On Monday, a grand jury declined to indict the Houston police officer who in September shot and killed Brian Claunch, a mentally ill, wheelchair-bound double amputee, for refusing to drop a pen.
HPD Officer Matthew Marin and his partner had responded to a disturbance call at Healing Hands, a small residential group home in central Houston for men with mental illness. Claunch, 45, suffered from schizophrenia and was agitated because he wanted a soda and cigarettes. Police say he yelled threats at the officers and backed Marin’s partner into a corner while waving something shiny, which turned out to be a ballpoint pen. When Claunch wouldn’t drop the shiny object, Marin killed him with one shot.
The case sparked international outrage. Why didn’t Marin use a Taser? HPD has a nationally-recognized crisis intervention team for handling suspects with mental illness—why wasn’t it there? How did Marin’s partner get cornered by a man with only one arm to propel his wheelchair?
Most important, if Claunch’s death isn’t considered an unjustified use of lethal force by HPD officers, what is?
Between 2007 and 2012, HPD officers killed citizens in 109 shootings and injured them in 112. Houston police also killed animals in 225 shootings and injured them in 109. The department’s Internal Affairs Division investigated every one of the 555 shootings and found them all justified.
Officers fare almost as well in the criminal justice system. No law enforcement officer in Harris County has been charged in a shooting since 2010, when Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton was acquitted for shooting an unarmed man, Robbie Tolan, in his own front yard.
HPD says Internal Affairs is still investigating whether Claunch’s death was justified. That’s odd because IAD investigations are required to wrap within six months and Claunch died almost nine months ago. Investigations that exceed the time limit void their results and can’t be grounds for any discipline, which is how one of the officers fired for beating 15-year-old unarmed burglary suspect Chad Holley got his job back.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating six questionable use-of-force cases by HPD officers, including Claunch’s death, Chad Holley’s beating, and the shooting death of Rufino Lara, an unarmed 54-year-old immigrant whom the officer said was ignoring commands in English and Spanish and made a threatening motion. Witnesses say the officer only gave commands in English and that Lara had his hands up and was complying when he was shot.