The Police Shooting The Internet Ignored

Unlike the officer-involved deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the internet has barely made a peep about 25-year-old Andrew Henson, who was unarmed when a cop shot him five times

Screen shot from body camera footage
Jul 14, 2016 at 12:34 PM ET

Police in Oklahoma this week released the body camera footage of the fatal officer-involved shooting of an unarmed burglary suspect. Unlike last week’s controversial police shootings that garnered international headlines, the internet barely made a peep about the death of 25-year-old Andrew Henson.

The circumstances surrounding the deaths of Henson, Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by police during a routine traffic stop in Minnesota, and Alton Sterling, who was gunned down as he struggled with police in Louisiana, differ greatly. But there is one constant, according to one law enforcement expert: In each case, the officers had options available to them other than pulling the trigger.

“Let’s assume these officers are good guys who didn’t wake up in the morning and decide to kill someone for no reason, which I assume they are. They feel fear because of the offenders’ behavior and their training,” said Bill Richardson, a retired former detective who spent decades in Arizona law enforcement and now writes—often critically—about modern-day police policies and tactics. “You have to give them the benefit of the doubt that he was in fear for his life [when he decided to pull the trigger]. But you have to ask ‘could it have been handled differently?’ In each of these cases the answer is probably yes.”

In the case of Henson, he led police on a high-speed chase through a rural Oklahoma town after the officers attempted to stop him for a routine traffic violation and it was discovered that there was a warrant out for his arrest in Mississippi. During the pursuit, Henson rammed one of the police cruisers chasing him before his vehicle came to a stop and he attempted to flee on foot. As one of the officers gave chase, Henson, who is white, turned around and said “you’re going to have to kill me, nigger,” to the officer, who is also white. The cop, Wagoner Officer Robert Reynolds, told Henson to “show me your hands,” at which point he made a “gesture” the officer deemed as one similar to someone raising a pistol. Reynolds then fired four quick shots at Henson, who went down almost immediately.

As Henson was on the ground, Reynolds fired a fifth shot as the suspect attempted to get up. Henson then fell to the pavement. He was pronounced dead shortly after. Henson, it was determined, did not have a weapon. The shooting is currently being reviewed by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations—but no trending hashtag exists for Henson the way it did for both Castille and Sterling, both of whom were reportedly armed during their encounters with the officers who killed them, although, by most accounts, were not nearly as confrontational as Henson appears to be in the video of his shooting.

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A Vocativ analysis found that the Twitter hashtag #PhilandoCastile was used 2.1 million times since he was killed last week. #AltonSterling was used nearly 5.3 million times since his death just hours before Castile’s. For Henson, who was killed on June 7, #AndrewHenson has been used a total of 27 times as of this writing, most of which were on Thursday, three days after authorities released the body camera footage.

The public outrage over the deaths of Castile and Sterling follows a spate of fatal encounters with law enforcement in the last two years that touched off a national debate over police use of force that disproportionately targets black people. In Oklahoma, however, the video of Henson’s shooting is big news. According to a reporter at the Tulsa World, Henson’s is the top read story on the publication’s website—and is viewed to be as controversial as the deaths of Castile and Sterling.

“On Facebook, the outrage goes in both directions—many are upset about the officer’s actions, while others maintain he was a threat because he damaged police property and pointed at the officer, who they say reasonably could have believed Henson had a gun,” reporter Samantha Vicent told Vocativ. “Still others question where the national outrage is because both the officer and Henson are white, although our local activist groups said the incident is ‘concerning’ to them.”

While Castile’s and Sterling’s deaths were amongst the top stories in the country last week, Henson’s death has failed to garner the same level of interest nationally. Only a few outlets have picked it up, including the New York Daily News and CBS News, but nobody has held the shooting under the same microscope as those of Castile and Sterling. That, according former Detective Richardson, is a problem.

“Yes. This guy is white. But that shouldn’t matter. What needs to be scrutinized is the training police officers in this country receive, not the race of the person they shoot,” he said. “We need to look at how officers responds to a perceived threat, to fear, so we can try and prevent these types of questionable shootings from happening in the future, and we’re not doing that.”

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The 1985 Supreme Court ruling in Tennessee V. Garner provides vague criteria for when an officer is legally permitted to use deadly force. Under the law, a cop can use deadly force on a fleeing suspect if the officer “has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” Fear and poor training, said Richardson, puts cops in situations where they may perceive a threat that really isn’t there, which keeps them within the limits of the law if they use deadly force, but results in questions about whether the shooting needed to happen—under Garner, most shootings are justified, but are they necessary, he said. In the case of Castile, who reportedly told the officer who shot him that he was legally carrying a firearm, the officer may have been scared but had he done things differently he wouldn’t need to be.

“In a situation like that you need to go into the situation with a tactical advantage in place and give complicit and clear instructions, ‘put your hands on the steering wheel and don’t move,’ to avoid misunderstandings,” he said. “Even when [Castile] motioned towards his pocket, if that’s what happened, there were other options.”

Analyzing shootings like those of Castile, Sterling, and Henson—and the five Dallas police officers who were murdered during a Black Lives Matter protest last week—isn’t only valuable in terms of preventing cops from shooting unarmed citizens, but in preventing the deaths of officers, too, as many officer deaths are the result of mistakes; “of all the officers I know who were killed, only one was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Richardson said.

“All of these events should get the same attention and scrutiny, regardless of what color the [victim] is,” he said. “These things need attention. All of them. So we can learn from them and start training officers better. That isn’t happening, and until it is this shit’s gonna keep happening.”