Detroit police involvement in accidental shooting death of 7-year-old girl must lead to changes
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on May 26th, 2010
Police departments across the nation can learn lessons from this tragedy
There’s no argument to the idea that police officers obviously have incredibly difficult, complex jobs.
They have to deal in the pressure of the moment with unpredictable, dangerous and violent suspects who commit crimes. Sometimes, they can’t instantly recognize who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. Every day, they also have to deal with people who have been victimized by crimes, providing aid and support in times of huge emotion and need. There is no such thing as a routine day in the life of a police officer.
It is a demanding job. It can be a thankless job.
It can also be a tragic job.
Two weeks ago in Detroit, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old girl who was sleeping on a couch inside her family’s apartment was accidentally shot by a Detroit police officer during an early-morning police raid. The police believed a homicide suspect was inside, according to a story in The Detroit News. An officer’s gun accidentally fired a bullet while he was involved in some kind of physical altercation with a woman inside the apartment, police said.
But there was more to the tragedy.
The police officers reportedly used a “flash bomb grenade” as they raided the apartment, with the idea of surprising the suspect they sought, according to a story in The New York Times. And they also were accompanied on the raid by a television film crew from the A&E Network series, “The First 48,” which details police investigations within the first 48 hours of a homicide case.
Both of these factors might have played key roles in the girl’s tragic death.
First, the use of the flash bomb grenade can cause added commotion and confusion during an event already as confusing and difficult as an arrest raid, according to a story in The Detroit Free Press. Maybe that’s a useful tactic sometimes, but is it truly appropriate in an apartment or home where a family with children might live?
The presence of the TV film crew is also disturbing in this case. Officers are already pumped up by adrenaline as they do their jobs in making what could be a challenging arrest. The officers were seeking a suspect who had just killed a 17-year-old boy. So then they had to also have the added adrenaline rush of a TV crew filming their every action during the already stressful process? Could the presence of the film crew have caused the cops to use the flash bomb grenade that morning for added visual effect?
On its face, the TV crew’s participation in the raid seems incredibly ridiculous. Is it possible that the presence of the TV crew affected the officers involved and contributed to the high emotions that were present as the raid progressed and the accidental shooting occurred? It’s as though the cops weren’t pumped up enough. No, there had to be a film crew there, too, to pump them up even more, perhaps leading to a shooting accident like the one that happened that horrible morning.
The shooting remains under investigation, which is being conducted by an outside law enforcement agency – The Michigan State Police, according to a story on the Web site, MLive.com. The involvement of an outside department is the right thing to do.
Lawsuits are already being filed on behalf of the girl’s family. And while the police will certainly be a target of those legal actions for liability due to the death of this young girl, the TV network and its show should also be held liable. For the sake of profit, TV ratings and self-aggrandizement, the network and the show helped create a situation where they escalated the possibility of mistakes by the police officers on the scene that morning in Detroit.
In the meantime, there are some key lessons to be learned from this incident that should be required study subjects for police departments across the U.S.
Police departments and their officers have to realize that yes, they are there to protect the public. But they also must realize that they are there to serve the public, and that means taking extra care in pursuing suspects when ordinary citizens can be injured or endangered. Heavy-handed police tactics against ordinary citizens, even when police are in pursuit of suspects, are not always acceptable or reasonable.
In addition, the idea that police officers should be trailed by TV crews as they do their dangerous jobs may sound like great television, but it’s poor public policy and can do far more harm than good. It simply makes a highly-unstable situation even more unstable.
To his credit, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing this week banned future TV crew tag-alongs with Detroit police officers during raids, according to a story on Mlive.com. Similar policies banning film crews on dangerous police calls should be enacted by police agencies everywhere.
Police officers understand that they never know exactly what they’ll face when they respond to an emergency call, but the onus is on them – they need to be ready for anything, even if that is just a 7-year-old girl who is sleeping on a couch. They have a hard job, yes, but they need to do it very carefully so that innocent people are not victimized as police pursue the bad guys.