On March 1, 2017, Jose Isabel Rodriguez, Jr. was on the ground, on his back, desperately holding onto the blade of a knife with his bare hand. He already had a laceration under his eye and had been cut or stabbed in his stomach, and thought that he was going to die. Epthen Lamont Johnson was on top of Rodriguez, trying to drive the knife into his victim’s throat, when Lufkin Police officer Robert Blake Witherspoon arrived and shot Johnson in order to save Rodriguez’s life. The Lufkin Police have released both the officer’s body cam and dash cam videos.
Let’s look at what happened. This is about as clear cut as it’s going to get. You have an officer responding to a stabbing in progress call, he issues several verbal commands and moves to where he can see Johnson trying to stab Rodriguez with a knife, he fires three shots, assesses the suspect, then fires a fourth shot when it was apparent that the first three did not stop the attack.* Subsequently Johnson died at the hospital.
At Lufkin PD, their policy is to have the Texas Rangers investigate officer-involved shootings to determine if the officer should be criminally charged or not. This is what should happen, and the Rangers don’t hesitate to recommend prosecution of an officer or deputy if it is warranted. Next, the department put Witherspoon on paid leave for a week, and they reevaluate it at the end of that period. Both of these actions are perfect.
Next, and this is really impressive, the department reviewed the video footage with the mayor, city council, and three department chaplains. It’s the last part that is really interesting, and is a best practice, in my opinion. You see, Lufkin has set up a Clergy and Police Alliance (CAPA) to help with transparency and in communicating with the public.
Here, you have a white officer killing a black man, a situation rife for controversy and protests. So it helps when, within a week of the shooting, you have the CAPA president, M.E. Lyons, the pastor of the Missionary Baptist Church in Lufkin and a well-regarded leader of the black community in to view the tape. Lyons and other CAPA member then issued a statement that the shooting appeared to be justified.
Other departments should look at how Lufkin handled this, and they should emulate it.
*Toxicology reports indicate that Johnson had PCP in his system. With PCP, it is not surprising that the first shots did not have an effect, PCP has a street name of horse tranquilizer.