The Shooting of Jayland Walker Doesn’t Feed Any Narrative
On June 27, an unarmed man in Akron, Ohio, was shot by police more than 60 times. This case is worth studying because it is a textbook example in how facts matter and narratives can distort.
Most of the contemporaneous discussion around the shooting broke down into the predictable camps: conservatives defended the police; liberals saw it as another example of police brutality. But in reality, the shooting in Akron falls into a gray area where ideas about “public safety” and “deadly force” intersect in ways without obvious correct answers.
Start with the radio transcript and the video released by the city of Akron, of this case involving Jayland Walker, a 25-year-old African-American in the city. Keep your eyes on the time in the upper right-hand corner.
At 12:30:59 on June 27, early Sunday morning, police started what seemed like a routine traffic stop in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. The Akron PD hasn’t disclosed specifically why the traffic stop occurred, but it was categorized as a “39” by the police performing the stop, which could mean anything from a broken taillight to failure to use a turn signal.
Walker drove away as police pulled up behind him. That turned it into a “signal 5” situation, which means that a chase has begun and officers are in pursuit.
At 12:31:49—40 seconds or so into the pursuit—a gun is discharged out of the driver’s side window of Walker’s car (this is seen from freeway camera above). Walker is by himself in the car. And on the video showing this, audio from the police driving the chase care indicates he sees the gunfire. The officer reports over the car radio “shots fired,” and “that vehicle just had a shot come out of its door.”
The car chase continues for more than 5 minutes after the gunshot, hitting high speeds on a freeway, going through both downtown and residential streets at more than 50 mph. It ends at the Bridgestone tire company’s office complex near a large park. Walker rolls his car over a curb and onto a sidewalk due to police car road blockage. Wearing a ski mask, he exits the passenger door side. Officers yell at him to stop.
Two officers fire tasers at Walker and do not stop him (from only the video it cannot be determined if he was hit). A total of 13 officers are at the scene and form a half-circle around him. (The city has now released the body camera videos from all 13.)
Eight officers fire their guns at Walker about six seconds after he leaves his car. The number of shots fired has not been made public yet, but the medical examiner has indicated Walker had more than 60 bullet wounds on his body. (This number could be misleading if the medical examiner is counting both entrance and exit wounds.) The burst of shots on the police video lasts about seven seconds.
Already you can see: Nothing here is cut and dry.
The incident itself was already in a gray area concerning high-speed chases. What transpired in the 6 seconds or so after Walker exited his car makes it even murkier.
Akron Police Chief Steve Mylett said examination of the video of the time just prior to the shooting make Walker’s actions hard to distinguish, but examination of stills pulled from the videos showed Walker “going down to his waist area” and him turning toward an officer. Another “captures a forward motion of his arm” Mylett said at a press conference.
“Each officer independent of each other related that they felt that Mr. Walker had turned and was motioning and moving into a firing position,” Mylett said.
Some in Akron have called for their police department to be put under the U.S. Department of Justice protocol (called “consent decree”). Others have called for the officers involved in the shooting to be put arrested, as if this incident was roughly equivalent to the George Floyd case.
“He was outgunned, outmanned,” Akron NAACP President Judi Hill said. “There’s just no reason for any of this. They knew there was only one person in that vehicle . . . We have to change the narrative.”
The Rev. Ray Greene Jr., executive director of Freedom BLOC, an Akron political organization, put it this way: “They murdered him. Yeah, they murdered him. There’s no other way to put it. It was cold-blooded murder.” The same group sent Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan a letter claiming that he has “created a hostile relationship between the citizens and [the Akron Police Department], and there is no trust in this current department’s leadership under you.”
The Akron police union’s view is quite the opposite: “Officers reasonably believed that Mr. Walker presented an immediate threat of serious physical harm or death,” they said in their statement. “We believe the independent investigation will justify the officers’ actions, including the number of shots fired. The decision to deploy lethal force as well as the number of shots fired is consistent with use of force protocols and officers’ training.”
Everyone is a little bit right and a little bit wrong here.
For starters, even the decision of whether or not to pursue a fleeing suspect in this case is hazy.
Local reporting indicates that the police might have been following protocol. The city’s “Police Department’s Vehicle Pursuit Procedure,” updated in 2020, states that initiating a chase “must be based on the pursuing officer’s reasonable belief that the immediate danger to the officer and the public created by the pursuit is less than the immediate or potential danger to the public should the suspect remain at large.”
There are different ways to interpret that. And the U.S. Department of Justice added to the confusion in a memo issued last May saying that “Deadly force may not be used solely to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect.”
But there is one big question unanswered at this point: “Having that many officers firing at one person, that’s reckless and that endangers other people,” Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska, said in a recent interview about the case. “If the shooting is justified by the facts, you don’t need to fire 60, or 30, or even 20 shots.”
How are law enforcement officers supposed to balance these various considerations—do you chase a fleeing suspect in the moment, or let him or her go and then serve a warrant later? (The video has the vehicle’s plate number; not giving chase does not mean letting a suspect get away clean.) Where does danger to the officer and public from the chase outweigh danger to the public if the suspect is not immediately apprehended?
And what sort of reasonable standard would view officers who had just been shot at as acting irresponsibly in thinking that a suspect still in the process of fleeing might not still be armed?
It’s all hard stuff.
Sometimes the cops are obviously in the right. Sometimes they’re obviously in the wrong. And sometimes the right and the wrong are so twisted together as to not really exist independently.
The killing of Jayland Walker doesn’t feed anyone’s narrative. And admitting that is the first step toward being realistic about law enforcement and public safety.