When ‘Police Brutality’ Is Putting It Kindly
Chris Penley’s Fatal Bullies
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, May 1, 2006
On January 13, a 15-year-old boy called Chris Penley, an eighth-grader at an Orlando area middle school, took out what looked like a gun in class, threatened classmates, then ran through the school, threatening a teacher along the way. He ended up in a bathroom, isolated from the rest but within earshot of a negotiator and scoping distance of a sheriff’s sniper. Within an hour, the boy would be fatally shot. He died hours later. The gun was a fake. Penley’s father reportedly attempted to get into the school during the ordeal, and had told authorities that the gun couldn’t be real, but was kept outside. Reports in January described the incident as a rapid-fire sort of thing: a chase that ended with the boy in the bathroom, and a sheriff’s deputy going in and being faced with Penley pointing a gun at him. The split-second decision was to fire. In fact, events didn’t unfold that way.
The Orlando Sentinel on Sunday ran a long story detailing the sequence of events outside the bathroom where Penley was holed up. The stand-off lasted twenty minutes. Penley had no one in his scope except, apparently, the sharp-shooter, a Lt. Michael Weippert, a 16-year SWAT-team veteran (and the commander of his team). Students were in lockdown elsewhere and behind walls. Penley might have shot out a glass door and some windows. He could not have hit students or staff. Penley wouldn’t speak with the negotiator except to say his name. But the negotiator and Weippert were not in contact. Not even in very good visual contact: “From what I could tell,” Weippert is quoted as saying in the Sentinel, “he could see him,” meaning negotiator Kevin Brubaker could see Penley, though not really well. From what I could tell. Not quite the sort of slam-dunk on which you could base the kill of a 15-year-old child. But slam-dunks are not what they were.
Obviously we don’t know half the critical story, nor will we ever know, compliments of Weippert’s pink mist of a shot. What we have is Weippert’s report. Here’s how the Sentinel described it: “As he heard Brubaker tell Chris to ‘put the gun in the sink, come out and talk,’ Weippert got a glimpse of the boy. ‘He [Chris] was looking through the [gun] sights,’ Weippert said, ‘aiming directly at me.’ The gun, which turned out to be an air pistol that fires nonlethal pellets, looked real as Chris held it with both hands. ‘I mean, it looked like he had training and was holding the weapon like we would hold our weapon at target practice…,’ Weippert said. ‘He would slow, and he stopped looking at the negotiator and only looked in our direction. He knew who was pointing at him with a gun.’ What Weippert saw next was alarming. ‘I could see he was kind of getting that fixed stare, that idea: ‘I’ve got to do something now.’ He would never answer the negotiator, which worried me. I wasn’t going to let him [Chris] shoot us first.’”
So he took him out.
This, based on furtive glimpses, guesses, eyestrain (which Weippert himself referred to, from looking through his scope), and those shadows of assumptions avoidable tragedies are made of. At least the sheriff (Don Eslinger) acknowledged that “things could have been done differently.” Especially when even standoffs with prisoners are done differently.
The rank waste of a 15-year-old life aside, it’s the mentality of SWAT-team bravado, of school campuses as immediate garrisons the moment a situation escalates beyond the absolutely predictable, that should sicken anyone reading these accounts. How does an absolute last resort become nothing more critical than a preventive kill twenty minutes—twenty minutes!—into a stand-off with an obviously disturbed and distraught boy who’d already caged himself beyond harm to anyone, a boy whose father wasn’t even allowed to approach?
Here’s one answer. When Weippert describes how he got to the scene, these are the words he used: “. . . I went ahead and took the time to take off my uniform shirt and change out to my entry vest, choose . . . my rifle, the AR-15 [assault rifle], which has a scope, and deploy.” Change out to my entry vest, choose his rife, specify it, and deploy. These aren’t the words of a public safety officer who gives a goddamn about public safety. These are the words of a weaponry fetishist who can’t contain his excitement from using the stuff, from deploying. On a middle school campus. This is one of those “ape-shit guys who recognize the horror but know it is the very best moment of their lives” (to borrow Philip Roth’s words from another context). It’s bully-worship at its bloody worst, the irony being that Chris Penley had been a victim of bullying “for years,” according to an earlier Sentinel article. And we wonder why imbecilic fifteen year olds “deploy” and go on school rampages.
This is the controlling mentality, what inspires so much awe and respect and quickened heartbeats the moment SWATters and their splendid little arsenal “deploy” wherever they so fondly deploy. This is the sort of uniformed line of work that gets its starched and stern mercenaries invited to public functions to declaim about the importance of leadership and guidance and, of course, order, control, parameters (as long as we’re talking deployment). It’s the sort of boots that tread the grounds of middle school cafeterias as part of speaking engagements to these “youngsters” who need oh, so much guidance from just this sort of shielded authority these days. And the students won’t know that the scene they’re living, the speech they’re hearing, has it all in reverse: They might like to be spared the military machismo of law and order at scope’s point. But society as we’ve made it, in camouflage and dark shades, cocked and eager to aim, to get ‘er done, won’t let them. How many deputies, I wonder, uttered that phrase, let’s do it, that day, as if the stand-off was a paint-ball exercise? An exaggeration, to be sure. But not if you go by the day’s result. Nothing, except the cops’ murderous overreaction, was an exaggeration.
One of these days the likes of Weippert will be declaiming in a middle school auditorium, and Chris Penley, of course, won’t be there.