Sunday, May 6, 2007

It's not over

Arkansas State Trooper Larry Norman pleads guilty to negligent homicide.

For those of you who don't know the story, you might want to check out the background info.
Here's what I know:
On April 7th, 2006, police stopped a young man walking down the side of highway 412. they thought he might be an escapee from a Michigan boot camp, who was considered armed and dangerous. In fact, when they called out the name of the suspect, Adam, the young man turned, making police believe they had the right man. He acted strangely though. When told to lie down, he lay on his back. He didn't respond as ordered to many things. He kept his hands in his pockets.

A state trooper, from what I can understand, who was to direct traffic around the scene, and was not directly involved in the arrest of the young man, saw the boy reach for his pocket, although others think he might have been trying simply to follow orders to roll over. He shot and killed the man.

I have a friend who has seen the dashboard video of the incident. (I realize "a friend" is not a reliable source, but he does confirm what I've manged to gather from newspaper reports). He points out that the trooper was listening to his AM/FM radio too loudly to hear radio traffic on the police radio that suggested this man might not be the suspect. Regardless, the trooper's orders were to direct traffic. The local officers at the scene were responsible for the apprehension of the suspect. I might add that perhaps local officers, if they had better community contacts, might have recognized the young man.

If this man had been the suspect, I would call this negligent homicide. I have no reason to believe there was sufficient evidence to shoot this boy, regardless of his identity. But the crime of this young man on highway 412 was one of not responding to police the way they thought he ought to respond. He was developmentally disabled and had cerebral palsy.

The "real" suspect was also shot, later in the day, after macing a police officer. He survived though. The mace was the deadly weapon that Adam Lunsford had.

A young man, described by family and friends as "gentle" with a well-documented habit of putting his hands in his pocket when nervous, was dead. Erin Hamley was 21. He had recently shaved his head to look like his brother in the military.

A grand jury decided on negligent homicide, the lesser of the charges given to them to consider. Personally, I believe that manslaughter, which according to the Morning News, would have to prove a certain amount of recklessness, would have been more appropriate.

Even if this young man had been Adam, the shooting was negligent. Because Mr. Norman deliberately disregarded his orders, broke cover, and violated radio policy, therefore not getting all the facts needed for an informed decision, I argue he was not just negligent, but reckless.

Still, though, I don't want anyone to go to jail forever for this. The trooper has retired, and from what I can understand, is devastated beyond what a 1 year prison sentence, the maximum he can get, will do to him. But I want people to understand.

There needs to be better training in police departments for dealing with people who are developmentally disabled. I don't think "developmentally disabled" ever crosses the radar of most officers when they encounter someone not acting appropriately. And quite honestly, I understand-- they are trying to assess whether or not the suspect has a gun, is high, deranged, or otherwise a threat. But like the general public, they can be ignorant of the fact that people with developmental disabilities live and work in our communities, and therefore didn't consider that as a possibility for Erin's behavior. But I think of the confusion of this young man, how he must have had no idea what was going on, how scared he must have been, and I want to cry.

This should be a call to action for the disability community and law enforcement to try to understand each other and work together. Two lives were destroyed by Mr. Norman's actions and the underlying ignorance about people with developmental disabilities. It's time to do something.

What to do is another question. But we need to discuss the possibilities, knowing that the disussion itself might help prevent the next tragedy.

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