Add "bottle of antifreeze" to the list of common objects law enforcement officers have mistaken for deadly weapons and then used to justify shooting—and, in this case, killing—an unarmed citizen.
Family and friends of 17-year-old Hunter Brittain are speaking out after he was shot and killed by a Lonoke County, Arkansas, sheriff's deputy in an early morning encounter near Cabot, a suburb of Little Rock, last week.
According to an account by 16-year-old Jordan King, who was with Brittain at the time, the two of them were working on repairs to a truck's transmission and were pulled over by Sgt. Michael Davis after driving the truck away from a body shop at about 3 a.m on June 23.
King told local ABC affiliate KATV news that the truck wouldn't properly shift into park, so Brittain went to the back of the truck with a jug of antifreeze to prop behind a truck's tire so that it wouldn't roll backward and strike Davis' vehicle. That's when Davis fired at Brittain, and according to King, Davis didn't tell him to stop or get on the ground. He just shot him.
Brittain was killed. Family and friends are demanding answers and have been protesting outside the Lonoke County Sheriff's Office to draw attention to Brittain's death. A Vice reporter picked up the story Monday and gave it some national attention.
The press release from the Arkansas Department of Public Safety is par for the course with its vague use of passive voice when describing what happened: "Hunter Brittain, 17, of McRae, the driver of a truck stopped by the deputy, sustained a gunshot wound and was transported to a North Little Rock hospital where he later died." Later on in the statement, it does acknowledge that Davis fired his gun at Brittain.
State police are investigating the shooting. There is body camera footage. Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley put out a statement Thursday saying that he supports letting the body camera footage, which he has handed over to the state police for the investigation, be publicly released.
According to Vice reporter Emma Ockerman, state police will not be commenting further until they've investigated and a prosecutor determined whether "the use of deadly force by a law enforcement officer was or was not consistent with Arkansas laws."
The state's laws allow for the use of deadly force as self-defense in situations where a person "reasonably believes" the other person is about to commit a violent felony or use unlawful deadly force. There is a duty to retreat in the law, but law enforcement officers are specifically exempt.
The inclusion of the "reasonably believes" standard is relevant because one of the ways that law enforcement officers are able to excuse killing an unarmed person is by arguing that they feared they were in danger, even when the facts don't support it, and that this fear was nevertheless reasonable given the circumstances. Militarized "warrior cop" training even encourages law enforcement officers to see the people they interact with as potential threats, regardless of the circumstances, and then these experts are put on the stand whenever an officer faces trial for a shooting to attempt to convince a jury that this constant fear is justified.
Absent changing this deadly force threshold, which some states have done, this is one of the reasons why the release of body camera footage is so important. It can help show whether it was actually "reasonable" for a law enforcement officer to believe he was in danger or whether he fired recklessly or irresponsibly.