A Righteous Shoot Of 107-Year-Old Monroe Isadore
July 8, 2016 (Fault Lines) – On Sept. 7, 2013, the police shot Monroe Isadore in the face.
Isadore was the oldest resident of Pine Bluff, a little town of about 50,000 people in southeast Arkansas. He was a retired gardener, a model citizen. He was also partially deaf and functionally blind. It seems everyone knew him: after his death, the mayor and half the city’s aldermen expressed shock at his shooting. How did such a man end up dead at the hands of the cops? Why did his family’s federal § 1983 lawsuit fail? And why were none of the officers involved ever punished?
The answer is pretty simple. However stupid the cops’ conduct was, the killing itself was justified.
On the day of his death, Monroe was scheduled to move to a retirement community. He’d been paying $100 a month for a room at Pauline Lewis’ home, but a mutual friend, Laurie Barlow, talked him into moving to a place where he could get round-the-clock care.
But Monroe’s friends hadn’t counted on his family. On the morning of September 7th, Isadore got a call from his granddaughter. She objected, strongly, to the move, then called up her mother, Marilyn Monroe Howard. Howard and her sister, Paula Aguilar, drove to Pine Bluff to check up on Isadore.
When they arrived at Lewis’ house, Lewis told Howard and Aguilar that their father was in his room. They knocked on Isadore’s door, but he didn’t respond. After they left, Lewis went in. According to Lewis, Isadore said, “if you want to live, you better get away from me.”
Lewis was spooked enough to call in her friend, Barlow, who decided to stick with the tried-and-true formula of barging into the old man’s room. Barlow testified that when she entered, Isadore pulled out a .357 Magnum, pointed it at her and said, “Quit breaking in on me or I’m gonna shoot you.”
So she called the police. Three officers wound up entering Lewis’ home.
According to the cops, Isadore fired a shot through a door as one of the officers stood beside it. They immediately evacuated and contacted their chief, Jeff Hubanks, who ordered a negotiator to the scene. The negotiator tried to make contact with Isadore, but he never responded. Given Isadore’s hearing impairment, it’s unclear if a more successful attempt could have been made.
At this point, Hubanks decided to call in a SWAT team. Given that Isadore was sitting alone in an empty house and by all accounts just wanted to be left alone, the cops’ decision to go in after him may strike some as unnecessary. But that’s not how rule of law works. Aggravated assault is still a crime, even if a centenarian commits it, and the cops were well within their rights (though not obligated) to go and get him.
So the SWAT team went in. According to Hubanks’ testimony, they decided to play it smart (by police standards.) Half the team took up position outside Isadore’s room, while the other half went around, broke a window and inserted a camera on a stick. It turned out Isadore was lying on his bed, motionless, gun in hand. The negotiator tried a second time to make contact with Isadore, but it didn’t work.
The cops continued to observe him, hoping he would fall asleep. But after just twenty minutes, the decision was made to flood the room with tear gas. It’s unclear why the cops decided waiting for Isadore to fall asleep was no longer viable; after all, it’s not like the standoff was time-sensitive, and SWAT teams in similar circumstances have been known to spend up to 90 minutes waiting out suspects made entirely of cardboard. For whatever reason, the cops threw in tear gas grenades.
Instead of incapacitating Isadore, the gas provoked him into firing off a couple of shots at the door and window. One of the officers monitoring the camera in Isadore’s room claimed to see him holding the gun as if he were reloading.
The cops put their heads together and decided to burst into the room and subdue Isadore. According to testimony by Hubanks and the SWAT team leader, one officer, Brad Vilches, kicked down the door and threw in a flash-bang grenade while the rest got ready to rush in.
Of course, the flash-bang had no effect on a blind man. Vilches and his fellow cops claimed they saw Isadore pointing the gun at them. Despite partial body cam video, the precise sequence of events is still unclear. What’s certain is that Vilches and Isadore traded fire, Isadore getting off at least one round before Vilches shot him in the head. Vilches fired eight times in total.
This brief and tragic story is full of cop mistakes and foolhardy decisions. There’s the incredibly common failure to account for people’s disabilities. The cops’ gung-ho insistence on deploying their cool toys, instead of waiting for the 107-year-old man to fall asleep, which was likely to happen soon enough.
But once the decision – however rash and poorly thought out – had been made, the cops were exposed to a very real risk of death. The situation is similar to the November, 2014 shooting of Tamir Rice, where the actions of Officer Timothy Loehmann’s partner left Loehmann with no good option but to shoot.
In Graham v. Connor (1989), the Supreme Court established a supposedly objective test for determining whether a police officer used excessive force. As Fault Lines contributor Jeff Gamso points out, the test is in truth wholly subjective. It turns on what a hypothetical “reasonable” cop would have done under the same circumstances, and the standard for “reasonable” conduct is supplied by the rest of the police community.
But in this case, there can be no disagreement. When Vilches fired, Isadore had a gun, had already used it and was either getting ready to use it again or had already done so. There’s no question but that a police officer in Vilches’ shoes has the right to defend himself. Accordingly, a special prosecutor brought in to review the Pine Bluff cops’ conduct cleared them of wrongdoing and the family’s lawsuit failed.
But there was one last detail that stuck in people’s craws. After the shooting, the police gave themselves medals for their exceptional valor. This is why Isadore’s killing is back in the news: on July 6, the Pine Bluff city council unanimously voted to revoke the cops’ awards.
As part of their general slide into militarism, the police have picked up an unfortunate taste for military-style decorations. (In fact, Fault Lines contributor Greg Prickett reports that some departments are outright appropriating the military’s medals.) Of course, in the military, awards are reserved for acts of heroism or noteworthy achievements. There’s nothing particularly heroic about self-defense, and there’s certainly nothing valorous, or even competent, about shooting a 107-year-old functionally blind man whom you heavily outnumber and outgun after blundering into his line of fire due to a series of very poor decisions.
So the city took the cops’ medals back. In many ways, it’s the right outcome. The cops tried to apprehend a felon. Isadore, who opened fire, is dead. The cops weren’t charged. The city didn’t have to pay out. And the cops’ absurd self-congratulation has been undone.
The system worked. And yet, a 107-year-old man is dead. If only there had been another way.