Trial of police charged in 2006 shooting begins
Four years after the shooting of Minneapolis resident Dominic Felder, the wrongful death trial of police officers Jason King and Lawrence Loonsfoot began this week in federal court in Minneapolis. Attorneys for the officers say that they acted correctly in the shooting of the 27-year-old African-American father of two. Felder, who suffered from an unspecified mental illness, experienced a paranoid episode on the night of September 20, 2006. His family called 911 for help, explaining to police that Felder was mentally ill.
Felder had threatened neighbors and had apparently broken one neighbor’s window--a frightening situation for everyone. Felder’s parter and the mother of his two children, Tiana Wilson, repeatedly told police that the short, slight 27-year-old was delusional and not in control of himself. Felder ran away from police but turned and walked back to them, lifting his shirt to show that he was unarmed. Police allege that he grabbed for a police officer’s gun--then they shot him dead in front of his partner.
The trial coincides with the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality Friday.
As it happens, I had a short, slight relative who struggled with a serious mental illness and who really did, in front of me, make a grab for a police officer’s gun. We too had called the police for help when my family ran out of options. My relative, who later recovered from an episode of bipolar disorder after receiving treatment previously denied to her by an incompetent GP, was an elderly white women living in a very middle-class urban condominium. I am haunted by what might have happened if my family were black and living in a less affluent situation. Would the police have come in ready to shoot? Would they have bothered to gently subdue my relative, or would they have killed her in front of me? And if they had killed her, would I hear strangers in the media justifying her death as necessary and deserved, or lauding the officers who shot a sick woman?
An alleged “grab for a gun” is very often cited as an excuse for police murder. Often this allegation is completely false, but even if it is true, it doesn’t entitle large, armed men in full command of their faculties to shoot people in the grip of serious illness.
In the Felder case, the family’s attorney says that the autopsy shows that the police narrative is false. "Every shot is in conflict with the officer's testimony," said attorney Jim Behrenbrinker.
Both the police officers who shot Felder have been involved with other shootings. Jason King shot Demetrius Sesler in the back in 2001. A grand jury exonerated King, but the story has various strange aspects. King is pictured here on September 1, 2008 “as he waits for protesters to march against the Republican National Convention”. Lawrence Loonsfoot was the partner of Charles Shorlie, the Minneapolis police officer who shot Lawrence Miles Junior in the back in 1997. Miles had been carrying a pellet gun, which he’d dropped when turning to run from police. In each case, the [edited] victim was African American and the police officers white.
It’s easy to pin this situation on the police. But our cultural of shame and silence around mental illness permits the cops to treat the mentally ill as disposable non-citizens, to be shot and tased with impunity. We imagine helpless police officers menaced by towering, ravening mad people--often mad people of color, especially powerful in the racist imagination--and we acquit the cops. Police brutality is a collective responsibility.
For the annual October 22 Day of Protest, longshoremen in the Bay Area, a region still energized by the police murder of Oscar Grant, plan to shut down the ports. Denver residents will march for Marvin Booker, a street pastor tased and beaten to death in the Denver jail. In Houston, students will protest beatings from school district police. And here in Minneapolis, the annual demonstration organized by Communities United Against Police Brutality will start at 7pm at Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue.
Tragically, among the stolen lives remembered this year in Minneapolis is that of another mentally ill African American man, David Smith, who was tased to death at the downtown YMCA in September. Soon thereafter, the MPD changed their taser policy. It’s no consolation for Smith and the dozens of others killed by Minneapolis cops, but, “given the large number of complaints we get of people being tased while handcuffed simply for speaking, if the policy is actually followed this could bring the community some relief,” wrote CUAPB.