By Andrew Cameron Williams


    Christopher Penley did not have to die.


    Granted, it would have been difficult for  Seminole County police to know that the gun he was holding was a pellet gun and not a Beretta 9mm handgun. The differences in appearance between the two are apparently minimal and Penley had allegedly taken pains to further minimize those differences so that in a crisis, no one--not even the most well-trained officer--could quickly tell which was which.


    Equally granted, Penley--a 15 year old student at Milwee Middle School outside of Orlando, Florida--had reportedly threatened several students and was allegedly taking aim at a Seminole County sheriffıs deputy when he was shot and killed. An officer has the right to resort to lethal force if that officer feels his/her life is in danger.


    Even so, Christopher Penley did not have to die.


    This is one of the dirty little secrets that only those who study police reports know: Police officers are rarely, if ever, trained in non-lethal use of weapons. Invariably, an officer is trained to aim for the head or heart if s/he is in immediate danger.


    The obvious question is why? If you want to bring a suspect in (and that is the primary aim of police activity) so that s/he may be questioned and a cause found for his/her actions, then why not fire a non-lethal shot that will incapacitate the suspect? There are many ways to do this: tranquilizer darts, aiming at the legs or torso, the use of rubber ³knock-down² bullets.  Granted, people have been killed by rubber bullets, but only at extremely close range.


    About thirty years ago, Gene Roddenberry--the creator of Star Trek and a former police officer, as well as the son of a police officer--created an outline for a TV series about an elite squad of peace officers. In his outline, he pointed out that (at that time--1973) officers were using the same tools as their predecessors--the same type of gun, the same type of radio. Why not, he argued, give them the latest technological advances, including non-lethal weapons such as tranquilizer guns?


    Christopher Penley may go down in the books as the latest case of ³suicide by cop.² He had reportedly had suicidal feelings and had been bullied by other students. Several of his friends apparently told investigators that he had gone to school that day expecting to die. So, it seems likely that his reason for aiming at the deputy was so that the deputy would take him down. Which only makes this case more tragic.


    Ever since Columbine, people have been searching for answers as to why teenagers engage in gun violence. The reasons are many: bullying, suicidal ideation and violence that can be linked to certain antidepressants (many of the school shooters of the past 7 years were taking SSRIıs such as Prozac, Luvox and Zoloft, which have been shown at times to cause suicidal thoughts and outbreaks of physical violence) and the considerable pressures of being an adolescent.


    Given all that information, an assessment could have been made of Penleyıs mental condition arguing for the use of non-lethal force. But it seems that all these cops knew--or were told--was that a kid was threatening his classmates with what appeared to be a 9mm handgun. Fully loaded, a Beretta 9mm can fire--depending on the model--between 12 and 17 rounds.


    So the threat assessment was made, and Penley was taken down.


    But if time had been taken, and the officers involved had been trained in non-lethal use of force--which they may or may not have been--Christopher Penley need not have died. And grieving students and parents would not be left bereft of answers. That is the real crime.


Copyright 2006 by Andrew Cameron Williams. Free to forward with attributions.