Last week, a young police officer in a small, central Texas town responded to a call of a 93-year-old woman brandishing a gun and threatening to shoot a member of her own family.
Ultimately, 29-year-old Officer Stephen Stem fired four rounds at the woman, Pearlie Golden, killing her – and the tiny town of Hearne promptly called for Stem’s head for gunning down an elderly, beloved, long-time resident of the predominantly African-American community that has had reason to complain about its treatment by the local police force.
The community quickly got its wish; amid the immediate public outrage –- including threats from the New Black Panther Party, and calls from elected officials, including the town’s mayor and city prosecutor, to fire the officer – the Hearne City Council voted to terminate now former Officer Stem just four days after the incident, and before an investigation into the shooting had been completed.
However, based on the preliminary facts surrounding the shooting and the criteria that law enforcement officers around the country use to determine when to use lethal force, Stem did what police officers are trained to do -- which has been glossed over in the rush to have him fired.
The unfortunate incident began on the afternoon of May 6, after Golden had her driver’s license revoked after she failed to pass her driving test. The generally independent Golden was not happy about losing her license.
About 6:30 p.m., Golden’s great-nephew, Roy Jones – who helped care for his elderly aunt – called 9-1-1 to report that Golden had threatened him with a gun after he refused to give her the keys to her car.
According to authorities, Stem arrived at Golden’s home and found the woman holding a .38-caliber revolver.
What happened next is unclear – all parties involved say Stem told Golden to drop the weapon several times before he opened fire. And Jones told investigators that his aunt fired two shots into the ground before Stem fired his weapon – a claim Stem denies, even though it would significantly help his case, which is headed to a grand jury that will ultimately decide whether Stem will face criminal charges in the shooting.
“[Stem] was adamant that [Golden] didn’t fire her gun while he was there,” the former officer’s attorney, Robert McCabe, tells Raw Story. “The nephew calls the police because he is in fear for his life. When Officer Stem arrived at the scene, [Golden] pointed the gun directly at him…and this is all corroborated by the dash-cam on the officer’s vehicle. “
Regardless of whether Stem believes Golden fired shots while he was in her presence, witnesses told authorities that they heard at least five shots. If Stem fired four, one of the shots presumably was fired by Golden.
Based on standard, law enforcement criteria that dictates when lethal force may be used, Golden didn’t have to fire a round for Stem to be within his rights to shoot her – the presence of the gun is enough to justify using lethal force.
Bill Richardson is a former detective with the Mesa Police Department in Arizona and is an outspoken critic of corrupt or unethical law enforcement agencies. He has decades of experience in law enforcement and has been in multiple situations where he’s encountered a suspect with a weapon.
Richardson says Stem was well within his rights to shoot Golden. In fact, he says Stem was obligated to shoot Golden the second she raised her weapon.
“Tragedy is she’s a 93-year-old woman, and she’s a very sympathetic ‘victim,’” he says. “But she’s walking around with a loaded gun and pointing it at a police officer. She didn’t even need to fire the weapon to be considered a clear and present threat to the community – what if she fired the weapon and it hit a bystander? Or if a round went into a house and killed someone inside?
“The longer she’s waving that gun around the more of a threat she is to the community,” Richardson says. (Calls to the mayor and city attorney were not returned.)
In other recent cases of officer-involved shootings in the U.S., officers have been cleared of wrongdoing in cases where the threat to the community – or the cop -- was significantly less than a suspect pointing a loaded gun at a police officer. In some cases, the officers have even been lauded as heroes.
In May 2012, a Miami police officer responded to a report of a naked man attacking another man by beating and biting the victim’s face repeatedly. The case quickly became known nationally as the “Miami Face-eater” story because of the severe damage the suspect, Rudy Eugene, did to the victim’s face by biting him during the gruesome attack.
The attack was unprovoked. Eugene attacked the victim at random under a bridge near the Miami Herald office building, where surveillance cameras captured much of the grisly scene.
After nearly 20 minutes of the gruesome attack, Miami police Officer Jose Ramirez arrived on the scene.
Ramirez took a quick look at the naked, bloody Eugene as he was ripping the victim’s flesh off of his face with his teeth. The cop then told Eugene to stop.
Eugene responded by growling at Ramirez, who then shot the face-eating suspect five times, killing him.
Eugene had no weapon – again, he was naked -- and the only member of the community whose safety was immediately threatened by him was the victim.
Yet, there was no public outcry to fire Officer Ramirez for shooting what ultimately was an unarmed man who could possibly have been subdued with non-lethal force like a Taser or rubber bullet.
In another, arguably more egregious officer-involved shooting, a New York City detective fatally shot an unarmed man during a routine traffic stop – a stop that critics of the officer’s quick trigger finger described as being provoked by the detective’s “road rage.”
On October 4, 2012, Detective Hassam Handy was part of a caravan of NYPD vans that were cut off by 22-year-old National Guardsman Noel Polanco.
After the caravan of cops pulled over Polanco, Hamdy approached the passenger-side door of the vehicle and fatally shot the young driver.
Authorities later said Hamdy watched Polanco reach under his seat during the stop and feared he was reaching for a weapon, which is what prompted him to open fire.
No weapon was ever found in Polanco’s car – and Hamdy was later cleared of any wrongdoing by a grand jury, despite the fact that he killed an unarmed man. In fact, he was never even taken off of full duty after the shooting.
In Golden’s case, critics of the officer’s response have argued that Stem didn’t need to use lethal force against the elderly woman.
"They could have shot in the area to scare her or something. They didn't have to shoot her,” Golden’s nephew Roy Jones’ wife told The Eagle newspaper after the shooting.
Law enforcement experts, however, say that police aren’t trained to scare people – they’re trained to react to a threat.
“Realistically, a cop will approach an old woman with a gun in a different manner than they would approach a gang member with a gun,” Former Detective Richardson says. “But the second the gun becomes a threat, the officer is trained to react and eliminate the threat.
“If the officer Tasers her and the woman starts firing what happens then? If a bullet goes through a window and hits a kid, or the officer or her nephew? What then?” He says.
Stem’s attorney echoes Richardson, telling Raw Story, “There is no law enforcement training anywhere in this country that tells police officers to use anything other than deadly force if there is a clear threat to the safety of the officer or the community. It doesn’t matter if [the suspect] is black or white, young or old -- the gun is the equalizer.”
Still, the community in Hearne remains united in its calls to keep Stem off the force – and potentially charge him with a crime.
“I have not had anyone call supporting Officer Stem, nor have I seen it in the news media,” McCabe says. “I’m sure there are good, law-abiding citizens in the community who support him, but overall I think the town is not very supportive of the police department.”
The town’s skepticism about its police force is not unwarranted.
In 2000, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 15 African-American Hearne residents who were arrested on drug charges during 'drug sweeps' led by local and regional law enforcement agencies."
The ACLU argued that the arrests were made based on the “uncorroborated word of a single, unreliable confidential informant coerced by police to make cases.”
Hearne has a population of about 5,000 people, 44 percent of whom are African-American. In its suit, the ACLU made the point that by arresting the 15 men, the police department had arrested 15 percent of the city’s population of African-American males between the ages of 18 and 34.
In 2005, the ACLU settled the lawsuit with Robertson County. The settlement was confidential, but according to a media release by the ACLU, both sides were satisfied with the outcome.
Charges against each of the 15 plaintiffs were dropped and the district attorney who had indicted the men admitted that the witness who pointed the finger at the young men had tampered with evidence and failed a polygraph test.
The case shined a light on how drug sweeps like the one that netted the 15 young men in Hearne were targeting minorities.
"These federally funded drug task forces are on their way out," Will Harrell, Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas, said at the time of the settlement. "What happened in Hearne and in Tulia is happening all over Texas.”
Adding to the distrust of the police in Hearne – and Officer Stem, in particular – is the fact that he fatally shot an African-American man during a foot pursuit that started after shots were fired at an apartment complex.
When Stem responded to the call, witnesses identified the shooter as 28-year-old Tederalle Satchell.
Stem located Satchell and gave chase. According to McCabe, Stem watched Satchell – whose criminal history is extensive – reach for his waist during the pursuit, at which point Stem opened fire, killing Satchell.
Following the shooting, investigators found drugs and a weapon in Satchell’s possession. A grand jury investigated the shooting and ultimately cleared Stem of any wrongdoing.
In the shooting of Golden, critics of the Hearne City Council say Stem has been denied due process after the council went with its “knee-jerk reaction” to fire him without waiting for authorities to conduct a proper investigation.
Former Detective Richardson says the Hearne City Council’s knee-jerk actions puts law enforcement officials at risk.
“[Firing Stem] sends a very bad message to police officers,” he says. “It says that if they do their jobs – which is to protect the community – they could get fired if they offend the wrong people.
“What if he didn’t shoot her and she had shot her nephew? Or she shot [Officer Stem]? People would be saying he didn’t shoot her soon enough. No officer takes shooting someone lightly – it’s a difficult call for any officer, and a 93-year-old woman waiving a gun around isn’t a call I’d want to make. But the potential consequences of not taking the shot are too great to gamble. And when you gamble, people can die.”
McCabe says the investigation into the shooting is nearly complete and authorities are now awaiting the results of Golden’s autopsy. He expects a grand jury to hear the case next month, at which point Stem will either be charged with a crime or cleared of any wrongdoing.
As for his job, McCabe says he expects the City Council to reinstate Officer Stem and issue him an apology.
If Stem is given his job back, McCabe says he doesn’t know whether Stem would want to continue working in Hearne, where there continues to be a serious rift between law enforcement and the community it’s supposed to protect.