No easy answers when a man is killed by police

Eighteen-year-old Rapheal Briscoe was killed yesterday in Southeast D.C. when he pulled a BB gun resembling a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun on police.

Briscoe is the third citizen to be killed by police in D.C. this year. What’s troubling about these cases is that there are no easy answers.

According to media reports and MPD’s press release, officers from a gun recovery unit “encountered” Briscoe in the 2400 block of Elvans Road SE at about 2:30 Tuesday afternoon. While WUSA reports that Briscoe “confronted” the officers, ABC7 reports that officers “confronted” Briscoe. The Washington Post reports:

Police sources said the gun unit officers saw the young man walking on Stanton Road near Elvans. Spotting a bulge in his waistband, they asked from their unmarked vehicle to talk to him. He began walking rapidly and then to run as the officers continued to try to get his attention, the sources said. He turned onto Elvans.

As police pursued, in the vehicle and on foot, the young man reached into his waistband and pulled out what appeared to be a gun, the sources said. They said an officer fired twice.

Why was Briscoe carrying a BB gun that looked so real, an officer couldn’t tell the difference between it and a handgun? Why did officers pursue him? And why did he flee? Finally, why did the officer shoot?

The tragedy of Briscoe’s death is that for the community, and particularly those who knew Briscoe, there may be no apparent way to “resolve” the loss of his life.

Officer involved shootings are nearly always determined to be “justifiable homicides,” which means that there is no criminal liability for the taking of life. Usually this is because the person killed was behaving in some way that made authorities believe that he or she was an immediate danger to society, or to police.

Of course we wish, as we wish for all homicide victims, that Briscoe’s life had not ended so soon or so violently. We wish not only for a different ending to his encounter with police last night, but a different beginning. That he did not have the BB gun. That he did not pull it on officers. That they did not mistake it for a handgun. That he did not flee. That they did not pursue him. That they did not shoot him.

Here at Homicide Watch we report every murder case from initial crime report through prosecution. For Briscoe, there will be little of that. MPD’s Force Investigation Team will investigate the homicide and the use of force on Briscoe. If there is a determination that officers were wrong in firing their weapons, that the case was not a justifiable homicide, then Briscoe’s death would be classified as a murder and the officer who shot him could be held criminally liable.

We’ll be keeping an eye on Briscoe’s death, but if you’re checking our spreadsheet of 2011 murder victims, you won’t see his name unless there is an official determination that he was murdered—that is, killed in an unjustifiable manner.

Like I wrote earlier, there are no easy answers. And Briscoe’s death, regardless of the outcome of the investigation, is tragic.

Here’s some of what’s being said online.

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