Police shooting of sleeping 7-year-old should be a wake-up call

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The shooting death of 7-year old Aiyana Jones was disturbing enough for anyone forced to look into the eyes of this beautiful child in pictures presented in newspapers and websites across America. The little girl was accidentally shot and killed in her sleep during a police raid in which Detroit officers were seeking to apprehend the suspect in the shooting of a 17-year old boy. The officers captured the suspect in the home, but not until two adults (the suspect and an officer) had taken the lives of two children (the 17-year old and Aiyana).

This tragic case is far from being resolved, and it also risks pitting an under-funded police department against a community that has been both economically and socially devastated. The unemployment rate in Detroit ranges from 30 – 50 percent, depending on which official you ask, and with rising unemployment comes additional crime and a police department that is ill-equipped to deal with that crime. The people of Detroit are sick and tired of criminals, but they are also sick and tired of police officers treating all black people like criminals too.

One of the first questions I asked when speaking with the Rev. Al Sharpton about this raid was “Why did they use a flash bang grenade with children inside the house? Is that standard procedure?” The flash bang grenade doesn’t explode, but creates a bright light and loud noise to disorient everyone in the vicinity as officers go on the attack. This is the kind of thing that would surely traumatize any 7-year old child.

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I can’t help but wonder if the Detroit police would have taken the same aggressive and relatively inhumane approach when dealing with an equally dangerous suspect in a less impoverished community. Were there other tactics that officers could have used to apprehend the suspect? Whatever happened to standing outside of the building with lights flashing, yelling through a megaphone, “You are surrounded by police. Come out with your hands up!” Call me an amateur, but I am sure there had to be a better way. I am also sure that police intelligence informed them that there might be children inside the house. If that’s the case, then protecting the children should have taken precedence over apprehending the suspect. If you can’t catch the defendant without hurting the kids, then you need to wait until the suspect leaves the house.

There is the question of the grandmother’s alleged interference in the police raid. Some attempt to argue that if the grandmother fought with the officer, causing the gun to go off, this removes police liability for the death of the child. Logic says that this isn’t true. If the officer’s weapon was the one that killed the child, then the police should still have significant liability. They went into the house assuming there would be a confrontation, so they should have been prepared to keep bystanders safe in such a setting. The fact that the child was related to the person who may be responsible for the accidental discharge is inconsequential. The same would be true if officers were on a high-speed chase and accidentally ran over a pedestrian.

What’s most disturbing is that the attorney for the family, Geoffrey Fieger, is arguing that video footage taken at the scene of the raid paints a different picture than the one given by police accounts. According to Fieger, the video shows that the officers fired the deadly shots from outside the home. his contradicts the story given by police, that the gun went off accidentally during a scuffle with the child’s grandmother. Attorney Fieger goes as far as suggesting that there might be a cover-up. Such an action would significantly undermine the already weak public trust in the Detroit Police Department.

There need to be questions answered for the public. There must be investigations by independent entities, policy reviews, and community forums to help the world understand why this little girl had to die. If we fight hard enough to understand the death of little Aiyana, we can save another child from having the same fate.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the initiator of the National Conversation on Race. For more information, please visit BoyceWatkins.com>