If the runaway imagination of police officers too often leads to the fatal shootings of unarmed black males, the death of Essex High School biology teacher Marcus-David Peters represents a curious but no less tragic case.
The naked appearance of Peters, a Henrico County resident, left nothing to the imagination before he was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer along Interstate 95/64.
“Marcus-David Peters was the seventh person killed by police in Virginia so far this year,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. “We don’t know all the facts in this case yet, but it is difficult to understand how a lone, naked person could be a serious threat to the properly trained law enforcement officer.”
She called the shooting of Peters “a uniquely troubling situation” because police in the other cases this year shot people wielding various types of weapons or perceived weapons. She acknowledged the difficulty for officers to make a split-second judgment call. But in Monday’s shooting, “it obviously was clear that, as a naked person, Mr. Peters was not concealing a weapon.”
During rush hour, a Richmond police officer saw Peters driving a sedan that struck a vehicle at the intersection of Franklin and Belvidere streets before fleeing, police said. The officer followed him to the northbound interstate on-ramp off Chamberlayne Avenue, police said.
According to police, Peters lost control of his vehicle after striking two other vehicles on the ramp, and crashed into trees to the side. He exited his vehicle naked and ran onto the interstate.
Witnesses said they saw him dancing and rolling around on the highway before he returned to the on-ramp. Then, Richmond police said, he charged the officer and was shot after the officer’s Taser failed to disable him.
From the beginning of the pursuit to the call that shots had been fired took less than 3½ minutes.
On Wednesday, the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled Peters’ death a homicide from gunshot wounds to the abdomen.
The Richmond Police Department’s parameters for the use of deadly force say it may be used on humans only:
- to “protect the officer or others from what is reasonably believed by the officer to be an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury”;
- to “prevent the escape of a fleeing subject when the officer has probable cause to believe the subject has committed a felony involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical injury or death”; or
- if the person’s escape “would pose an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to another person.”
Once Peters fled his motor vehicle on foot, his greatest threat was to himself.
Peters graduated summa cum laude from Middlesex High School in 2011 and would later graduate with honors from Virginia Commonwealth University.
His mother, Barbara Peters, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that her son was acting out of character. “Something went terribly wrong,” she said.
In the sad denouement, that much is clear, both in Peters’ public unraveling and the police response.
“One would hope that police would respond to a situation in which a person is clearly behaving erratically with concern for that person’s well-being and how they might help or de-escalate the situation or avoid engaging the obviously unarmed person physically or directly pending the arrival of backup, rather than by drawing and firing a firearm,” Gastañaga said.
On Wednesday, Police Chief Alfred Durham once again pushed back against the idea that Peters posed less of a threat because he was naked.
He cited a June 23, 2002, article in The Seattle Times in which a King County, Wash., sheriff’s deputy was fatally shot with his own gun by a nude, agitated man who had been running in traffic, pounding on motor vehicles.
According to the article, “Witnesses and police said the deputy approached the man and sprayed him with pepper spray in an attempt to subdue him. The two scuffled, and the man grabbed the officer’s gun.
“The deputy quickly realized he was in danger and began retreating, moving away from bystanders as if to draw any gunfire away from the crowd, according to a witness.”
But worst-case scenarios are a poor foundation for reasoned public policy. The rationale for the shooting of an unarmed civilian should not rest on a case clear across the country that happened 16 years ago.
I get it, Chief: Law enforcement is no picnic. We’re grateful for the job you do. But there’s simply no way to separate policing from risk. It’s an inherent part of the job.
If the exercise of lethal force tilts the odds too far in an officer’s favor, it’s a problem for civilians, society and, ultimately, law enforcement. The unarmed must be given enough deference to survive encounters with law enforcement.
Adeola Ogunkeyede, legal director of the Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said Durham’s 2002 example was extreme.
“There has to be a point where you look at the data and say, ‘How common is that experience?’” she said.
“I’m sure in the RPD, they are doing training on how to subdue people in physical contact. Because if they’re not doing that, it’s a failure at the academy level.”
“There’s still space between nonlethal force that doesn’t stop someone from acting in a way the police officer wants him to act, and then shooting that person dead, where that person is completely naked and does not present the immediate ability to use deadly force against that officer,” Ogunkeyede said.
As Gastañaga said earlier, we don’t know all the facts, which often are complex. We should be careful about prejudging.
But again, on this front, RPD is not helpful as it wraps itself in a cloak of secrecy, from the lack of timely disclosure of the involved officer’s identity — “They’ve had plenty of time for doing ‘risk assessment’ prior to release,” as Gastañaga points out — to its refusal to release camera footage to the public, citing an ongoing investigation into the shooting.
Durham said the footage would be shown to Peters’ family, though the day and time had not been set.
“They’re making arrangements for the loss of their son,” he said. “We haven’t even talked about that.”
Gastañaga pointed out the department’s refusal to release the officer’s bodycam video even as it asked witnesses to provide police with any videos or photos that might have documented the incident. She called on RPD to release any video footage and the names of any officers involved; Richmond police say there was only one officer present.
Ogunkeyede at the Legal Aid Justice Center echoed the call to release the footage. “That goes part and parcel with this idea of policing transparency building community trust.”
She dismissed the idea that releasing the footage would impede the investigation into the shooting. “The footage is what it shows,” she said.
The Legal Aid Justice Center has been campaigning with the New Virginia Majority and Southerners on New Ground to make the department more accountable on issues such as use of force, stop and frisk, and civilian complaint data.
The refusal of police departments in Richmond, Chesterfield County and elsewhere to release video footage makes a sham out of the bodycam exercise. If they have nothing to hide, or even if they do, they should come clean with the videos. Otherwise, what’s the point?
The current approach makes a mockery of community policing, reducing it to a cheap catchphrase.
To the extent the Richmond Police Department continues to reject transparency, it will sacrifice trust.