Notes on Kamp: Tragedy in Austin
The death of teen David Joseph should be a wake-up call
So much ink has been spilled over the killing of black Americans by law enforcement that it can seem like a waste of paper to write any more. I'm not sure there's anything I can add about last week's shooting of 17-year-old David Joseph that will do any good. However, it would feel callous to say nothing.
We don't know all of the facts of the case, and perhaps we can't ever know exactly what took place. But I hope that we can all agree that no matter what, the death of a child is a tragedy, and it should be mourned as such. Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday described Joseph as an "adult man." But I remember being 17; I remember when my brother, who's six years younger than I am, was 17; and I remember the 17-year-old students I had at a job before this one. Seventeen-year-olds, regardless of size, are still in many ways children. They don't understand the consequences of their actions quite like adults do. They deserve greater protection than adults, and we as a state recognize that fact by classifying them as minors. I know it's possible that the officer that shot Joseph didn't realize his age. But the fact that a naked 17-year-old could be shot in broad daylight by a man charged with protecting his community should sadden us. It shouldn't be something we seek to explain away by reclassifying a teenager as a man.
Of course, Joseph's size is not the only thing that has been used to justify his killing. There has also been speculation about whether whatever caused him to be naked in the street might have given him "inhuman" – or in Casaday's eloquent parlance, "unhuman" –strength. "A person's naked, running around the street, can kill you. They can take your gun, take your Taser because they have an unhuman strength," Casaday said at a Tuesday press conference about the shooting. Joseph may have been incapacitated in some way that would have affected his response to pain, and made him harder to subdue, although we know Freeman didn't bother to try to use his Taser first. But no reaction Joseph might have had would have made him inhuman. Nothing whatsoever could make him inhuman because he was, in fact, a human being, regardless of whether Freeman saw him as one. The punishment for being mentally ill or otherwise incapacitated should not be execution in the street. If APD is at a point where it is unable to deal with mentally ill people without swift resort to deadly force – and much of the rest of what Casaday said Tuesday suggests that might be the case – that's a crisis that needs to be immediately addressed. It shouldn't be something we seek to explain away by deeming a person inhuman.
It's clear that law enforcement in this country is not interested in hearing criticism. There's a sensitivity there that feels alarming. It's not unreasonable for people to be upset and want answers when someone has been killed, regardless of whether the killer is a police officer or whether the use of force is ultimately justified. That sensitivity is especially odd given that it's rare for an officer to be indicted for using force, and of course, even rarer for them to be convicted. It makes law enforcement's hostility toward groups like Black Lives Matter, which CLEAT Executive Director Charley Wilkison described to the Texas Tribune last year as "want[ing] permission to desecrate someone who's already been killed professionally," seem especially petulant.
At the same time, it's not fair to lay the blame for Joseph's death solely at the feet of APD. The citizens of Austin, who will always be ultimately responsible for the actions of a department of the government they've elected, need to ask ourselves whether this – the death of a child – is an outcome we can accept. And if it's not, we need to figure out what can be done to fix it. It won't be easy. Neither City Council nor Chief Art Acevedo can single-handedly change APD's response to resistance policy, or solve racial inequality. Nor can either on their own fix the way we deal with mentally ill or otherwise incapacitated people. In order for anything to change, it will take the effort of less visible government officials, including city staff, who are charged with implementing City Council resolutions and ordinances. It isn't enough for the mayor or the police chief to promise changes. It will take patient, granular examination of how our local government actually works – and doesn't – in order to even begin to come up with realistic solutions to these problems.
Again, no matter why Joseph died – whether Freeman's shooting of him was justified – his death was a tragedy. Possibly, it could have been avoided. Nothing can bring him back, but I hope that his loss will serve as a wake-up call. There's something we're doing that's not working. Let's figure out what it is.