A Los Angeles County police department is facing intense criticism this week after a video surfaced on social media of two officers fatally shooting a double amputee moving away from them.
The short video showed the 36-year-old Black man, Anthony Lowe Jr., missing the bottom halves of both legs, holding a knife but leaving his wheelchair and shuffling away from the officers.
Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia University law professor who is an expert on policing, told Yahoo News in an email that the details of the case call into question whether the use of lethal force was warranted.
“It's hard to imagine that the police couldn’t disarm a man in a wheelchair with either a Taser or some other less lethal force,” Fagan said. “Police often observe a ‘20-foot rule’ as the zone around a suspect when they are free from danger, and that they are in danger within that zone. ... I think most reasonable people would have thought the police had overstated the threat and were using an unreasonable level of force.”
According to police, the Huntington Park, Calif., officers responded to a stabbing incident last Thursday afternoon in which the victim suffered a collapsed lung and internal bleeding. The victim claimed that a suspect matching Lowe’s description stabbed him and fled in his wheelchair.
The responding officers said they identified Lowe as the suspect and attempted to apprehend him. The police statement said they tased Lowe twice after he resisted detainment, “but the deployment of the Taser was ineffective.”
The two officers eventually fired about 10 rounds at Lowe, according to the Huntington Park Police Department’s Lt. Hugo Reynaga, who told the Los Angeles Times that the incident was under investigation.
Lowe’s family doesn’t accept the police explanation and they are pushing for the officers to be charged in his death. Lowe’s sister Yatoya Toy told the Times that his legs were amputated “after an altercation with law enforcement in Texas, and that the family also has questions about that incident.”
“Something is not right with this situation,” another sister, Tatiana Jackson, told the paper about Lowe, a father of two. “My daughter is 4, and she adores him. It’s going to break my heart to let her know.”
“They murdered my son, in a wheelchair with no legs,” Lowe’s mother, Dorothy Lowe, said Monday at a press conference. “They do need to do something about it.”
The department did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Yahoo News, but in an official statement said that authorities “recognize the impact on the community and the families” that the shooting may have caused and ensure a “comprehensive investigation” with transparency and integrity.
But critics are skeptical of the police account, particularly after other high-profile incidents in which police killed other Black men and exaggerated the threat posed by them. Last Friday, the city of Memphis released a shocking video of police officers fatally beating 29-year-old Black man Tyre Nichols. The police report had said Nichols tried to fight with officers, but the video showed him complying with their requests and growing increasingly limp as the physical abuse continued.
In the Huntington Park shooting, the police statement said Lowe twice tried to throw the knife at officers. But Reynaga told the Times that Lowe “did not throw the knife ultimately, but he made the motion multiple times over his head like he was going to throw the knife.”
Local activists feel the inconsistency is part of an attempt to make Lowe seem like a bigger threat to the officers than he was.
“Anthony was brutally executed by Huntington Park police officers last Thursday in an attack that was vicious and cowardly,” Cliff Smith, an organizer with the Coalition for Community Control Over the Police, said at Monday’s press conference, adding that community members don’t have confidence in the investigation. “Anthony has a strong family, and we’re here to stand with his family to fight for justice.”
The brief cellphone footage of the police chasing Lowe does not capture the shooting, and details about the incident are scarce. Reynaga said the names of the officers would be released in the coming days. He said Huntington Park officers don’t wear body cameras.
“The video is only one piece of the investigative process,” Keith Taylor, a 23-year NYPD veteran and adjunct professor at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Yahoo News.
Taylor noted that questions about where Lowe was running and who else he could have been running towards remain unanswered.
“If officers are using lethal force, in their minds, they have to believe that they or someone else is in imminent danger of serious physical injury or death,” he said. “That’s standard throughout the country. The investigation has to look at videos, witnesses and officers, themselves, as to why their thought process had to use that level of force to stop the individual with a knife.”
The nonprofit Mapping Police Violence released a report this week that found police killed 1,192 people in 2022, more than any year in the past decade. The report also claimed that many of these killings could have been avoided by changing law enforcement’s approach to such encounters, such as sending mental health providers to certain 911 calls.
Cover thumbnail photos: Screengrab of video on Twitter/MikeSington