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HPD Kills Unarmed Man in Wheelchair

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PHOTO SOURCE: FACEBOOK.COM/HOUSTONPOLICE

I can’t put it any better than does KTRK’s Christine Dobbyn:

“A mentally ill double amputee was shot and killed by a Houston police officer this weekend after he refused to drop a pen.”

There are many details in a story like this, of course. Some of them are arguably mitigating. But before we get to those, a word from our Chief.

In a statement released today, HPD Chief Charles McClelland called Saturday’s fatal events “tragic and unfortunate for all involved,” although surely, Dateline Houston would add, more so for some than others. Chief McClelland says he’s asked the FBI to “monitor and investigate this incident” in addition to the investigations being conducted by HPD’s own Homicide and Internal Affairs Division and the Harris County DA’s Office, Civil Rights Division. The Chief closes his statement, “It is my desire to have everyone reserve judgment until all the facts and evidence in this investigation have been gathered.”

Thus, Dateline Houston will resist her powerful impulses to judge and even weep and will instead attempt here only to present the available facts and evidence, and then some further contextually relevant facts and evidence.

Brian C. Claunch was 45 years old and wheelchair-bound, having lost an arm and leg in a train accident years before. Claunch had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and until about 2:30 Saturday morning, he lived at the Healing Hands group home in central Houston with two other disabled men and John Garcia, the home’s owner. Claunch had lived at Healing Hands for the last 18 months as “part of a placement by the Harris County guardianship program,” according to the Houston Chronicle. Garcia told KTRK that Claunch “liked to doodle. He was always doodling at the table.”

Claunch’s caretaker called police at about 2:00 AM Saturday morning because Claunch had become agitated, demanding soda and cigarettes. According to the police report:

“The suspect was agitated and began to yell at the officers and threatened to kill them and the other residents of the home. As he yelled at the officers, he waved a shiny object in his hand in their direction. The suspect refused the officers’ verbal commands to drop the object and advanced in a threatening manner toward one of the officers. As the suspect backed one of the officers into a corner, he attempted to stab the officer with the object. Officer Marin, fearing for his partner’s life, and his own safety, discharged his duty weapon one time, striking the suspect. The object was discovered to be a shiny, ball point [sic] pen.”

Officer Marin shot Brian Claunch in the head. Marin, a five-year veteran of HPD, also shot and killed another suspect in October 2009. That suspect was allegedly armed with a knife.

Two officers, two guns, and one man known to be mentally ill, in a wheelchair, with a ballpoint pen. The facts. The evidence.

Saturday night, an HPD officer shot at an alleged beer thief in a gas station parking lot. The suspect evaded capture.

On September 16, an unarmed 26-year-old man reached for what turned out to be a cellphone and an HPD officer shot him in the leg. The man had a history of mental illness.

On July 9, an HPD officer shot and killed an unarmed 54-year-old, Rufino Lara, whom the officer said was ignoring commands and made a threatening motion. Lara had a beer in his waistband and didn’t speak English. HPD says Lara ignored police commands, but witnesses say he had his hands against the wall and was compliant before being shot to death.

While all officer shootings are investigated by Internal Affairs, 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 in his own yard.

In 2008, the city of Houston finally settled a lawsuit brought in 2004 by the family of 14-year-old Eli Escobar, who was unarmed and walking away from a scuffle with which he was uninvolved when an HPD rookie killed him with a shot to the head.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.