Making “guttural sounds and animal noises,” 19-year-old Austin Harrouff not only appeared to be killing John Stevens — he was also chewing off chunks of the 59-year-old victim’s face with his teeth, Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said.
The two men were lying in a pool of blood, Snyder told The Washington Post; but in the darkened, horrifying chaos the night of Aug. 15, the three sheriff’s deputies at the home couldn’t determine whether Stevens was alive or dead.
“The female deputy was about to pull the trigger, and a male deputy didn’t like it and said, ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!'” Snyder said. “His concern was for the safety of the victim. There was no reluctance to use deadly force.”
Snyder noted that if Harrouff had turned his attention to the female deputy who was first on scene, she would have faced “a world of hurt. He would have overpowered her in a second; he was that out of control.”
A deputy was finally able to subdue Harrouff after the teen was bitten by a police dog, which allowed an officer to place handcuffs on a flailing arm, Snyder said. Deputies would later find the body of Stevens’s wife — 53-year-old Michelle Mishcon — several yards away, inside the couple’s garage.
Both were dead.
Currently in a coma, the teen will be charged with two counts of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, armed burglary and resisting an officer with violence, according to the sheriff’s office.
Harrouff, a Florida State University sophomore, displayed “preternatural strength” and a degree of aggression that put the officers’ lives in danger, Snyder told The Post.
But deputies never opened fire.
After a rash of headline-generating encounters in which police have injured and killed unarmed victims in cities across the country, the restraint the officers displayed in Jupiter, Fla., last week would appear to show that smart, measured policing can prove effective amid harrowing circumstances.
But critics among the ranks of activists calling for law enforcement reform saw something else: Another white man walking away — unharmed — from a violent encounter with police in a country where minority suspects often aren’t as fortunate.
Last month, only 80 miles away from Jupiter, North Miami police shot Charles Kinsey, an unarmed black behavioral therapist who was lying on his back with his arms raised while he attempted to assist an autistic patient. Although Kinsey survived and has since filed a federal lawsuit against officer Jonathan Aledda, he has become for many a powerful example of the almost absurd threat police consistently pose for black Americans.
“This is a conversation we’re having very, very often,” Black Lives Matter activist Jasmen Rogers told the Miami New Times. “When white people are far more violent, and far more erratic, they’re often brought in alive and apprehended using less lethal means.”
Others drove the same point home on social media, some noting that Harrouff was later described by the sheriff as a “good kid.”
While acknowledging that effective policing took place, New York Daily News columnist and social justice activist Shaun King argued that Harrouff’s pigmentation kept him alive.
Had Harrouff been black, King wrote, “he would’ve been shot and killed on sight” because of law enforcement’s willingness to ignore the “use-of-force continuum” when black suspects are involved.
In fact, in 2012, a young black man named Rudy Eugene was found on a Florida causeway, eating the face of a man he had mauled. Photos and videos of the attack went viral and people wondered aloud if a zombie virus was causing people to act out. At first the attack was blamed on ‘bath salts,’ a drug people speculated Eugene must’ve used, but toxicology reports actually found no such evidence.When police neared Eugene, seeing that he would not get off the man he mauled, they shot him repeatedly, killing him. No Tasers, no dogs, no squads of officers surrounding the man and pulling him off — just gunshots.While it appears Austin Harrouff was taken into custody and later sedated in a hospital, Rudy Eugene died right there on the causeway. His mother struggled to even find a place to host his funeral.What happened to Rudy Eugene, who appeared to be having a psychotic episode when he mauled a man, happens often when police are called on African Americans suffering a mental health crisis.
Eugene, a former high school football player, would come to be known as the “Miami Zombie.” His victim, Ronald Poppo, lost more than 75 percent of his face before police intervened, shooting and killing Eugene.
Asked what role Harrouff’s race played in his nonlethal encounter with police, Snyder objected.
Harrouff’s knife was concealed in a pool of blood in the dimly lit driveway, he said. And while the teen was clearly dangerous, Snyder said, the officers weren’t aware that he had already killed Mishcon, because her body was nearly hidden from view.
Importantly, the sheriff said, deputies thought Stevens, the other victim, may have been alive.
“We certainly would’ve been justified in shooting him,” Snyder said.
But the deputies weren’t thinking about Harrouff’s race, the sheriff said, before noting that his department “shot a white guy” weeks earlier.
He was referring to 47-year-old Gerard Bellafiore, who allegedly attacked a deputy with a fishing gaff after attempting to rob a night deposit box, according to the Palm Beach Post.
The deputy “fired multiple shots,” striking Bellafiore, who was described by sheriff’s officials as “a career criminal with federal convictions for bank crimes.”
Bellafiore survived the department’s first deputy-involved shooting in roughly three years.
“We don’t assess people’s skin color for use of force,” Snyder told The Post.
Regarding the arrest of Harrouf, he added: “The situation was so violent, so dark and so difficult. It’s really an egregious disservice to these deputies who risked their lives that night to then go and question their actions — it’s really sad.”
In 2015, a Washington Post study found that in the majority of cases in which police shot and killed a person who had attacked someone with a weapon or brandished a gun, the person who was shot was white. But black men accounted for about 40 percent of the unarmed people fatally shot by police and, when adjusted by population, were seven times as likely as unarmed white men to die from police gunfire.
An academic study that built on The Post’s research found that officers may be biased in how they perceive threats. In the study, researchers wrote that their analysis of the 990 fatal shootings in 2015 “suggests the police exhibit shooter bias by falsely perceiving blacks to be a greater threat than non-blacks to their safety.”
For some activists, the Martin County Sheriff’s Department’s recent encounter with Harrouff, in which not a single shot was fired, raised questions about why that doesn’t happen more often — particularly in cases involving nonwhite suspects.
Rogers, the Black Lives Matter organizer, told the Miami New Times after the Kinsey shooting that with white suspects, police seem to rely on tactics involving de-escalation and negotiation.
Blacks, she said, aren’t given the same considerations.
“You use other, less lethal ways to subdue a person before you get to the point when you’re shooting people,” Rogers said. “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.”
Asked what he would say to policing critics, Snyder responded with an invitation.
“We’re the gladiators in the arena, and the people up in the stands eating popcorn need to stop passing value judgments on us,” he said. “They can come and try it for themselves sometime.”
Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.