Killing of suspect with box cutter may have been legal. But was it necessary?

Pub date July 20, 2012
WriterYael Chanoff
SectionPolitics Blog

Police officers have dangerous jobs, and when confronted with subjects who may threaten their lives, they have to think fast under stress. When a subject has something classified as a “deadly weapon,” police are justified by law in shooting to stop the threat.

As SFPD spokesperson Carlos Manfredi explained to me for an article in this week’s paper, the official policy isn’t “shoot to kill.” But subjects are often killed, since officers are trained at the police academy to aim for the body’s center mass and to shoot until any threat to their life is neutralized.

It seems many tools and common items can fall under the “deadly weapon” category. The SFPD’s third fatal officer-involved shooting this year occurred July 18 when Pralith Pralourng apparently lunged at an officer. His deadly weapon? A box cutter.
In January 2011, Raheim Brown Jr. was shot by Oakland School Police. He was allegedly wielding a screw driver. Last July, Charles Hill was shot by BART police. He was drunk, lying on the ground, and hurled a pocketknife at police, missing them by 10 feet.

When used just right, a box cutter, a screwdriver, or a pocket knife can certainly be deadly weapons. But when a subject is exhibiting likely mental disability, drunk and lying on the ground, or 20 years old and in a car, isn’t there any other type of combat police could use to neutralize the threat?

At a press conference today Police Chief Greg Suhr said that police do take defensive tactical training, which trains officers in using less than lethal weapons. But the July 18 situation warranted the use of lethal weapons, Suhr said.

“The officer was facing a life or death situation. She had to do what she could to protect herself.,” Suhr said.

Suhr explained that the officer had been on the force 20 years, during which time she had received multiple trainings in crisis intervention training, which he called the “most progressive in the country.”

That training deals with psychology and teaches how to deescalate situations in which a subject is a “danger to himself,” Suhr said. But, since the subject had already allegedly attacked a co-worker, the the officer’s life was considered in danger.

Meanwhile, Occupy San Francisco activists who still protest and sleep outside the Federal Reserve on Market Street attained video and audio of people who claim to be witnesses who contradict the police story. One says that “he was on his back, then [paramedics from] the ambulance turned him facing downwards…they but a bag over his body and his head. Next thing, when everybody started looking at they got nervous and they started acting like they were doing CPR even though the guy was gone. It took the ambulance 20 minutes to get there.”

In a video that has been viewed more than 17,000 times on youtube, another man who claims to be a witness says “they had him in cuffs, and they shot him.” In another video shot by the same man, Robert Benson, another man says “he was in handcuffs and they shot him twice in the chest…I saw it.”

The Bay Guardian has not been able to confirm these accounts.

Pralourng’s death was likely legal. He could likely have injured an officer with the six-inch box cutter he carried, although it may have been difficult to kill her. But his crime did not merit the death penalty, and he now joins the ranks of Hill, Brown and others who’s small blades and screwdriver were considered weapons deadly enough to justify their deaths by the SFPD, BART Police, Oakland School Police respectively. It’s hard not to ask—did Pralourng have to die?