The question isn’t whether 17-year-old Justus Howell was up to no good. Buying a gun from some guy on the street is, without question, not the sort of thing that is likely to be ignored. But even kids who are up to no good shouldn’t end up dead from two bullets in the back.
Zion police have said Justus Howell, 17, of Waukegan, was shot Saturday afternoon by an officer responding to a call about an altercation.
On Monday, the Lake County Coroner’s Office issued a statement saying an autopsy showed one bullet struck Howell old in the left back, penetrating his heart, spleen and liver, and the second bullet struck him on the right side of his back. Tests to determine whether drugs were in the victim’s system are pending.
Unless there is a drug that causes bullets fired at a person’s front to end up entering through his back, it’s pretty much certain that drug testing isn’t relevant to the material question of why police shot a kid who was turned away from them.
Zion Police Chief Steve Dumyahn declined to comment on the autopsy, . . . But he provided additional details about the moments leading up to the shooting. His statement said Howell had just been involved in an illegal gun deal with 18-year-old Tramond Peet, who appeared in court Monday on weapons charges. Dumyahn said the Zion Police Department was releasing the information because media outlets had connected Peet’s case to the shooting and that it “has no desired to defame the deceased and cause further pain” for Howell’s family.
Notably, Dumyahn’s release of information provided no clue as to why his officer shot Howell in the back, but offered instead only the information of Howell’s wrongdoing. Glad to hear that he had no “desire to defame the deceased.”
Peet told investigators that Howell tried to take the gun from him without paying for it, Dumhayn said. Peet said the gun discharged into the ground during a subsequent struggle and said that at one point Howell pointed the gun at him. Peet said he released the handgun when he heard police cars approaching.
He said he saw officers running after Howell, heard them giving Howell commands and then heard gunshots, according to police.
Assuming the officers did the usual, yelling at Howell to stop, to put his hands in the air, to drop the gun, and that Howell failed to comply, it would appear that the police officer grew tired of his non-compliance, wasn’t in the mood to run any more, so fired instead. And, in a surprising show of skill, struck his target.
Dumhayn said the officer who shot Howell is a nine-year veteran who has been placed on administrative leave. He did not release the officer’s name or any additional information about him, including his race.
On the bright side, Dumhayn didn’t offer Howell’s criminal history, but then, his having been engaged in an illegal purchase of a gun, including a fight over refusing to pay for it, may be more than sufficient to dirty up the deceased. Howell was a black kid with a gun. Isn’t that enough of a reason to kill?
This killing offers sufficient taint to both raise concerns of officer safety and diminish the value of Howell’s life for many people. Shot in the back? So what? The kid had a gun, and could have turned and fired at the officers at any moment. Nobody forced him to buy a gun on the street. Nobody forced him to run. Nobody forced him to refuse to comply with their commands. What’s the problem here?
The problem is that he was shot in the back. While Howell’s isn’t exactly a sympathetic suspect, he is still entitled to live, to survive his foolish and, yes, criminal choices, unless and until he does something to threaten serious harm to the officers. The critical question is whether Howell, at the time he was shot, was fleeing or threatening harm. The question is not whether there was a potential for harm to occur, but whether it was imminent.
When a person is shot in the back, one thing is clear. He’s going the other way. He’s not facing the police, not pointing a gun at the police, not threatening harm to the police. Sure, that could change, and if and when it does, so too does the analysis.
The fact that Howell was not complying with police commands doesn’t make him a great human being, but it also doesn’t make him a target for shooting practice. People flee from the police, particularly when they’re engaged in criminal conduct. It happens. It’s not cause for summary execution, no matter how facile it may be to argue that he would be alive if only he complied. We do not impose the death penalty for not obeying a cop’s command.
This will be one of those difficult cases, given that Howell can’t claim the mantle of upstanding, innocent youth. We tend to prefer cases where the dead kid wasn’t doing something dirty, as he makes a far better martyr for the cause of police brutality. But the reality is that the harder cases, the ones that test out mettle to appreciate police don’t get to shoot, to kill, just because, are the ones that present ugly facts and unsympathetic suspects.
Was the cop wrong to kill Justus Howell? The information is inadequate to reach any conclusions. but it would appear likely that the justification will be along the lines of Howell’s possession of a deadly weapon, his refusal to comply with lawful commands, his potential to threaten serious harm or death to the officers and his potential to threaten harm or death to others during the course of his flight.
But the only real data points available are the two bullets that struck Howell in the back and took his life. He may not have been the most law-abiding kid around, but that doesn’t mean he forfeits his life.
H/T Mike Paar