In July 2012, police officers in Saginaw, Michigan, shot dead a mentally ill man in what could be described as an execution by firing squad and the incident was captured on video. The firing squad analogy was actually used by the murdered man’s mother, Jewel Hall, when she was interviewed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The killing was “an assassination” by a “firing squad dressed in uniforms,” as she put it.
Both the county prosecutor and the United States Department of Justice (DoJ) have declined to bring any charges against the officers involved. The DoJ cited a failure to find “sufficient evidence of willful misconduct” on the part of the six police officers involved. The ACLU, along with Jewel Hall, claim that eight officers were involved in the shooting. It is unclear how many opened fire upon Milton Hall that day in July, 2012, but an act of such extreme cowardice and overreaction by police may never previously have been witnessed. Additionally, the officers allegedly fired a total of 46 rounds from their handguns and hit Hall – who was barely moving and just feet away – only 14 times. One wonders if Saginaw police officers should even be trusted to correctly handle firearms.
By any reasonable measure, the way in which the police officers involved concluded their confrontation with this homeless and mentally disabled man who was wielding nothing more than a penknife was, at best, grossly inappropriate and, at worst, blatant and premeditated execution. That the eight officers present decided they were unable to neutralize what little threat Milton Hall posed them in any other way than cut him down in a hail of gunfire betrays a lack of training, a lack of patience and a lack of courage. It may also betray a willful intent to kill Hall – perhaps, just for the fun of it.
The shooting followed an apparent altercation between Hall and a clerk at a nearby store. When police arrived, Hall began to argue with them and a stand-off ensued; Hall held a penknife as he was surrounded by the police officers with guns drawn. In the video, a link to which can be found at the foot of this article, Hall is almost completely motionless for most of the encounter. At one point, he appears to move toward one of the officers and, at that moment, six – or possibly more – officers open fire, whilst themselves backing away. Although most of the rounds fired completely missed their intended target, Hall goes down and the officers close in on him; one of them making a very awkward attempt to handcuff his bullet-ridden body.
Hall had been a community worker who spoke out for equality and human rights. During her interview with the ACLU, his mother said of him “He always would say everybody has equal rights. That was one of his songs that he sang all the time. So he exposed violations and campaigned for redress for people that he thought were victims.” Police maintain that Hall had a criminal record, but his family say that his previous crimes had been “minor” and “non-violent.”
Police officers – and, indeed, civilians – are justified in using deadly force when in reasonable fear for their lives or in fear of sustaining grievous bodily harm. This is the general principle that governs use of force laws across the United States. When George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, he was in reasonable fear for his life. When police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August, he may have been in reasonable fear for his life; Brown was a large and strong individual who had just committed a robbery and he had already physically assaulted the officer. It does not appear to have been determined, with certainty, if he was advancing towards Wilson when he was killed. If he was, then the killing was justified; Wilson being in reasonable fear for his life. In the case of the Milton Hall shooting, however, eight police officers, confronting one man armed with only a penknife, could not possibly have been in reasonable fear for their lives, or even in fear of sustaining serious physical injury – if any of them were, then they had no business being police officers.
The video, which can be viewed by following any of the links below, is somewhat grainy but also graphic, in that it shows the police officers opening fire and killing Milton Hall. That a man can be so ruthlessly gunned down, in a manner resembling an execution, by police officers sworn “to serve and protect,” with no criminal charges being brought, speaks to the failure of the state of Michigan, the failure of the US Department of Justice and does not bode well for the survival of freedom in this country.
Opinion by Graham J Noble