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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Joseph Jennings Police Shooting Case

     Eighteen-year-old Joseph Jennings resided in Ottawa, Kansas, a town of 13,000 within the Kansas City metropolitan area adjacent to the Missouri state line. Joseph had plans to attend trade school and learn underwater welding. The young man had been struggling with mental health problems that interfered with his ambitions. His depression and anxiety were exacerbated by seizures that had become more frequent. Seeing no future for himself, Joseph Jennings had decided to take his own life.

     On Thursday, August 21, 2014, Joseph posted a suicide note on Facebook that read: "Tonight is the night. Goodbye to everyone!!! It was truly a good ride. I'm sorry for who I might have hurt and people that I may have offended. But I love all my family and hope you don't hold this against me."

     Ten minutes after posting the above message, Joseph swallowed 60 prescription pills. A member of his family discovered the unconscious teen and called 911. Two officers with the Ottawa Police Department rushed him to the hospital where doctors saved his life.

     Two days after Joseph tried to kill himself, hospital personnel discharged him from the psychiatric ward of Ransom Memorial Hospital. (They probably gave him more pills and told him to visit a psychiatrist. This is what passed for mental health care in America.)

     At eight o'clock on the night of Saturday, August 23, just three hours after leaving the hospital, Jennings, having made it known that he intended to commit suicide-by-cop, walked to a hardware store in town. Someone called the police and reported that a man with a gun was standing outside the store.

     Six police officers, including the two that a couple of days earlier had rushed Joseph to the hospital, rolled up to the scene. They confronted him on the store's parking lot and ordered him to drop to the ground and keep his hands where they could see them. Instead, Joseph made gestures that suggested he possessed a weapon.

     Brandy Smith, Joseph's aunt, lived near the hardware store. She witnessed the standoff, and didn't like how it was unfolding. She and her husband approached the officers. "That's Joseph Jennings! You know him," she said. "Don't shoot him. If he has a gun it's a BB gun. He is on a suicide mission!" As Brandy tried to reason with the officers, her husband said he would approach his suicidal nephew and tackle him for the officers. One of the officers informed Mr. Smith that if he (Smith) wasn't careful and got in the way, he could be shot. They ordered him to stay put.

     Suddenly one of the officers yelled, "Bag him!" With that, another officer fired a nonlethal device that shot beanbags instead of bullets. Shortly after that, the bullets started flying--24 of them. Joseph was struck sixteen times and died that night at a nearby hospital. He did not possess a BB gun or any other kind of weapon. At no time were these officers threatened with a weapon they could see.

     On August 25, 2014, in speaking to local reporters (the national media had no interest in this case), Ottawa Police Chief Dennis Butler said, "They [the officers] reacted based upon training they've been given at the academy. We were thankful that no officer was injured from protecting themselves (sic) from risk of great bodily harm."

     So, as long as the police officers avoided possible harm by gunning down an unarmed man, everything worked out fine. Officer safety, after all, was the priority. To hell with an 18-year-old suicidal teenager who may or may not have been armed with a BB gun.

     In the wake of this highly questionable and unnecessary fatal police shooting, no one in Ottawa took to the streets to protest or loot.

     In November 2016, after the Franklin County Attorney ruled the Jennings' fatal shooting "lawful and justified," Joseph Jennings' brother Chris filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Ottawa. In the suit, the plaintiff alleged that the police had used excessive force and were "reckless and careless" in the lethal shooting.

     In May 2018, the city of Ottawa settled Chris Jennings lawsuit for $125,000 plus attorney fees and court costs totaling $63,968.

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