon, in speaking to the media about the incident, said, "I believe from a legal stance, this shooting will be deemed an appropriate, lawful shooting."

     In reaction to public outrage over the shooting of a crazy man armed with a knife in a wheelchair, the police chief, a few weeks later, announced the proposed formation of a specialized crisis intervention team to deal with mentally ill subjects. (Cops have to be trained not to shoot people in wheelchairs?)

     On March 2011, Randal Dunkin filed a civil rights suit against the city of San Francisco and its police department. Two months later, the department announced that following an internal investigation of the shooting, officer Noah Mallinger had been cleared of any wrongdoing. In other words, the shooting, in the eyes of the police, was justified.

     Randal Dunkin, in November 2011, went on trial for his alleged police assault and the lesser charges. Although convicted of vandalism and brandishing a knife, the jury inexplicably acquitted Dunkin of slashing the officer. (The defendant had claimed self-defense, that the officer in plainclothes had not identified himself.) The jurors split on the resisting arrest charge.

     Use of force experts who studied this case were critical of the shooting. A man in a wheelchair should not have been given the opportunity to inflict a knife wound on an officer. Once Dunkin had tossed the knife, he was no longer a deadly threat to the police. And even if he hadn't dropped the weapon, the police could have prevented, without the use of deadly force, a man in a wheelchair from hurting anyone. (In downtown Pittsburgh recently, police negotiators talked a mentally ill man, who was in possession of a knife and holding a hostage, into surrendering. The stand-off lasted five hours and no one was hurt. In Pittsburgh last year, the police shot three people, killing one. In San Francisco, officers in 2011 shot eight, killing three.)

     In Houston, Texas, at two in the morning on September 22, 2012, Brian Claunch, a resident of the Healing Hands group home, created a disturbance when a caregiver refused to give him a cigarette and a can of soda. In his mid-40s, and diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Claunch was confided to a wheelchair after having lost an arm and a leg in a train accident.

     Officer Matt Marin, a 5-year-veteran of the Houston Police Department, arrived at the group home with another officer. Shortly after responding to the call, officer Marin shot Brian Claunch in the head as he sat in his wheelchair, killing him instantly. According to a police spokesperson, "He [Claunch] was approaching them [the officers] aggressively. He was attempting to stab them with what is now found to be a felt-tip pen." This statement begs the question: just how aggressive can a pen-wielding man in a wheelchair be?

     In October 2009, officer Matt Marin had shot and killed a knife-wielding man who had stabbed his girlfriend and a neighbor. In 2011, officers with the Houston Police Department shot ten people, killing three.

     For the city of Houston, the police killing of an unarmed man in a wheelchair is going to be costly. For example, a jury in Los Angeles just awarded a known gang member who was shot by the police in September 2005, $5.7 million. In 2009, 24-year-old Robert Contreras pleaded no contest to his role in the drive-by shooting that led to the police wounding and paralyzing him. After being released from prison in 2011, Contreras filed the excessive force suit against the city and the police department. In Los Angeles, police officers put a violent criminal into a wheelchair, and the taxpayers of that city will foot the bill. In Houston, where the officer killed an unarmed man in a wheelchair, taxpayers can expect a lawsuit, and a forthcoming multi-million dollar court settlement. 

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