A police officer who shot a Native American teenager in northern Wisconsin will not face any charges for the death of the boy.
Jason Pero, 14, reportedly called 911 and said a man was walking around the area he lived carrying a knife. Pero’s description of the individual matched his own, and when officers arrived, they found him carrying a kitchen knife from his home.
Pero resides on a Native American reservation near Lake Superior and is part of the Bad River band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The shooting in November of last year resulted in a significant rise in racial tensions between the tribe and the Ashland County Sheriff’s Department.
Deputy Brock Mrdjenovich arrived to find Pero wielding the knife. According to his account, Pero refused to put the knife down after several commands from Mrdjenovich and lunged at the deputy twice. Mrdjenovich shot at the teen twice, with the second shot subduing him and eventually killing him.
Mrdenovich said that Pero told him, “I just wanted to die,” after the deputy had shot him. A suicide note was reportedly found by investigators at the teen’s home.
Wisconsin has a sordid history relating to law enforcement using unnecessary force in the past. Under state law, a separate investigative unit must determine whether every officer-related shooting is justified or not. St. Croix County District Attorney Mike Nieskes determined that Mrdjenovich’s actions were “justified by the circumstances he found himself in.”
Still, there are many unresolved issues in this case. Investigators tried to paint Pero as a violent and troubled youth, for example — a depiction that family members and friends say was an unfair characterization of his life.
“He was a good kid, a happy kid,” his grandfather, Alan Pero, explained. “He loved being around family and friends. He was a jokester. His teachers loved him.”
“There had to have been other avenues to take to resolve the situation. Nobody had to die,” Pero’s cousin, Curtis Gauthier, said this past weekend during a protest of the prosecutor’s decision.
“[Mrdjenovich] had a taser on him. He had pepper spray. He could’ve called for backup,” Pero’s other cousin, Renee Pero, told Wisconsin Public Radio.
Those options were available to the deputy, WPR reported, but ultimately weren’t used by him.
Once in awhile, officers have to use deadly force to defend themselves. It’s a sad reality that their job requires of them sometimes. But there are other times when we must question whether deadly force needs to be used — especially when close to 1,000 individuals were killed last year by police.
In Jason Pero’s case, there must be a conversation that seeks to explain why he had to die. It doesn’t seem like shooting the child dead was the only option available to the deputy who responded to his call.
Too many people of color are dying at the hands of law enforcement, often when other means of subduing suspects can be employed instead of deadly force. Police and sheriff's departments across this country must engage in dialogues with their communities and come up with plans to prevent this kind of tragedy from ever occurring again.