by Jay Monaco
Tragedy struck home in Lowell last Saturday night as Jose Perez, 39-year-old father of three, recently engaged to be married, was killed from multiple gunshot wounds inflicted by two Lowell police officers. According to the Lowell Sun, the victim was holding both a large meat cleaver and a knife at the time he was killed – but does this alone mean that he had to die that night?
The Sun reports that police received a 911 call shortly before 11 pm from a woman regarding a man with a knife threatening to kill everyone. This complaint appears to have been supported by Perez himself, who apparently also called 911 shortly thereafter – on himself – asking for the police to come because he was going to kill everyone. According to the statement provided by the police department, when the officers arrived, Perez refused orders to put down the weapons, and was shot multiple times. Attempts to resuscitate him failed.
The article cited above goes on to provide several accounts of Jose’s good nature, suggesting explicitly that this outburst was out of character. He is described as sweet, loving, caring, “like a teddy bear,” a peaceful man who was an extremely proud father. This testimony should serve to inform our understanding of Jose Perez as a formerly breathing human being, to ensure we see him in full and not as a caricature, a news story, or a statistic. But it really shouldn’t matter, at times like these, whether the victim is a beloved saint who spends their free time picking up litter in the parks or a troubled and friendless former convict. A person was killed, shot to death by law enforcement – ostensibly our law enforcement – a life was ended at the hands of those supposedly acting in the name of our public safety. That in and of itself requires our grief, our scrutiny, and our willingness to stand up and speak out about how it is that we want our city to be run.
With the information currently available to us, it is difficult to know for sure what exactly happened that night. We do know that Perez, despite his threats, did not actually cause anyone else harm, and we know that he went so far as to call the police on himself, presumably recognizing that he was out of control and still wished to avoid causing anyone else harm. But the fact that we do not know the precise circumstances of the moments just prior to the deployment of lethal force is not fate, chance, or an accident; in fact, there’s a very specific reason we don’t know. The final paragraph of the Sun piece, tacked on almost as an afterthought, contains the significant detail:
“[The shooting comes] as Lowell police continue to negotiate with the patrolmen’s union to deploy a small number of body cameras on officers. The department received several free cameras last year from the Taser company to use on a trial basis, but they have not been deployed pending negotiations.”
For context, note that this proposed camera trial was first reported last August. Since mid-autumn, Lowell-based Community Advocates for Justice and Equality (CAJE), along with we here at CNE, have been calling for transparency, public input, and immediate implementation of a body camera program far broader than any temporary trial. Hundreds of Lowell residents signed our petition, and in January, CAJE hosted an independent public forum to discuss the topic. Though many citizens came out to share their views, to ask questions about what is possible, and to hear CAJE-supported proposals for comprehensive democratic control over local law enforcement – within which the implementation of body cameras would only be a single preliminary step – but both the city council and police department declined our invitations to participate in this process.
To date, they have not responded to the concerns outlined in the petition, nor have any plans been announced to hold a public discussion on the issues. Even in the telling paragraph above, vague “negotiations” are cited without detail, which seems to suggest the police union is likely seeking to neuter any public benefit received from body cameras. It should be clear, at this point, that too much time has been wasted already. If a program for police accountability had already been implemented in the city – cameras on all on-duty officers who are only permitted to pause recording under very limited conditions and footage from which is handled by a neutral third party on behalf of the public – the worst case scenario is that we’d already know what happened in the moments before Jose Perez died.
The best case scenario is that he might still be alive.
In a follow-up Sun piece published today, Perez’ family questions the necessity of lethal force in this case. The article does not mince words:
“So now Perez’s family is wondering if one fewer gunshot by police may have saved his life on Saturday night. Wondering if another enforcement measure other than lethal force could have been used to have kept him alive.”
Indeed. And while the article chooses to focus on the availability of non-lethal alternatives – specifically, the fact that the LPD does not utilize TASERs, though it has plans to do so – the question could easily be raised regarding body cameras and other forms of democratic accountability. Would an officer aware that he was being filmed be more hesitant to pull the trigger? Perhaps.
Then again, perhaps not – there are, after all, plenty of examples nationwide of brutal and unnecessary fatal shootings blatantly conducted on camera. The body cams themselves will never be enough. What about the fact that Perez had himself called 911 asking for assistance? In such a circumstance, shouldn’t some form of negotiation be deployed rather than arriving on scene and pretty much immediately opening fire? Naturally, police sources say no. “[One source] said the officers conducted themselves ‘by the book.'”
And maybe that’s so. But maybe we citizens ought to have some means by which to revise the text in that book, so we can maybe keep more of our friends and neighbors and loved ones live. We don’t have those means today, and we must fight for them.
It should come as no surprise that LPD sources are calling the shooting legitimate and stating that the officers involved followed procedure. Perhaps this is, in fact, the case. No claims appear to have been made suggesting that Perez was unarmed or that some type of dangerous situation was not unfolding at the Cambridge Street home. All that being said, what remains unchanged is the fact that a person was killed at the hands of the state. Employees of the City of Lowell ended the life of a citizen of the City of Lowell. As his fellow citizens, we owe the deceased our mourning and regret, for we must always mourn and regret the death of one of our sisters and brothers by the hand of “our” law enforcement. Three children lost a father; his fiancee lost her betrothed. The city’s population has suddenly decreased by one; Jose’s other surviving family, his friends, his coworkers, they will never see him again.
It is incumbent on us, if absolutely nothing else, to take a moment and recognize that.
This mustn’t end here.
Rest in peace, Jose Perez. Your family loved you and your fellow citizens mourn your death.