ACLU: Hyattsville police shooting part of troubling pattern

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Michael Theis/Route 1 Reporter

A Hyattsville City Police Department vehicle sits outside of Hyattsville City Hall.

By Amelia Jarecke

The fatal police shooting of Leonard Shand in Hyattsville was the most recent case of what an American Civil Liberties Union legal associate says is an ongoing failure by Maryland police departments to de-escalate situations with people who may have mental health issues.  

Shand, a 49-year-old African American Prince George’s County man, was shot by 10 officers after police officials said he lunged with two knives at police as they attempted to distract Shand with a flash-bang grenade and disable him with beanbag shotgun rounds. The incident occurred after a 30-minute walking standoff during which police said they unsuccessfully tried to taze Shand three times.

“I want people to understand this is this is definitely a much larger issue in Maryland. We’ve been examining these kind of police deaths,” said Jay Jimenez, a Legal Program Associate for the ACLU of Maryland,What we’ve seen is that most of these police deaths in Maryland, especially involving people of color with disabilities could could have been avoided.”

According to Jimenez, preventing these deaths requires a reevaluation of the validity of current police de-escalation training and the use of less-than-lethal tools, such as tazers, pepper spray and beanbag shotguns. 

“I’ll just be clear: The use of tasers, OC sprays, flashbang grenades, or other methods of less-than-lethal force are not the same as de-escalation,” said Jimenez. “Based on the video footage that we’ve seen, this actually had the opposite effect in the shooting of Leonard Shand.”

At a community meeting held to discuss Shand’s death with Hyattsville Police Chief Amal Awad last week at  University Christian Church, numerous attendees questioned the police approach toward Strand on the day of his death. 

Awad told the crowd her officers are trained in a research-based de-escalation program that aims at identifying people in distress called Integrating Communications, Assessments and Tactics.  

“It’s a scenario-based, reality-based training to help officers engage in the attempt of de-escalation, where you’re trying to slow things down, create time and distance and talk through whatever the issue is,” Awad said. “That did occur on the scene. The video shows it clearly, that the officers attempted to get Mr. Shand to drop his knives on many occasions. And on many occasions, they were met with resistance.”

Police said during the incident Shand declared “I embrace death.” Awad said at the meeting that in the police videos Shand can also be heard saying, “If I die, I will die here today.”

Jimenez said that these statements are just further evidence of a mishandling of a situation with someone who was suffering with a mental health issue.

“To me, that just says that he might be suicidal. And if there’s a suicidal person, then there has to be a mental health professional on site,” he said. “And that’s what we hope for in the future, instead of just having police officers pointing a gun at a potentially suicidal person.”

Awad, during the community meeting, said that the police have also been trained in mental health awareness, and that bringing a civilian mental health professional into the situation was not an option because such individuals would lack the training to defend themselves if the situation escalated.

Jimenez said incidents like these are not isolated. He noted Maryland police agencies have shot and killed multiple people in recent years under questionable circumstances. 

He listed the deaths that the ACLU is taking into account: Abraham Arellano, Emanuel Oates and Robert White. 

Arellano, 26, was shot and killed by a sheriff in Frederick County in March after officers described seeing Arellano apparently holding a handgun and refusing commands to drop it. Deputies encountered Arellano while responding to reports of an armed and potentially suicidal person breaking into a house. According to the sheriff’s office, officers later determined no one was inside the house, and that Arellano was the caller who reported the breaking and entering.

Oates, 24, was shot in Baltimore County in February after an altercation in which he pulled out a machete and tried to attack responding officers. Police said he ran into an Aldi store and then charged at them with the weapon before they shot him several times.

White, 41, was shot and killed in June of 2018 in Montgomery County after White punched an officer. The Montgomery County Police Department found that the officer was justified in firing his weapon.

“It’s not normal to expect death in these situations involving police and people of color with mental health disabilities,” Jimenez said. “We don’t have to accept this as a norm.” 

Jimenez did not say if the ACLU plans to take legal action in the case of Shand’s death. He said that right now, the ACLU’s main priority is to pressure the police departments to be transparent in their investigation of the shooting, and especially so with Shand’s family.

Route 1 Reporter is a subscriber-supported local news website. However, in the service of the public discourse, coverage relating to Leonard Shand’s death is being kept outside of the paywall.

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