On Sunday, October 18th, 2015, at approximately 3:15 a.m., a Palm Springs Garden Police Officer, Nouman Raja, on duty in a plain clothes capacity, in an unmarked police vehicle, stopped to investigate what he believed to be an abandoned vehicle on the southbound exit ramp of Interstate 95 and PGA Blvd. As the officer exited his vehicle, he was suddenly confronted by an armed subject. As a result of the confrontation, the officer discharged his firearm resulting in the death of the subject, Corey Jones. Per Department policy the officer is currently on paid administrative leave and an independent investigation is being conducted by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.
Well, at least the statement actually acknowledges that the officer actually discharged his gun rather than passively indicating that a shooting somehow occurred. But beyond that, there's so little information coming out that even a local police union rep is calling for authorities to be more transparent. Raja was apparently investigating a series of burglaries, the police say. Jones, a musician who worked with a local housing authority, does not appear to have been a suspect. Jones had bought a gun three days before the shooting. Police say the gun was found on the ground outside the car, and a box inside the car had a matching serial number. Police haven't said whether Jones actually fired his gun, and there's no dash or body camera footage. Raja's personnel record also appears to be fairly clean and free of accusations of reckless or inappropriate behavior.
So should we apply Occam's Razor at this point and consider the likelihood that both men incorrectly identified the other as a potentially dangerous threat? Raja was not in a police uniform and was not in a marked police vehicle. If the police description is accurate, Raja didn't see or even realize Jones was there when he stopped his car and must have been startled. But what actually happened next is what we don't know.
Beyond what is obviously going to end up being a tragic and unnecessary death, here's what's worrisome: Let's assume everybody is being honest (I know it's difficult with the current level of police distrust), and let's assume Raja opened fire after seeing the gun for fear of his own safety. And let's assume the best of Jones, and the reason he had his gun out was for fear of his own safety being stranded on the side of the road. There has been presented so far no evidence that either of these men had any malicious intentions.
If Jones panicked and shot first, few would argue that Raja's response was inappropriate or poorly considered. But if Raja panicked and shot first, what then? It matters because earlier in the month two experts investigated the abrupt police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot to death in a Cleveland park while carrying an air gun, and determined that the officer was justified. All that mattered in that case, according to these experts, was that the police officer feared a threat. That the threat did not actually exist did not matter. It is apparently reasonable for police to shoot to kill (according to these reports) on the basis of what they fear might happen.
But let's consider a hypothetical scenario. If Jones had panicked, shot first and killed Raja, would he have been entitled to the same defense? Remember, Raja was not in uniform and not in a marked police car. Is Jones entitled to the same authority to react from the fear of what Raja might have done? I suspect that very few people would defend Jones shooting first, and I particularly suspect that those who would defend Raja shooting first would be less likely to defend Jones shooting. This hypocritical transformation of fear into the justification for an acceptable response by police officers is contributing to the distrust of law enforcement officials.
We don't know yet that the police will attempt to declare the shooting justified, we don't know the full story yet, and we don't know that they'll defend Raja if he shot first. But if history is an indication, it should not come as a surprise.
WPTV, the NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach, has a page devoted to aggregating stories about the Jones shooting here.