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Point Austin: Broken Record

Latest APD shooting follows a too-familiar pattern

By Michael King, Fri., Aug. 2, 2013

Here we go again.

I'm trying hard not to jump to conclusions about last Friday's police shooting of an unarmed man in unclear circumstances, but it's not an easy task. The officer in question – Detective Charles Kleinert – has yet to give his official statement to department investigators (as of press time on Wednesday), although he reportedly provided a description of the incident to supervisors immediately following the shooting. The victim, the late Larry Jackson Jr., will never be able to give his version of what happened, although there is certain mute testimony in the disclosure by the Austin Police Depart­ment that no weapon was found on Jackson's body.

It is also difficult to avoid the presumption that at least one of Jackson's "crimes" was that he was guilty of being black.

What we do know, from the APD's preliminary statements and some enterprising reporting – notably by our own Jordan Smith – is that for some reason Jackson fled a conversation with Kleinert, and for some reason Kleinert took off after him, even though Kleinert was in the middle of an investigation of something else, and even though Jackson (apparently holding a false ID) had not succeeded even in entering the closed bank building where Kleinert was working.

Not only did Kleinert pursue Jackson on foot, he commandeered a private vehicle and its driver to search for Jackson through the neighborhood. The driver reportedly told police that Kleinert was highly agitated, did not clearly identify himself, and leapt from the car to pursue Jackson, who by this time was calmly walking away. Jackson was shot in the ensuing struggle. Since the APD prefers to keep silent while an investigation is in progress (understandable to a degree), it appears the only reason we know that much is that Smith inquired whether a private car was involved in the chase, and APD spokespeople had to confirm it.

According to APD, investigators don't yet know if Kleinert fired his weapon intentionally or accidentally, and it will be 45 to 60 days before we know much more about the details. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jackson was effectively executed – shot in the back of the neck – for carrying a false ID.

Joining a List

As Smith points out in her story today ("More Questions Than Answers in APD Shooting"), in pursuing Jackson alone and on foot, Kleinert was apparently violating departmental policy. And in commandeering a private vehicle and accosting Jackson without available backup, Kleinert was apparently acting with great carelessness, putting himself, the driver, and ultimately Jackson at great risk, all of which was confirmed by the deadly outcome of the incident. If Kleinert truly thought Jackson sufficiently dangerous that he had to be apprehended immediately – and nothing in the little we have learned about Jackson thus far gives any indication that that was true – it seems even less rational that Kleinert ran after him alone and failed to give sufficient notice to other officers who might have joined the pursuit and lessened the risk.

All in all, the incident bears painful resemblance to the fatal shootings of Jessie Lee Owens Jr. (2003), Daniel Rocha (2005), Kevin Brown (2007), Nathaniel Sanders II (2009), and Byron Carter (2011). In each of these incidents (all reported in detail in the Chronicle), young men were shot and killed by police officers in stressful and confusing circumstances. And in each of these five incidents, it's a reasonable interpretation that an officer panicked, used his or her firearm when it wasn't necessary, and unnecessarily ended a life.

In only two of those shootings – Rocha and Brown – were the offending officers eventually dismissed from the force.

Deeper Questions

All five of those victims were black or brown. Jackson, once again, was African-American, and though no one is alleging any racial animus from Kleinert, racism is not only a personal question. Racism is a cultural system – and that minorities should find themselves disproportionately victims of police violence is a consequence much more complex than one cop, one victim. At the same time, Chief Art Ace­vedo's defense that APD's record on shootings is much better than that of comparable police forces – even if true – is just not sufficient.

Kleinert was reportedly well respected by his peers, and he had a clean disciplinary record. There is apparently nothing in his history that would anticipate his behavior last Friday, and even departmental spokespeople seemed genuinely puzzled, at least at first glance, that this episode took the shape it did. Some sort of overreaction to the immediate circumstances might eventually help explain it; it's also worth asking if police overreliance on weaponry in an altercation, in the same (and reinforcing) syndrome that has made the entire country awash with guns, might have something to do with yet another unnecessary shooting death.

At any rate, the APD and the Citizen Review Panel have a good deal of work – and public explanation – to do, and given the public reaction, the Department of Justice may well be asked to take another look at APD policies, practices, and training. Neither attempted fraud nor running from a cop merits a summary death sentence, and the city of Austin does not need to be periodically justifying or explaining away shootings that never should have happened in the first place.

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