By Hannah Brandt
On Feb. 23, 2014, 18-year-old Joseph Ma was running with a couple of his buddies. One of them might have had a gun. The former special education student from West Fresno Middle School was fleeing a BMW pulled over for a traffic violation. He was being chased by a police officer who fired shots into his back or, as his autopsy reads, “homicide, perforation of lungs, due to gunshot wound to left side of back sustained when shot by law enforcement.”
According to police, Ma made “an aggressive move” before the officers fired on him. The police also claim he was involved with a gang and drug activity. His former teacher, Paul Holland, believes otherwise, stating online soon after the incident, “I knew that kid personally; he was not a gang member. He was a special ed student. I could only imagine how scared he must have been. This is a tragedy.”
It continues to be a tragedy for Ma’s family, who lost their high-school-aged child in what seems to be an inexplicable act of violence. The Fresno Bee reported in July 2015 that the family is suing the Fresno Police Department for excessive force in his death. They join several other families suing the department for officer misconduct. Police-involved shootings have risen to 30 since 2012, including 17 deaths. As the Bee reported, Ma was shot and killed by the same officer who killed Miguel Moreno Torrez, whose family also filed a lawsuit against the department.
Reminiscent of Sarah Koenig on Serial, looking at the information of the Ma case one comes away with more questions than answers. Even Ma’s ethnicity is inconsistently reported in the autopsy, as Asian in one place and Hispanic in another. In one part, it says he was shot in the left of his back, another mentions the right. It could be that both are correct and he was shot twice or it could be that the shot entered on one side and exited through the other. The report notes he had a wound to his left flank and right shoulder.
There is no information in any of the records regarding Ma’s supposed aggressive move. Like Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., Ma’s running away and being shot in the back make it hard to see how the officer so feared for his life as to use such an extreme act of force. And, unlike in Scott’s case, there is no graphic video to display in no uncertain terms exactly what happened that night at 5:40 p.m. on Lorena and Bardell avenues, outside the Bigby Villa Apartments. Although that would have been precious evidence, it could also have been a horrific means of re-traumatizing his loved ones.
According to the police detective who spoke to the coroner, “the descendent (Ma) was uncooperative, despite the officer’s instructions. The officer saw a gun and when the descendent made an aggressive move, the officer fired on the descendent.” This is inconsistent with what Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer originally told the Fresno Bee immediately following the incident. In his statement then, he said that “two passengers ran from the car—one of them with a handgun. An officer proceeded to chase Ma and fired shots at him.” In neither statement is Ma positively identified as the possessor of the gun the officer claims to have seen.
Ma’s toxicology report showed no alcohol in his system but did show some marijuana and a non-toxic level of methamphetamine. Ma is not the first teenager with a special education background to be killed by law enforcement in Fresno. In 2008, 17-year-old Jesse Carrizales was shot by police on campus at Roosevelt High School. That officer was later honored by the police department for his heroism in that case. Carrizales had been classified as an emotionally disturbed special education student.
There is no mention in any of the reports of any firearm found on Ma’s person at the time of his death, nor even at the scene of the incident. The other passenger in the car supposedly escaped, while the 20-year-old driver was arrested on drug charges. According to what Chief Dyer told KFSN TV-30, the car made an illegal U-turn. While that can be a dangerous move, it is one most people have made, often by accident. It can be unclear whether a U-turn is legal at a particular traffic light if one does not make careful note of all signage.
Although it is not accurate to say that Ma died for being a passenger in a car that made an illegal U-turn, without any proof that he made an aggressive move or had a gun, it can look that arbitrary. It is eerily similar to the recent case of Sandra Bland, the African American woman pulled over in Texas for failing to use her turn signal while making a lane change, something even more people have done without repercussions. While again, that can be dangerous, it does not generally warrant the aggressive arrest and detention in a jail cell that Bland received. She was later found dead, hanging in that same jail cell, her family suspecting foul play.
Unless on the scene or privy to clear footage of the entire event, the public will never know every detail of what transpired. One can, however, see the increasing frequency with which these incidents happen and to whom they happen most. The Guardian has been tracking the number of police-involved killings in The Counted. At 622, 2015 has already surpassed 2014 at this time of year. Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately victims of police violence and more likely to be unarmed than their White counterparts.
It has now been a year since Officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. It has been a year since police in military tanks rolled up on protesters and journalists, pointing rifles and launching tear gas. America has not forgotten and has not been asleep as one after another more men and women have been killed by police, some in front of our eyes, thanks to video taken on now ubiquitous smart phones. It has burned into many of our brains, if it was not already, that something is very wrong in our society. Bias in policing is just part of the racism that pervades our system, but it is also the most deadly.
Those who defend law enforcement in all cases will say these deaths were somehow justified. The lives lost must have been in a gang or affiliated with one. These same people overlook the fact that White gang members who actually shot and injured police in Waco, Tex., were not executed. They were not even aggressively arrested like 15-year-old Dajeeria Becton, who appears to have been assaulted simply for being a Black girl attending a pool party in McKinney, Tex.
This parallels the claim that civilians killed by U.S.- supplied forces in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza must have been terrorists or close to terrorists. If children, they will grow up to be terrorists and gang members. This dehumanization underscores how these lives do not matter to too many. They’re threatening to some no matter how vulnerable and innocent they might actually be, whether a special needs teenager in Fresno or a toddler in Palestine.
(Author’s note: Thank you to Christopher Breedlove, who contributed to this article.)
Hannah Brandt is a former history teacher and freelance journalist who has previously published in the Community Alliance and the Fresno Bee. She posts her work at https:// medium.com/@hannahbp2.