Security camera footage released Wednesday show 22-year-old Darrien Hunt running from police, just before two white officers shot and killed him in Saratoga Springs, Utah on Sept. 10. Hunt, who has a black father and white mother, was carrying a decorative “samurai-style” sword when he attracted attention in this overwhelmingly white community located a 30-minute drive outside of Salt Lake City. The local police department conducted an investigation into the shooting of Hunt, who was black. The Utah County attorney concluded that Hunt’s death was justified and declined to prosecute. Hunt’s family believes otherwise, pointing to a private autopsy that found he was shot from behind four times, including once in the center of his back.
In response to increasing media attention to Hunt’s death, the Saratoga Springs police department released the footage from a series of surveillance cameras that captured slices of the episode, from the first sighting of Hunt casually walking past with the samurai-style sword to the final chase.
"You can tell that this young man is running for his life, and he’s being fired at by a cop, and there’s no apparent reason for it," said attorney Robert Sykes, who is representing the Hunt family.
The department claims that the tapes vindicate the officers’ story of Hunt’s aggressive attack. (Neither of the officers have been formally interviewed about the incident yet, a delay that Hunt’s attorney has described as “almost incomprehensible.")
None of the tapes, however, shows the first interaction between Hunt, Corporal Matthew Schauerhamer and Officer Nicholas Judson during which he allegedly brandish the sword directly at them. Nor does the footage show the final shots being fired. You can the newly released videos here (warning: disturbing content).
Both Schauerhamer and Judson have since been reinstated.
The story is becoming achingly familiar: a white officer responds to a black youth with deadly force and avoids criminal consequences by claiming self-defense, but the evidence become murky and politicized. What we do know is that a young black man is 21 times more likely to be killed on American streets than a young white man, according to a report from Pro Publica. And, as Hunt’s death demonstrates, those risks persist in communities with varying demographic profiles.
After all, as the local police department has been quick to point out, Saratoga Springs is not Ferguson. Unlike the small suburb outside of St. Louis, this 22,000-strong community does not have a record of police brutality against minorities or the political marginalization of people of color. (Arguably, because Saratoga Springs is 95 percent white.)
Utah, however, does have a rampant problem with police shootings. According to a report from The Salt Lake Tribune, police officers have been responsible for more homicides than drug violence or gangs between 2010 and October 2014. In fact, only domestic abuse was responsible for more homicide deaths in that four-year window. But with one exception, prosecutors followed the Utah County attorney’s example and declined to seek indictments against the officers responsible. (In the one instance that the county attorney did prosecute, those charges were dropped a month later.)
Even in communities that do not have palpable and longstanding racial divides, it is hard to ignore how race continues to intervene in how white officers and everyday bystanders respond to young black men. As Hunt’s mother pointed out, would the officers have shot a young white man who was holding a decorative sword? And the other looming question: would these officers even have been involved in the first place if Hunt had been a young white man walking by a gas station with a samurai-style sword? Would a passerby have called the police in the first place?
Susan Hunt, Darrien’s mother, doesn’t think so.
They killed my son because he’s black. No white boy with a little sword would they shoot while he’s running away, Hunt said to The Deseret News.
While proving that officers acted on the basis of race is no simple matter, the evidence in Hunt’s case — the gunshot wounds from behind and this new footage of him sprinting away from pursuing police officers — make Susan Hunt’s fears understandable. They are the fears of mother and fathers in communities of color across the United States, from sleepy hamlets like Saratoga Springs to marginalized suburbs like Ferguson to sprawling metropolises like New York.
Regardless of whether or not these two officers’ decision to use deadly force against Hunt was racially motivated, the racial cast to this episode is unavoidable. Hunt’s death is only one among too many deaths of young black men at the hands of police officers or white lay people empowered to defend themselves and their communities with little accountability. The existential question that youth of color face every day is a damning one: which streets can I walk on without fear?
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