March 16, 2014. Our plans to move to Finland were well underway. But that was the day any doubts evaporated. It was the day I lost any regret about leaving. That was the day James Boyd, a schizophrenic homeless man, was shot and killed by police.
I think I’d met James once or twice. People that I knew, knew him. I’d been working with the homeless for a while at that point. There were a handful of people I knew well. Folks I was friends with. The rest were part of an ever-changing, and constantly growing, sea of faces. I knew why people ended up homeless. I was aware of what they did to survive. And I knew that encounters between the homeless and the police tended to end badly.
It Starts Off Badly
James had been camping in the foothills. It was adjacent to some prime real estate, and a local called the cops on him. There was some back-and-forth. He had two pocket knives, and he may have made a threat against the two armed officers, but that settled down. Eventually there four officers and a police dog there. After four hours James agreed to move.
As he started to gather his things, one officer threw a stun grenade at him. Which, to be clear, as because the cops were at least 10 feet away from him. Another officer fired a taser at James, and the dog was let loose to attack him. James allegedly pulled the knives out. So they shot him in the back. He fell face-first onto the ground. Then they shot him with beanbag rounds and sicced the dog on him again.
He was rushed to the hospital shortly after 8pm that night. They declared him dead just before 3am. Doctors had amputated one of his arms, removed his spleen, part of a lung, and a section of his colon in an attempt to save his life.
Again, to be clear: a schizophrenic homeless man had committed the crime of camping. He had two pocket knives, and there were four officers with guns, tasers, grenades, and a trained attack dog. Even if he had lived, he would have been seriously messed up. None of the officers, or the dog, sustained any injuries.
Then It Gets Worse
Two of the officers were charged with second degree murder. It ended in a mistrial. 3 jurors found them guilty, but 9 found them not guilty. The District Attorney decided not to refile the case. One of the officers retired. The other was fired, but appealed and was reinstated with back pay. He was put on desk duty for one year.
Obviously there’s a racism problem in the United States. There is most definitely a policing problem. What people are overlooking is that there is a broad, systemic culture problem. James is dead because he was homeless. He was homeless because he was mentally ill. At least one of the officers referred to him as a “lunatic”.
The police suffered no consequences because the majority of the jurors, ordinary people, thought what they did was acceptable. They got to carry on with their lives because the district attorney didn’t think there was a compelling enough case to retry it following the hung jury. It was only barely illegal, and it would be almost impossible to find a new jury that would be willing to convict.
James Boyd is still dead.