It was one of the worst types of calls for service, and it resulted in one of the worst outcomes.
Saturday Sept. 22, around 1:30 a.m. officers of the Houston Police Department were summoned to the Healing Hands Assisted Home Care.
The caretaker of the group home for mentally challenged men dialed 911 because, according to official reports, resident Brian C. Claunch, 45, became agitated when he was denied a cigarette and a soda. Minutes later Claunch was dead, killed by a single shot from an officer's service weapon.
The FBI has been called in by the Houston PD to investigate the shooting, but an official statement reveals what happened. It says Claunch threatened to kill the officers, cornered one of the officers, and was waving around a metallic object—later found to be a ballpoint pen—that was mistaken for a blade by Officer Matthew Marin who shot and killed Claunch because he believed a fellow officer was about to be stabbed. If these details of the incident hold up, the shooting will likely be ruled justified.
However, it's going to be hard to justify the Claunch shooting to the people of Houston and to those who routinely argue that American police officers are "trigger happy." You see, not only did Claunch not have a weapon, he was a double amputee in a wheelchair. And every headline in the Houston media and the national media has emphasized that fact.
So while Officer Marin is likely to be found justified in his actions under Graham v. Connor and the other laws that regulate police use of deadly force, he’s being crucified nationwide in the media. That unfortunately is the nature of the news beast. It speaks in the shorthand of headlines and broadcast teasers and people tend to remember only the skimpiest details about a story. And in this case, all they will remember is that a Houston cop shot and killed some unarmed guy in a wheelchair.
Of course, there's so much more to this story that's not readily evident in the terse statements of the Houston PD or in the abbreviated tales of the local and national media. So let’s read between the lines.
Brian C. Claunch was mentally ill. Years ago he lost a leg and an arm in a train accident that put him in a wheelchair. We don't know what led to the accident, but we can speculate that it probably had something to do with his misfiring brain.
What we do know is the confrontation that he had with the group home's caretaker in the early morning hours of Saturday Sept. 22 must have been severe. Otherwise, why would an experienced caretaker of a group home that provides 24-hour supervision for the mentally ill, dial 911 and ask for help?
Help came. And then things went from bad to worse. According to the Houston PD's official statement, Claunch threatened to kill the officers and other residents of the home. He was also waving a "shiny object" in his hand. Officers ordered Claunch to drop the object. He did not comply and advanced on the unnamed second officer, backing the second officer into a corner and attempting to stab the officer. That's when Officer Marin shot and killed the man in the wheelchair.
The Claunch shooting was the second time that Officer Marin killed someone in the line of duty. In the first incident, a man attacked a fellow officer with a knife and Marin appropriately used deadly force. This incident is, of course, more complicated.
In the Claunch shooting Officer Marin has two strikes against him in the court of public opinion: The public doesn't really believe a knife can harm a cop because cops are armed with guns and guns always trump knives in the public mind; and Claunch was in a wheelchair and the public doesn't believe that a disabled man can be dangerous. Also people are saying Officer Marin should have used a TASER or a baton on Claunch, revealing that they have little understanding of the deadly threat presented by edged weapons.
Wouldn't it be great if we could put Officer Marin's critics into the same situation that he faced and force them to make that split-second decision. They would see that flash of metal, and be forced to take action. Then they'd have to live with their decision afterward? They'd have to face all the second-guessing and rush to judgment that Officer Marin now faces. And maybe they'd understand for once what it means to be a cop.
Houston Officer Fatally Shoots Man in Wheelchair