When Martin County Police arrived Monday to find 19-year-old Austin Harrouff standing over the bodies of two bleeding victims while violently biting one man's face, police first fired stun guns. When those didn't work, cops unleashed a dog. When that didn't work, three officers pulled Harrouff off the man and took him to jail — alive.
Some activists are drawing a stark contrast between that approach and those employed in other recent police actions in South Florida. Take, for instance, the July incident when North Miami cops sent a SWAT team with military-style assault rifles to surround unarmed African-American behavior therapist Charles Kinsey, who was trying to help an autistic man "armed" with a toy car. Police shot Kinsey in the leg, although video showed him lying on the ground with his hands up.
Critics say Harrouff's treatment highlights the vast disparity between how whites and blacks are treated by police. After all, Florida cops were able to take calm, measured steps to subdue a white, possibly drug-addled cannibal armed with a knife and no shirt, but somehow felt it was necessary to shoot Kinsey — who was cooperating and unarmed — from afar.
"This is a conversation we're having very, very often," Black Lives Matter activist Jasmen Rogers says. She helped organize protests after the Kinsey shooting. "When white people are far more violent, and far more erratic, they're often brought in alive and apprehended using less lethal means."
There's data to back up those feelings of disparity. A November 2015 study in the journal Plos One said unarmed black Miami-Dade County residents were 22 times more likely to be shot by police than unarmed white ones.
On Twitter and Facebook, hundreds of commenters have asked how Harrouff avoided being shot during his brutally violent attack.
So why did cops holster their guns in the Harrouff case? Details from the attack are still being confirmed, but this much is clear: Harrouff attacked the victims — Michelle Mishcon Steven and John Stevens — without warning in their garage, stabbing both multiple times and then stabbing a neighbor who tried to help them. When cops got to the scene, Harrouff was howling like an animal and biting John Stevens' face.
The Miami Herald reports that deputies, who apparently got close enough to Harrouff to grab him, were "unable to fire their guns for fear of striking Stevens."
But that reasoning often seems missing in cases where unarmed black people are shot, activists say. In the Charles Kinsey case, for instance, the police union claimed the officer was trying to save the unarmed man by shooting the autistic man — but missed and hit Kinsey.
"There are a lot of questions as to why it seems people of color are shot and killed quicker than other folks," Rogers says. "There's more deescalation, more negotiation, more tactics used when it comes to white people."
That's not to say police were incorrect in using less-than-lethal force on Harrouff, Rogers says. But it raises the question of why such an approach isn't seen in more cases — even with obviously violent suspects such as Harrouff.
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"You use other, less lethal ways to subdue a person before you get to the point when you’re shooting people," Rogers says. "Some folks would say that's the way policing should be done. But people of color who are unarmed, and not engaging in violent behavior, are getting shot at anyway."
Because this isn't Florida's first face-eating case, it's natural to compare the two. In 2012, 31-year-old former football player Rudy Eugene — who was black — was found biting chunks from the face of a homeless man near the MacArthur Causeway. Eugene was naked, and apparently unarmed, which made him objectively less dangerous than the knife-wielding Harrouff.
But when Eugene refused to move away from the homeless man, later identified as Ronald Poppo, there were no Tasers, no police dogs, and no teams of cops ready to ensure everyone survived the affair.
As Gawker reported at the time: "Officers attempted to force Eugene off his victim with gunfire." He was killed on the scene.