Get news updates from WGBH
Wed August 20, 2014
Rationalizing the Deaths of Unarmed Black Men: From Ferguson to Boston
The recent killing of a black teenager by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo., has evoked memories of an incident four years ago, closer to home — the shooting death of Danroy Henry Jr., known as DJ, who lived in Easton. Both of these cases have raised concerns about the role of racial bias in rationalizing police actions.
The news accounts in recent weeks are tragically similar, from Los Angeles to Staten Island to Ferguson. But four years before anyone knew where Ferguson was located on a map, there was the fatal shooting of DJ Henry, a 20-year-old Easton man, and football player, who was a junior at Pace University, just north of New York City.
On Oct. 17, 2010, after a night of celebrating following a homecoming game, Henry was shot to death by police officer Aaron Hess. Hess had responded to a bar brawl in the early morning, which, by all accounts, had nothing to do with the young football player and his four friends. But the bar, in the village of Thornwood, an enclave in Mount Pleasant, New York, shut down early.
"So that’s when DJ and I left and went to the car," said Henry's best friend, Brendon Cox.
All parties agree that Henry’s car was idling in a fire lane with Cox in the passenger seat. A cop told them to move the car, because they were parked in a fire lane. They did.
"We hear a loud tap on the window," Cox said.
They drove a few feet, says Cox, and then Pleasantville officer Aaron Hess, arriving on the scene, suddenly and inexplicably jumped on the hood of the car and started firing wildly through the windshield.
"DJ’s next to me and he says, ‘They shot me,'" Cox said. "'They shot me. I can’t believe they shot me.'"
Henry was pulled from the car by police and died not long afterwards as he lay initially unattended in the street. But police said Hess fired as Henry tried to run him over, leaving the officer with little choice but to jump onto the hood — a version of events that’s disputed by new evidence in the civil case against Mt. Pleasant and the village of Pleasantville that’s winding it’s way through federal court.
Four years later and 1,200 miles away, another police version of events is seeking to explain the circumstances leading to the killing of another black youth, this one in Ferguson. At a press conference on August 10th, chief Thomas Jackson provided the explanation that Michael Brown rushed officer Darren Wilson when the policeman tried to pull him over.
"Within the police car there was a struggle over the officer’s weapon," Jackson said. "There was at least one shot fired within the car. After that, the officer came back into the car. He exited his vehicle and there was a shooting that occurred where the officer, in fact, shot the subject."
But like the police shooting of Henry, direct-eyewitness testimony is in variance with the official interpretation of reality. Tiffany Mitchell, who was visiting the neighborhood, told MSNBC what she saw in broad open daylight.
"The officer gets out of his vehicle and he pursues him and as he’s following him he’s shooting at him, and Michael's body jerked as though he was hit, and he turns around and he puts his hands up, and the officer continued to walk up on him and shoot him until he goes all the way down to the ground," Mitchell said.
An autopsy this week showed that 18-year old Brown was shot at least six times
As in the case of Henry in Mt. Pleasant, N.Y., four years earlier, Brown did not have a weapon: Two young unarmed black men shot by police under questionable circumstances. In both cases, what followed was information that trickled out questioning the character of the two black victims.
So why release questionable information?
“To justify the death of a person," says Lisa Thurau, an attorney who heads Cambridge based Strategies for Youth, which trains police nationwide how to interact with young people, especially in communities of color. She says selective information from police agencies about which officers are implicated in fatal shootings should be closely examined, but often isn’t.
"And that’s just an unfortunate thing that the media falls in step with and decides, 'yeah, we’re going to amplify the negative of the victim, and then try to reclaim that victim’s innocence, if possible, later on'," she said.
In Henry’s case, there were reports that he was intoxicated. In Brown’s case, it was video showing him manhandling and “robbing” a store clerk. His supporters described the crime as “shoplifting.”
Thurau concedes that media could not ignore information about Henry and Brown. But she says reporters should ask, "Is it relevant?" and "Why is it being disseminated?"
After the shootings, did racial stereotypes contribute to negative perceptions of the two black victims? Keith Maddox, a professor of psychology at Tufts University, says stereotypes combined with bits and pieces of information — “DJ Henry was drunk,” or “Michael Brown robbed a store,” that may be factual but incomplete — help create rationalizations for questionable police actions. And hearing certain words brings African-Americans to mind and viewing African Americans, says Maddox, leads to generalized racial assumptions.
“What some of the research has shown is that black skin color — and you also think about other types of physical characteristics associated with blacks — tend to be more closely associated with negative concepts, so it would be more closely associated with fear, more closely associated with negative personality traits,” Maddox said.
Ferguson, and the Henry case four years earlier, may be forcing a national dialogue on policing and race, especially regarding the treatment of young black men, says Thurau.
"The current frame right now is that African American youth are dangerous and need to be subdued, and I don’t think that all officers believe that, but I do think it’s the point of view of many officers," she said.
So how do you change this frame?
"We’re going to have to do a couple of things," she said. "One is training officers how to work with juveniles must be complimented by training officers how to recognize their own bias. Everyone is biased, but an officer is equipped with a weapon that can turn bias into death."
The statistics seem to back up that assertion.
“Since the year 2000 there has been an increase in blacks being killed by the cops — a 39 percent increase,” said criminologist James Allen Fox of Northeastern University.
But Fox says, at the same time, there has also been a 55 percent increase in the number of whites being killed by police.
"But of course, when it happens to a white officer and a black suspect it does raise questions about racial stereotypes and racial profiling," he said.
Even though both the Brown and the Henry cases have stirred strong racial passions, Henry’s parents, Angella and Danroy Henry, Sr., said they never wanted to make their son’s killing an issue of race.
We intentionally took an approach here that was more fact based and measured," Danroy Henry Sr. said. "We simply wanted to know what really happened. Our most immediate concern is for the truth."
And in the backyard of their middle class home, Angella Henry reflects on the death of her own son. Like Brown, witnesses say he was left dying on the ground without receiving immediate medical attention.
"You know, wrong is wrong no matter what you put on every day to go to work," she said, sighing. "If you wear a badge, if you wear a doctor’s coat, there should be the same accountability. I believe that they should actually have been held to a higher standard because their job is to serve and protect."
Angella Henry pauses and looks out toward the garden where a sign is planted in the grass that reads “Family First”.
"It’s painful to look back and to think about how much we’ve been through, and how much we continue to go through and how much cover-up there was and how little respect there was for our son’s life, and it’s beyond words, it’s beyond description of the pain."
A New York-state grand jury found no evidence to indict officer Hess for Henry’s death. But the civil federal court trail could begin as early as next winter. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is still investigating the fatal shooting of DJ Henry, but at a much slower pace than the high-profile investigation that has begun into the slaying of Michael Brown on a suburban street in Missouri.
Update: The Department of Justice announced on April 7, 2015, that there is not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges against officer Aaron Hess. The civil suit continues to be litigated in a federal court in Westchester County, NY.
BOSTON PUBLIC RADIO