Longform

Clint Peterson Was Killed by Police While Running Away

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Instead, the department has been distributing a vague news release. It says that "shots were fired" after officers responded to a "major disturbance" in the 400 block of Kelly Court. But the official account doesn't say what that disturbance was, who fired the shots, whether or not the suspect was armed with any real or fake weapon or where he was hit.

What few details are in the report seem to at least confirm that Peterson had been running away before he was shot.

"Preliminary reports indicate that shots were fired during a foot chase," says the Duncanville Police Department's statement.

The courts ruled long ago that foot chases aren't a justification to shoot at an unarmed suspect.

In 1974, a Memphis Police Department officer named Elton Hymon shot at an unarmed 15-year-old burglary suspect who was trying to climb over a fence. The bullet struck the teenager in the back of his head, killing him.

At the time, the police department argued that officers were legally justified to shoot the teenager under Tennessee law. A state statute had said that police pursuing a suspect could "use all the necessary means to effect the arrest."

The victim's father didn't agree and brought a lawsuit against the city of Memphis and its police department.

Tennessee v. Gardner made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1985 ruled that an officer can use deadly force on a fleeing suspect only 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." Now, attorneys say, the ruling provides clear guidance that police officers can't shoot unarmed suspects on the run.

"The only time you can possibly do it is, if that person was a danger to others or himself," says Jim Harrington, a human rights attorney who founded the Texas Civil Rights Project. "But simply running away from the officer, you can't do it."

More recently, in December 2011, an Austin Police Department officer named Chris Allen shot 14 rounds at a suspect driving away in a stolen vehicle. The suspect survived and was later arrested. Nonetheless, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo fired Allen. Allen's use of deadly force "was objectively unreasonable and not within department policy," the police chief told the Austin American-Statesman last year.

"If the story is that the individual was running away from police," and unarmed, says Todd Shapiro, a criminal defense attorney who used to be a prosecutor at the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, then "justification for using deadly force would seem to be unavailable in this situation. I would expect that police officer would be charged with murder."

The Dallas County Sheriff's Department is conducting a criminal investigation. With the shooting under review, the sheriff can withhold much of the normally public information that would provide clues into Peterson's death — such as the police report, the 911 tapes or footage from any dash-cams the officers may have had.

In response to an open records request from reporters, the sheriff's office says the case may be presented to a Dallas County grand jury, and if it is, "release of the video, audio and the offense report would allow the officers being investigated to have access to evidence and case analysis before the grand jury meets on this matter."

Sherry Horne, Peterson's mother, has also asked for a report. "I need closure. I need answers and nobody will give me answers," she says.

The Duncanville Police Department is similarly mum on details as it works on a separate investigation into whether either of the officers who responded violated any department policy.

The officers who confronted Peterson were out on paid administrative leave for less than a week before returning to work. They're both back to their normal duties, the Duncanville Police Department says. The officers' names haven't been released to the public.

"I don't see anything wrong with that decision," says Robert Brown, the Duncanville police chief. "The officers have not been charged with any criminal offense. They're simply being investigated as an officer would who's used deadly force."


News of Peterson's death was overshadowed by reports of other officer-involved shootings in North Texas that were more obviously egregious, with video footage quickly made public.

On October 14, Dallas Police Department Officer Cardan Spencer shot and wounded a mentally ill man holding a knife in the middle of a residential street in south Dallas. In an initial police report, Spencer's partner Christopher Watson had claimed that the man raised the knife in an "aggressive manner" shortly before the shooting. But surveillance footage that a neighbor captured shows the man standing with a knife by his side. After the neighbor sent his video to WFAA, the Dallas Police Department fired Spencer and now plans to present a case against him to a grand jury. Spencer's partner who wrote the report, Christopher Watson, was also recently suspended by Dallas Police Chief David Brown for giving "misleading statements" in the report.

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn