Nine days ago a deputy of the Ashland County Sheriff’s office put two bullets into the heart and shoulder of eighth-grader Jason Ike Pero. Attempts to revive him failed and he died at the scene. The 14-year-old was a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewas, a tribe of some 7,000 members in northeastern Wisconsin. Brock Mrdjenovich, who has one year as a deputy on the force, said the boy lunged at him with a knife.
American Indians are killed by police at a higher rate than any other racial group, though the total numbers are far smaller.
Pero thus became yet another victim in the tally of American Indians who are killed by police at the highest rate in the nation, according to Centers for Disease Control data from 1999 to 2015. The total numbers of such shootings are relatively small compared with police killings of African Americans.
The Bad River tribe has called for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into what its leaders call police misconduct and excessive force. In a press release, the tribe said that Pero was not a threat and “was known in the community as a kind and gentle person with a great sense of humor” and was a “sweet and non-violent boy.”
“Pero approached Deputy Mrdjenovich with a large butcher knife and he refused numerous commands to drop the weapon,” said a report from the Wisconsin Department of Justice. “On two occasions, Pero lunged at the deputy while the deputy was attempting to retreat. Deputy Mrdjenovich fired his service weapon at Pero, striking him twice.”
Subsequent reports say Jason had phoned 911 to say that a male with a knife was walking down the street in the town of Odanah on the reservation. In the call, he described himself. That has elicited speculation that this was a case of “suicide by cop.”
If this is, in fact, true, the obvious question to be answered is: Why did the deputy oblige him?
Tom Olsen, a reporter for the Superior Telegram wrote Thursday:
“This police brutality has to end, it’s an epidemic in our country and against all Native Americans,” Holly Gauthier, Jason’s mother, said on Thursday.
“Now our family is counted among them. Many of these killings are unlawful and are not properly prosecuted,” Gauthier added. “Our laws about prosecuting unlawful police conduct need to change, and this has to end now.” […]
“Our family would like to thank everyone for their continued support as we mourn for my son Jason and we continue to demand justice,” Gauthier said. “There is no reason a police officer should ever shoot a child, and there is no reason that police should be shooting to kill.”
In part because his mother is blind, Jason had lived since he was a year old with his grandfather and grandmother. She said after the slaying:
“He was a big old teddy bear,” Pero said. “He teased his little nephews once in a while, but that was the meanest part he had. Maybe he was doing something [with the knife], but he’d never hurt a fly. Never in his life.”
His grandfather said:
“He was a good kid, a happy kid. […] He loved being around family and friends. He was a jokester. His teachers loved him. Quite a bit of teachers came to the funeral and wake.”
Blackfeet lawyer Gyasi Ross commented at The Huffington Post:
Unfortunately, many times when brown-skinned people call 911 for help, they get killed instead. […]
Implicit in the officer’s statement is the notion that he had no other option but to fatally shoot a young boy with a knife—he could not detain him, taze him, shoot him in the hand that held the knife, etc.
The child was on his own homelands when Mrdjenovich shot Pero down. He was home sick from school. He was emotional and vulnerable—as children can be from time to time. Teenage hormones and puberty are both helluva drugs. Young Jason called 911 about 11:40 a.m. where the Ashland County Sheriff is charged with protecting and serving the Bad River community alongside tribal law enforcement. There is no independent corroboration of a “lunge” or an altercation or anything other than that there was a child’s body lying there.
And, referencing other police shootings of knife-wielders, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Claudia Center said last month, “You should not be assuming that just because a knife is in the picture that lethal force is automatically required or appropriate.”
Most especially when the person with a knife is a child.