Trigger Happy Policing: Not Just for Black Folks Anymore

This story made me think of Marvin Gaye.

When I read the following headline I assumed, as I usually do, that the victim was black. Usually I’m right.  I was wrong this time. Increasingly whites are also becoming the victims of police brutality. Welcome, white folks, to constant police harassment and surveillance. Welcome to my world. Literally. The same thing almost happened to me last year. There seems to be a disturbing increase in police aggressiveness. I know it ratcheted up in my community in the inner city. Seems like its happening in suburbia as well.

OFFICER CLEARED AFTER GOING TO WRONG ADDRESS, SHOOTING INNOCENT GRANDPA IN HIS GARAGE

February 4, 2014

Jerry Waller and one of his grandchildren in a photo taken before his death.  (Source: Waller Family)

Jerry Waller and one of his grandchildren in a photo taken before his death. (Source: Waller Family)

FORT WORTH, TX — An elderly man was slain in his own garage because police “inadvertently began searching” the wrong address while investigating a burglary call.  Spotting a man who appeared “standoffish” in his own garage, police opened fire, killing a 72-year-old grandfather.  After months of investigation, the officer has been cleared and is back on the streets.

In the earliest hour of May 28th, 2013, Jerry Waller was awoken after midnight to the sound of his neighbor’s home burglar alarm. Doing the neighborly thing, Mr. Waller got out of bed to check on the family next door. He took a pistol with him as his wife stayed behind.

Fort Worth Police were dispatched and arrived at the scene at 12:58 a.m.  Only the officers didn’t go to the address of the alarm.   They “inadvertently began searching” the property of Jerry and Kathy Waller at 404 Havenwood — across the road from the automated burglary alert.

Jerry & Kathy Waller had been married 46 years. (Souce: Family Photo)Jerry & Kathy Waller had been married 46 years. (Souce: Family Photo)

Officers B.B. Hanlon and R.A. “Alex” Hoeppner walked onto the Wallers’ property and approached the darkened house with their flashlights lit.  As Officer Hoeppner neared the residence, he spotted Mr. Waller, who was cautiously surveying the scene from inside his garage.

A confrontation ensued between the homeowner and the intruders carrying guns and flashlights.  Unfortunately only one side survived to tell their version of the events.

The undisputed fact is that Waller was shot 7 times in his own garage.

Officer Hoepnner claims that when he spotted Mr. Waller, he identified himself and commanded the homeowner to drop his gun.  According to the police narrative, Waller was hesitant to comply with commands of the strangers.  After momentarily setting his gun down, Waller allegedly “freaked out” and “lost it” and picked the gun back up and assumed a “ready” stance, aiming his pistol at police officers.  Hoepnner opened fire.

The senior citizen was struck multiple times and was pronounced dead at the scene.  His slanted driveway was stained with a trail of his blood and his distraught wife had to be taken to the hospital for emotional distress.

The loss was devastating to the community.  “They are just a nice retired couple, that loved working in their yard, having family over, and grandkids,” said Becky Haskin, a neighbor who knew the Wallers.

“I think he panicked,” Haskin said to the Star-Telegram. “He just unloaded his gun in rapid fire. That’s what I heard. It woke me up. I thought it was in my back yard — just rapid fire, one right after the other, in succession. There wasn’t any hesitation.”

The burglar alarm across the street was a false alarm.

“TRIGGER HAPPY”

The department did not offer many details of the incident for some time, but insisted that “officers felt threatened.”

As the department investigated itself for wrongdoing, the Waller family expressed displeasure with what they considered deliberate “misrepresenting” of details of the killing by the department.  They felt so uneasy with the media coverage that they felt compelled to issue a public statement demanding a full investigation.   The statement read, in part:

We were deeply troubled by the police department misrepresenting details of the incident in their interviews with the media.  We would ask that the police refrain from providing details to the media until a thorough investigation has been completed, preferably by an independent body.

Kathy Waller decries the actions of Kathy Waller decries the actions of “trigger happy” police. (Source: WFAA)

His widow, Kathy Waller, said she was “disgusted” by the police.  “Married 46 years, and then somebody gets a little trigger-happy and away they go,” she told WFAA.  ”I miss him dearly.”

“My father never stepped outside of his garage,” said son Chris Waller. “He was shot multiple times in the chest only a few steps away from the doorway to his kitchen.”

According to the autopsy report, Waller suffered three bullets to the chest, a shot to the abdomen, a shot to the hand, and two grazing wounds to his wrist and forearm.

Details were slow to emerge, but a report finally admitted that the police went to the wrong address because of “poor lighting.”

The two officers were patrolling the streets again in under two months, without discipline.

Hoeppner gave the following statements:

“…the whole entire time I’m giving commands, “Drop the gun, drop the gun, drop the gun.” “And he’s not dropping it and he had this attitude towards us that…it was almost an attitude of, you can’t tell me to drop my gun.” “You know what I mean?” “Like who are you to telling me to, you know what I mean.” “He kind of had an attitude kind of very hostile towards us…”

“I’m pretty sure I told you this; but I wanna reiterate that he…umm, his…his attitude towards us was very malicious.” “It…it was not, pro-police at all.” “ He did not seem happy that, that we were there.”

…if someone who…who…who…is….you get someone out there who would follow the gun laws; and…and that understands that a police officer is telling you this, that you’re not gonna sit there and hold the gun  still; cause….I mean like…it’s almost as if he was challenging me.” “And the fact…the reason I say that is I mean, his….the way he stood; I mean…I mean his comments as in, ‘why’…” “ You know like, what…what person in their right man…mind would ask a peace officer…a, a law enforcement officer…’why’ …when he tells you and give you verbal commands that we’re being serious…, drop the gun, you know. Your law abiding citizen is not going to tell… going to ask you, why.”

The way he talks to me is a very stand-off attitude.” “ You know…you know when he say, get…get the light outta my eyes, it wasn’t please sir; get the light outta my eyes.” “Hey, can you please get the light outta my eyes.” “It was, get the light outta my eyes!” “You know, it was real standoff, like…you know…”

Now that I think back on it and you know, had all this time to think on it. I think his intentions as soon as he walked out that door and saw me and he didn’t want to put the gun down, I firmly believe that he was trying to find a point and time where…when…when he could shoot me at when…when…when it was the most beneficial time for him to shoot me.”

After hearing Officer Hoeppner’s partner swear under oath that Mr. Waller pointed his gun, a Tarrant County grand jury declined to indict the rookie cop.  Both officers had been with the department for under one year.

The most recent report states that that Waller told Hoeppner to “get that light out of my eyes,” drawing questions about whether the victim could see who the intruders were through the blinding beam of light.

The police narrative claims that Waller did eventually put his gun on top of a car, but he then “scrambled” to pick it back up.  Next, allegedly, Waller “swung the handgun in the direction of Officer Hoeppner,” prompting the rapid fire response.

Diagram of Jerry Waller's garage.  (Source: Fort Worth Police)Diagram of Jerry Waller’s garage. (Source: Fort Worth Police)

The report admits that the police did not activate their vehicle emergency lights, nor did they use their sirens.  They also did not activate their lapel microphones.  Why?

Jerry Waller’s death may never be fully understood, but the tragedy of the situation remains.

Was the situation preventable?  Could officers have avoided this situation by utilizing their lights and sirens?  Did the officers shoot irresponsibly after getting spooked by a strange man?  Did Mr. Waller think he was confronting burglars?

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