When Police Shootings Kill Innocent Bystanders

Police shootings have been among the biggest news stories of 2015. Although many of these stories have to do with law enforcement officers shooting unarmed suspects or disproportionately using lethal force against young minority males, accidental shootings are another concern.

This week in Chicago, a police officer responding to a domestic disturbance shot and killed two people—the allegedly violent suspect and an innocent bystander.

According to reports, officers were called to a domestic disturbance in which a young man was allegedly threatening his father with a baseball bat.

Quintonio LeGrier, 19, was a university student struggling with mental illness. When he allegedly threatened his father with a bat, the elder man called police before calling a downstairs neighbor, Bettie Jones, 55, to let them in.

When police arrived, Jones opened the door, and LeGrier allegedly charged down the stairs at officers, wielding the bat.

Police fired, killing not only LeGrier, but also striking and killing Jones by accident.

The deaths of LeGrier and Jones call into question once again the amount of training given to police in handling complaints involving those with mental illness who may be behaving violently as a result of their disorder. In many cases, de-escalation techniques would diffuse a volatile situation, but without appropriate training in responding to these cases, law enforcement often resorts to violence to stop violence—often with fatal results.

Of course, not every accidental police shooting involves a case that begins with a violent situation and ends with an innocent bystander struck by a stray bullet.

In Oklahoma, a fleeing suspect in a drug deal was shot and killed by a reserve deputy with the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. In that case, reserve deputy Robert Charles “Bob” Bates allegedly meant to fire a stun gun to stop the fleeing suspect, but fired his weapon instead, killing Eric Courtney Harris, 44.

Bates has since been charged with second degee manslaughter involving culpable negligence, and the incident sparked an investigation into the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office’s reserve program and allegations of letting wealthy donors “pay to play” cops.

Another accidental shooting in Oklahoma took place in 2007, when two police officers responded to a call about a snake in a tree. Instead of finding a more reasonable method to remove the snake, one of the officers decided to shoot it out of the tree. His bullet traveled across a lake, striking and killing a 5-year-old boy who was fishing with his grandfather.

The officer was convicted of second degree involuntary manslaughter and given a deferred sentence. In 2013, the offense was expunged from his criminal record under the provisions of 22 O.S. § 991c.

Image credit: Tony Webster