STCRP Calls for Full Investigation
By Lynn Brezosky and Jason Buch
BROWNSVILLE — The mother of a 15-year-old student shot and killed by police after he refused to drop a pellet gun said Thursday she wanted officers to come to her with their hands on their hearts and give her honest answers about how her son died.
“I saw the wounds, in the chest, in the heart,” Noralva Gonzalez said, sobbing outside the family’s small frame home as her husband, Jaime Gonzalez Sr., held her. “I’m not crazy. He was hit in the head, from behind. He was a boy, like any boy. They didn’t have the right to do that.”
A 911 recording released by police Thursday to the Brownsville Herald reveals the tense moments when officers confronted Jaime Gonzalez Jr.
Over and over, officers can be heard telling the eighth-grader to put the weapon on the floor.
As officers arrive, the assistant principal who made the call says Gonzalez is drawing the weapon. A moment later, police yell that Gonzalez is running through the hall.
Someone can be heard yelling that the student says he’s willing to die. And an administrator is heard yelling, “Lock the door.”
Brownsville Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez said that when the teen pointed the gun at officers, they shot back.
The weapon turned out to be a CO2-powered .177-caliber pellet pistol that police said resembled a Glock-type semiautomatic handgun.
The teen’s parents on Thursday questioned the lethal action.
Jaime Gonzalez’s parents, stepmother Noralva Gonzalez and Jaime Gonzalez, Sr. speak in front of their home Thursday. Photo: Chris Sherman / AP
“Why was so much excess force used on a minor?” asked the boy’s father. “Three shots. Why not one that would bring him down?”
Thomas Aveni, executive director of the Police Policy Studies Council and an expert on police use of force, said the Supreme Court has ruled that if an officer believes he or she is in danger, deadly force is justified, regardless of other factors. Officers don’t have time to think about how old a gunman is when it appears they, or bystanders, are in danger, he said.
“If the officer reasonably believes life is in imminent danger, it doesn’t matter how old is the person who has the gun,” Aveni said.
The courts also have ruled that hindsight doesn’t matter, he said. If officers believed the gun was real, they are justified in using deadly force even if it turned out to be a pellet gun, Aveni said.
Trying to shoot someone in the leg or arm is a bad idea, Aveni said, because it’s difficult and because a bullet striking the arm or leg is potentially lethal anyway.
While members of the public may wonder why police can’t use stun guns or other nonlethal weapons, Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina who’s been studying police shootings for 25 years, said that when confronted with a gun, officers have little choice.
“It’s a very tragic situation, but any reasonable police officer would have fired,” Alpert said. “I feel bad for the family, but I feel horrible for the police officer. He had to shoot a young boy.”
Meanwhile, an area civil rights group was demanding a thorough investigation.
The South Texas Civil Rights Project released a statement calling for Brownsville police to conduct an investigation in 30 days, hire an expert on the use of deadly force, institute “de-escalation policy and training” and involve parents from the Brownsville Independent School District in the investigation and new policies and training.
“Within 30 days, Jaime’s family, as well as the students, parents and residents of Brownsville, deserve a full and open investigation into Jaime’s death,” said Spencer-Scheurich.
“Deadly use of force against our children by police officers cannot be excused simply by a claim that Jaime was holding what looked like a dangerous weapon. We need greater accountability from our police forces when they have taken a life, especially one of a child and in a school setting. In the future, de-escalation should be a priority when police respond to potential school violence.
“This is a terrible situation for everyone involved. This tragedy demands that the Brownsville P.D. take steps to assure this never happens again.”
The two officers involved in the shooting are on administrative leave.
Cummings Middle School, where the shooting happened, was closed Thursday. It’s scheduled to open today. About 250 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students and staff went to Breeden Elementary School for classes Thursday, and 17 counselors from the district’s crisis intervention team were on hand, a spokeswoman said.
At the teen’s home, family arranged photos and memorabilia documenting his life. A banner with his photograph hung on the front of the home. His band uniform — he was a drum major and band captain — was prominently displayed.
His mother clutched a rosary as she spoke to a parade of reporters, at one point retreating into the home with her husband and wailing in pain.
Noralva Gonzalez said she got a call Wednesday saying something had happened at school and that her son was in the hospital.
When she arrived, doctors tried to break the news gently, but she said she already knew.
“I just told them, ‘Tell me.’ Be truthful,” she said.
She said she took pictures of her son’s body with her cell phone, to document the bullet wounds. She refused to sign forms the police gave her. She and her husband plan to look for a lawyer.
His parents said they have no idea where Jaime got the gun. Guns were never in the house, they said, not even toy ones.
His family said Gonzalez had not been having problems at school and had no enemies they knew of. They described a thoughtful and caring young man:
He visited an elderly woman who lived alone every day after school. He washed people’s cars and mowed their lawns, just to help out. He walked a neighbor’s dog. He gave other students drumming lessons. The band teacher sometimes called his parents to tell them how proud they should be of their son’s talent.
They said he had a girlfriend across the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, whom he visited nearly every week. They did not know of any fights between the two.
On Wednesday, his parents said, the day began like any other. He rose at 6:30 a.m., got ready for school, and exchanged blessings with his parents.
“His goal was always to be something and buy his mother a new house,” Jaime Sr. said.
Ironically, he said, their son had dreamed of a career in law enforcement.
“He wanted to be a Texas Ranger or state trooper or go to the military, be a Marine. Now he can’t. He’s not here anymore.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.