Aiyana Stanley-Jones was 7 years old when she was killed by a single bullet to the head. As officer Joseph Weekley walks free, another community is demanding answers about the increasing militarisation of law enforcement
Final charges against Joseph Weekley, a police officer who shot dead a 7-year-old girl, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, in Detroit in May 2010, were dismissed on Friday, leaving a family bereft and raising serious concern among national groups over an increasingly militarized –police force.
In an echo of deaths at police hands that rocked the US last year, including those of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York, Officer Weekley is white and Aiyana Stanley-Jones was black.
Juries twice failed to reach a verdict in Weekley’s case, first in June 2013 and then in October 2014. In October, judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway dismissed a charge of involuntary manslaughter, citing a lack of evidence.
On Friday, Hathaway dismissed a lesser second charge, of reckless use of a firearm. The dismissal was at the request of Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy, who called the decision, which by law cannot be appealed, “unfortunate”.
“Weekley doesn’t have to pay but the family that lost a child has to pay,” said Ron Scott, a spokesman for the family, shortly after attending the dismissal hearing. “I think it’s abominable. I think it’s evil. I think it’s one of the lowest things I have ever seen.”
Scott said a civil suit had been filed and an appeal made to US attorney general Eric Holder to pursue a case for the violation of Aiyana’s civil rights.
On 16 May 2010, Aiyana was shot dead by Weekley in the middle of the night, as she slept on a sofa inside her home on the east side of Detroit. Her grandmother, Mertilla Jones, was close by.
The home was the target of a midnight Swat-style operation designed to arrest her uncle – who was living in the apartment upstairs and was the main suspect in the murder of a teenager a couple of days before. Weekley was the first officer to enter the home, seconds after a flashbang grenade – a war device created by the British SAS in the 1960s to disorient with a blinding flash and a temporarily deafening noise – was lobbed into it.
Outside, a television reality television crew filmed the events for A&E.
Seconds after entering the house, where the grenade had caused Aiyana’s blanket to catch fire, Weekley fired one fatal shot. It went straight through the child’s head. Weekley said it was an accident and accused Jones of wrestling with his gun immediately as he entered the abode, causing the fatal shot.
Jones was arrested, and though she was quickly released it was not before she and two other family members – Aiyana’s parents – had been forced to sit in their child’s blood for hours, Scott said.
In the witness box in September, Jones said: “I’m laying there screaming, asking someone to help my granddaughter because he shot her in the head. And he wouldn’t even help her. They turned on the lights and saw that she had been shot.”
Jones broke down during testimony and had to be escorted out amid sobbing after addressing Weekley – who was also in the courtroom – directly.
“She was only a baby, man. She was sleeping and I told you all ‘Let me get my granddaughter’, and you didn’t give me a chance. Why you do this to me?
“I get no sleep. I am sick. I am sick as hell. I get no sleep. The flashbacks. I wouldn’t wish this on nobody in the world. Not even you.”
‘War Comes Home’
For community members and advocates, the bigger question is why a Swat team was deployed in the first place.
Based on the findings from a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in June 2014 and entitled “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing”, which looked at thousands of documents from police departments across the country, Ezekiel Edwards, the director of the ACLU’s criminal law reform project, says needlessly deploying Swat teams is part of a trend among nationwide police forces which “increasingly [see] themselves as military tactical units”.
Instead of being protected, communities are treated like the enemy, the report found – with a disproportionate effect on communities of color.
Impoverished communities such as Detroit – which is almost 83% black and has a poverty rate of 39% – have been on the receiving end of a decades-long war on drugs, which has made the US the country with the largest number of people behind bars, ahead of China and Russia.
Specifically, since 1997 a “1033 program” has enabled the transferring of billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment from the Department of Defense – including mine-resistant protected vehicles originally developed by the South African defence force – to thousands of small American communities.
This has helped reinforce a culture shift within police departments.
The ACLU report found that only 7% of Swat raids were in hostage or active shooter situations – situations that justify such extreme responses – and 79% were effectuating search warrants, situations that do not call for Swat interventions.
“The problem once the police start amassing these kinds of weapons and tools and absorb a certain mentality, is it just increases the probability that they are going to deploy it even when not warranted,” Edwards says.
“If you’re a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”
In the case of the night Aiyana was killed, many feel the situation did not call for a military-style bust at midnight. Chauncey Owens, the uncle wanted on murder charges, was said to be going in and out of the house as normal and could have been apprehended during the day. The presence of children in the house was known.
There is speculation that the attending television crew may have increased the incentive for a glamorised, military-style operation.
Dante Barry, a 26-year-old organizer and executive director of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, said the outcome of the case was “disappointing but not surprising”.
Barry, who has been active in demonstrations against police violence and whose organization has mounted a formal campaign to demilitarize the police, said there were two separate justice systems in the US.
“When we look at accountability and an institution that was not designed for black people and that was not designed in the interest of black people,” he says, “how do you find justice in an already unjust system?”
Barry, who said he had been gassed and maced and had guns pointed at him while attending demonstrations, including in Ferguson, Missouri, said the militarization of police was part of a long history and heritage of crackdown on communities of color in America, including the post-9/11 crackdown on Muslim and Arab communities.
“This is not about policing,” he said. “It’s about state-sanctioned violence.”