After Texas school shooting, many questions loom

By Danny Robbins

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

A sign prohibiting weapons on the Cummings Middle School campus has been written over with spray paint is shown on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012 in Brownsville, Texas. . The Brownsville police shot and killed 8th grade student, Jaime Gonzalez on Wednesday morning after they say he refused to lower what turned out to be a pellet gun that closely resembled a handgun. AP Photo, The Brownsville Herald, Brad Doherty)

The Associated Press

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — On a doorstep outside a family home, a father wondered why police had to shoot his son in the hall of the boy's middle school. In an office across town, a police chief insisted that his officers had no choice.

And scores of others in this Texas border city wondered: Could the death of 15-year-old Jaime Gonzalez have been prevented?

A day after police fatally shot an eighth-grader who was brandishing a realistic-looking pellet gun, his anguished parents pleaded for answers, demanding to know why police didn't try a Taser or beanbag gun before resorting to deadly force.

In front of the family home, the father lamented his loss and called on authorities to explain their actions.

"Why three shots? Why one in the back of the head?" asked Jaime Gonzalez Sr.

Some standoffs with police last three or four hours, he said. This one "took not even half an hour."

But there was broad agreement among law enforcement experts: If a suspect raises a weapon and refuses to put it down, officers are justified in taking his life. The shooting also raised questions about whether pellet guns should be marked in a way that would easily distinguish them from real handguns.

Brownsville interim Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez denied the family's accusations that the boy had been shot in the back of the head. He defended his officers, saying that the younger Gonzalez pointed the pellet gun at police and repeatedly defied their commands to put it on the floor.

Officers spoke with the boy's parents Thursday and exchanged information with them, the chief said.

Authorities also released a 911 recording from Cummings Middle School. The assistant principal on the phone first says there's a student in the hall with a gun, then reports that he is drawing the weapon and finally that he is running down the hall.

On the recording, police can be heard yelling: "Put the gun down! Put it on the floor!" In the background, someone else yells, "He's saying that he is willing to die."

Before police arrived, school administrators had urged Jaime to give up the gun. When officers got to the school, the boy was waiting for them, Rodriguez said.

Moments before he was killed, Jaime began to run down a hallway, but again faced officers. Police fired down the hallway — a distance that made a stun gun or other methods impractical, Rodriguez said.

If the situation had involved hostages or a gunman barricaded in a room, police might have tried negotiations. But instead, Rodriguez stressed, this was an armed student roaming the halls of a school.

The two officers who fired have been placed on administrative leave — standard procedure in police shootings. Rodriguez expected them back at work soon.

Under federal law, pellet or BB guns must be sold with an orange band around the tip of the barrel so they can be distinguished from real weapons. But law enforcement experts say users often remove the bands, and the coloring can sometimes be hard to see.

Gonzalez's gun had no markings, according to Rodriguez.

Cary Young, a program coordinator at Sam Houston State University's Law Enforcement Management Institute, said pellet guns are often painted black so the orange tip no longer shows up. An officer dealing with someone holding such a gun has no choice but to consider it a deadly weapon, he said.

"If a reasonable officer believes it's a deadly weapon, he has the right to protect himself and others," said Young, a police officer in Texas for 20 years.

California considered legislation last year that would have made the state the first to require that BB and pellet guns to be made entirely with bright colors, but lawmakers did not approve the measure.

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