Boston’s history of police shootings of unarmed teens
Before Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, there were Michael Pender and Levi Hart.
“A 16-year-old burglary suspect, shot to death in a police chase … was unarmed.’’
It’s a line that could be taken from stories in any number of American cities dealing with police shootings in recent months.
But it’s from an article in The Boston Globe from June 28, 1972, about the killing of 16-year-old Jackie A. Johnson.
In recent years, Boston Police have avoided the kinds of shootings of unarmed teenagers and allegations of police brutality that have spawned protests in New York, Baltimore, and Ferguson, Missouri.
But that 43-year-old story of Jackie Johnson is a sad reminder that police shootings of unarmed teens is nothing new – and the passage of decades hasn’t stopped one of the greatest sources of anger and mistrust between police and the communities they serve.
That’s not to say things haven’t changed over the years, including in Boston. After the accidental killing of 15-year-old Michael Pender in 1973, Boston police revised their firearms policy to eliminate use of the warning shot. The restrictions also clarified that “fleeing felons’’ can be shot only if they pose a danger to others – “as opposed to a pickpocket,’’ the Globe wrote.
Such a change, had it taken place sooner, might have prevented Johnson’s shooting.
While the names of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice carry power now, names like Michael Pender, Levi Hart, and Christopher Rogers weighed heavily on the policing debates of the old Boston.
With help from The Boston Globe archives, here are nine stories of police-involved shootings from the region.
The scenarios will sound similar to people familiar with recent shootings: conflicting witness accounts, where any accounts exist. Police saying they were attacked, and relatives of the dead young men saying they weren’t violent. Allegations of racism.
Of the nine teenagers shot in these accounts, three were white, one was Hispanic, and five were black.
Eight of these shootings were fatal, and three led to criminal charges against an officer. Just one case resulted in a prison sentence.
Leon Smith, 14 years old, August 1970
An unarmed Leon Smith was shot and killed by Brookline policeman James Reddish after a stolen car chase in August 1970, The Boston Globe reported. He was announced dead on arrival at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.
According to the Globe, Brookline police were chasing a stolen car when it crashed near Boston College. Three teenagers — 14-year-old Smith, another 14-year-old, and a 16-year-old — fled from the car, and Smith ran in an opposite direction from the others.
Reddish chased after Smith into Newton, the Globe reported:
“A witness said he saw a policeman fire one shot and chase the third youth down Mayflower road. He heard a second shot.
[Police] said Smith was shot in the upper abdomen, inside a two-car garage.’’
The shooting sparked a significant backlash, with parents asking Newton’s police chief to act. An estimated 300 people attended Smith’s funeral, where the eulogizer called his death “shameful’’ and questioned whether police should have guns.
In January 1971, Reddish was charged with manslaughter and assault with a dangerous weapon. Reddish, who had been on the police force for six years, pleaded not guilty. He told the court, “my intention was to fire a warning shot,’’ and that he slipped as he fired the gun.
The judge found that there was “no probable cause’’ to refer the case to the Middlesex County grand jury. In December 1971, Middlesex County District Attorney John Droney announced that Reddish would not be prosecuted. His case was officially closed.
Jackie A. Johnson, 16 years old, June 1972
Johnson, a 16-year-old, was shot and killed by a Boston policeman in the South End while running away from authorities.
Johnson was spotted climbing into the back window of a home, according to the Globe. Johnson fled the home with “the proceeds of the crime’’ in hand and ran toward a double gate, the Globe said:
“A police officer screamed ‘Halt.’ Finally, police said, he fired a warning shot.
The youth was perched at the top of the fence.
The officer fired again.
Seconds later, Jackie was dead.’’
The bullet hit Johnson in the neck, police said, and he was declared dead shortly after being admitted to the hospital. He did not have a weapon.
Afterwards, Boston police said the shooting appeared to be justified. “There was a young man caught in the act of committing a felony, and there was no other means of apprehending him,’’ Superintendent William Bradley said. “It appears that all other means of preventing his escape had passed the police officer. He took this means of apprehending him.’’
Johnson had a lengthy arrest record and drug-related problems, and he was well known to social agencies, the police, and juvenile courts in the area, according to the Globe. “His life became caught up in a revolving door of arrest, court hearing, recommendations for treatment,’’ the Globe wrote.
“Jackie was a street urchin,’’ Paul Heffernan, a Roxbury Juvenile Court officer who said that he remembered Johnson, told the Globe. “He was out there trying to hustle to stay alive.’’
Nathaniel Smith, 15 years old, March 1973
Nathaniel Smith was shot and killed by Boston Police patrolman Thomas Clifford after a car chase.
Police said Clifford pursued what he suspected was a stolen automobile until the vehicle came to a stop in Dorchester. The Globe wrote :
“Police said Smith jumped from the car when Clifford approached, pulled out a 4-inch or 5-inch knife and slashed at the officer. According to police, Clifford then pulled his revolver and shot Smith in the chest.’’
Two other young people in the car fled, and were later captured by police.
A month later, many black Bostonians said the explanation for the shooting was “unsatisfactory.’’
“They base their dissatisfaction on eyewitness accounts that Smith never left the back seat of the car and that his chest wound apparently had a downward trajectory,’’ the Globe said.
In addition, the suspected stolen vehicle had been stripped of its back seat by police. And Smith’s mother said she was in possession of the only knife her son owned: his Boy Scout knife.
“Before it’s over,’’ said Marvin Harrell of the NAACP’s Boston chapter, “someone is going to have to give us some answers.’’
The FBI began investigating the case to see if Smith’s Civil Rights had been violated. About 20 witnesses testified before Judge Francis Larkin in mid-May.
By August, the investigation still hadn’t been publicly released. Meanwhile, a policeman who shot another 15-year-old, Michael Pender, was charged with manslaughter three weeks after that shooting.
Pender was white, and Smith black. The contrasting legal treatment of the two shootings struck some as evidence of a racial double standard. “This shows how little regard there is for black lives,’’ state Rep. Mel King told the Globe.
Suffolk County closed the case in September, ruling that Clifford was justified in shooting Smith. “The Smith boy was in an upright position and springing toward the officer at the time the officer (Clifford) fired the shot,’’ Judge Larkin ruled.
Michael Pender, 15 years old, June 1973
An unarmed Michael Pender was shot and killed by off-duty Boston policeman Charles Ganimian in West Roxbury near the scene of a suspected burglary.
According to a police report, Ganimian had recently finished his patrol shift when he heard glass breaking at a store. Ganimian told three youths by the store door that he was a police officer, and they then fled, the Globe wrote:
“Ganimian said he drew his gun and fired three shots in the air to summon help. When no one arrived, he said he fired three more shots, moving his weapon in an arc ‘from 12 o’clock to 4 o’clock.’’’
Michael, his older brother Kevin Pender, and several other teenagers were hanging out in the area, witnesses told the Globe. “This guy came up Centre Street from Lagrange and all of a sudden he just pulls a gun and fires,’’ Kevin said in the interview. “My brother went down and everybody ran away.’’
A bullet struck Michael in the head, killing him. He was survived by his two parents and six siblings.
After the shooting, about 50 young people gathered at the police station in West Roxbury and chanted “pig’’ before they were disbanded, the Globe reported. More than 400 people attended Pender’s funeral.
Soon after the killing, Boston Police Commissioner Robert diGrazia said Pender “was an innocent bystander.’’ Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, the police union, repeatedly criticized that comment as “hasty’’ and said diGrazia spoke for “publicity purposes.’’
Ganimian had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he said, and was suffering from symptoms of the neurological disease. He had reportedly asked to be taken off foot patrol prior to the shooting, but he was denied, the Globe reported.
Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett Byrne conducted an investigation, and a grand jury indicted Ganimian on a charge of manslaughter. He pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors said the shooting began after a group of boys, several of whom said they had been drinking, threw rocks at an ice cream store and broke windows. Ganimian approached the youths and said, “Stop or I’ll shoot.’’ When three ran, Ganimian began shooting at the larger group of young people, prosecutors said, according to the Globe.
On the stand, Ganimian said he thought the three boys had broken into the store. Because of issues related to his MS, he was unable to run after them when they fled, so he fired six shots — three in the air and three down the street — to scare them into coming back, he said. He admitted the shots were a “lamebrained idea.’’ He said Pender was hit by accident.
After two hours of deliberation, a jury acquitted Ganimian of manslaughter.
“If this is responsible action by a professional policeman,’’ the Pender family told the Globe after the not-guilty decision, “then God help all the young people of today.’’
After Pender’s death, Boston Police banned warning shots. In explaining that change to the Globe in 1976, officer Homer Thibodeaux explicitly referred to Pender and Ganimian.
“With the crowded conditions of the city, we can’t risk where that bullet might end up,’’ Thibodeaux said. “We don’t want that kind of thing to happen again, ever.’’
Ganimian died of MS at age 49 in 1989. His obituary did not mention Pender.
Levi Hart, 14 years old, July 1980
Levi Hart was shot in the head and killed by Boston police officer Richard Bourque Jr. while he was being apprehended after a stolen car chase.
Police said three young people stole a vehicle on an early July morning and attempted to evade pursuing police. The car came to a halt in Back Bay, and two of the youths were arrested. The third, Hart, attempted to flee and was tracked by Bourque. Police said Hart then attempted to grab Bourque’s gun and was shot and killed when the gun discharged during the scuffle.
The killing set off a fierce backlash from black leaders, the Globe reported, many of whom doubted the police’s version of the story. One of the three youths in the stolen car said he did not see a struggle between Bourque and Hart. Another witness said he saw the officer deliver a “crunching’’ blow to Hart’s head and then fire his weapon. Autopsy reports found that Hart had a skull fracture from a blunt object.
Hart was 5 feet 8 inches tall and about 125 pounds; the 6-foot-1 Bourque weighed about 210 pounds.
“I just don’t see it,’’ Hart’s 17-year-old brother said. “He’s only 14 years old. I mean, what’s he going to try, struggling with police? I just don’t see it.’’
A Roxbury district court judge conducted an inquest into the shooting, and concluded that “there is ample cause to believe that the death of Levi Hart was the result of an unlawful act’’ committed by Bourque.
Based on the inquest, a total of 27 witnesses — some giving conflicting testimony — spoke to a Suffolk County grand jury. The grand jury declined to indict Bourque on any charges.
The Justice Department then launched a federal civil rights inquiry into the shooting. The federal grand jury found no probable cause to indict Bourque.
“Cops have no civil rights,’’ Bourque said in an interview with the Globe. “People care more if someone like this kid gets killed. They’ve immortalized him. The kid is a hero to some people. It doesn’t matter that he was a punk.’’
Three years later, Hart’s family received $167,500 from the city in an out-of-court settlement.
Eligha J. Pate, 19 years old, September 1983
Pate was shot five times and killed by Boston Police officers after police said he tried to run down officers in a stolen Cadillac in Back Bay.
Police said they fired at Pate, a “well-known car thief,’’ while he was inside the vehicle after he drove the car at police and injured an officer. However, several witnesses said that police shot Pate inside the car and continued shooting as Pate fled away from the vehicle. An autopsy showed bullet wounds on the back of Pate’s right leg and on his right hip, injuries that the Suffolk County medical examiner said were not consistent with a man sitting in a car.
A private autopsy indicated that Pate had been beaten by police and that he had bruises around his testicles, on his back, and on his scalp. Medical examiners found bruises on his scalp.
A Boston municipal court inquest found that Pate was shot once in the car and four more times as he was “alighting’’ from the car.
The inquest, conducted by Judge George O’Toole, concluded that the use of deadly force was justified. Suffolk County district attorney declined to press charges against the officers. A federal investigation also did not result in any charges.
Pate’s mother sued Boston Police officers in a $37 million suit in civil court.
“I want them to pay for murdering my son. I want them to pay for it,’’ said the slain man’s mother, Eloise Pate. “They didn’t have to do what they did.’’
A jury found that the shooting was justified. One officer was found to have violated Pate’s civil rights when he put his foot on Pate’s neck. He was ordered to pay $20,000 to Pate’s mother.
Vincent Mancuso, 18 years old, May 1986
Mancuso was shot in the back of the head by Boston Police officer Joseph Quinn after police said Mancuso stole a vehicle, led police on a short car chase, and then lunged at Quinn with a knife. Mancuso died several days later.
“The kid was running at full speed and knocked Joe against the cruiser,’’ said Quinn’s attorney. “He had Joe by the leather jacket and Joe’s papers spilled to the street. As Joe bounced off the cruiser, he went down. The kid was right over him. The kid had a knife in his hand. Joe smacked him with his right hand, and in the same motion grabbed his gun and fired one round.’’
Quinn said he fired in self-defense and that Mancuso had a “Charles Manson-like look.’’
Mancuso’s family said the 18-year-old was “no angel’’ but questioned Quinn’s account of the shooting. They argued Mancuso’s wound in the back of his head was evidence that Mancuso was fleeing when he was shot, and they said that Mancuso did not usually carry a knife.
Quinn, a 15-year decorated officer of the force, was alone at the time of the shooting. He had been involved in three other non-fatal shootings previously. Quinn also had a history of alcohol abuse.
The Mancuso shooting sparked a late-night “five-hour vandalism spree’’ in South Boston, the Globe reported, during which several police cars were damaged and one was burned. In addition, a “small homemade bomb’’ was found next to a South Boston police station.
The Globeeditorial board condemned the vandalism while calling for an investigation into the shooting.
“The wanton destruction of public property by angry thugs will not speed the recovery of Vincent Mancuso of South Boston,’’ the Globe wrote.
A Peabody district court judge conducted an inquest into the shooting and concluded that Quinn’s testimony “was not credible’’ and that he acted with “wanton and reckless conduct.’’ FBI fingerprint analysis did not find Mancuso’s fingerprints on the knife, which “supported the conclusion that Vincent Mancuso did not possess a knife,’’ the judge said.
A Suffolk County grand jury declined to indict Quinn in September 1987.
Mancuso’s parents sued the city and settled for a $500,000 cash payout, one of the largest in city history. His mother Joan accused the city of a “cover up’’ and said she got “no satisfaction’’ from the payout.
Quinn was placed on administrative duty as a dispatcher, and he was fired when he stopped showing up for work. He passed away in 1991 after a slow suicide by alcohol, he and friends told the Globe.
“I just don’t care anymore,’’ Quinn told a Globe reporter while drinking at a bar a few years after the shooting. “I’m dulling the pain the only way I know how. Officially, I died in South Boston on May 16, 1986, at about 2 a.m. It’s just that the corpse isn’t cold yet.’’
Jose Hernandez, 19 years old, February 1988
Jose Hernandez was shot in the back by a Boston police officer as he and his brother Pedro fled from authorities near the Mission Hill Housing Project.
Hernandez survived the shooting.
Officers James E. Hall and Walter M. Jones said they began questioning Hernandez on suspicion that he and others at Mamma Gina’s Pizza were drinking beer underage. Officers frisked Hernandez and allegedly found several bullets on him. Hernandez and his brother then allegedly assaulted the officers and ran away.
According to Hall’s police report and court testimony, Hernandez stopped running, turned around, and raised his right arm and pointed “in my direction with what appeared to be a revolver.’’ Hall then fired twice at Jose Hernandez. One bullet struck Hernandez in the back and exited through his upper-left chest area.
Yet despite an “immediate and thorough search,’’ no weapon was found on the scene. Several witnesses testified that Hernandez did not stop or raise his arm at all.
“These police officers have come into court and deliberately perjured themselves in order to justify the unconscionable act of shooting a man in the back,’’ Hernandez’s lawyer said in court.
A district court judge found insufficient evidence to charge Hernandez with assault with a dangerous weapon or two counts of assault and battery on a police officer. He was charged with unlawful possession of ammunition. Hernandez’s brother was found guilty of disorderly conduct, but not guilty of two counts of assault and battery on a police officer, according to the Globe.
A Boston Police investigation into the shooting said the officers’ style of policing was “dismal,’’ but cleared Hall of any wrongdoing. “That Jose was hit in the back is merely an accidental combination of many factors, i.e., time, shooting proficiency, etc., which is unfortunate but cannot be helped,’’ the internal report read.
Christopher Rogers, 16 years old, July 1991
Rogers was shot and killed by Boston Police officer James Hall while the unarmed 16-year-old hid under a car in Dorchester.
Hall, the same officer who shot Jose Hernandez, said that when he crouched down to see if anyone was under the car, he slipped and his gun accidentally discharged. His attorney said it was a “tragic accident’’ and blamed the “very light pulling requirement’’ of Hall’s Glock handgun, which had been a focus of criticism prior to the shooting.
Hall was suspended five days because he was outside his designated patrol area at the time. His past shooting of Hernandez, and several past civilian complaints against his behavior, led Mayor Raymond Flynn to openly criticize regulations that protected “unfit’’ officers from being fired.
About 200 people attended Rogers’s funeral, where he was remembered as a good student and a role model for other young people. At a protest against police brutality a month later, parents of victims of police shootings marched and chanted, “No justice, no peace.’’
Investigators discovered that Hall had driven away from the scene of the shooting before returning to call an ambulance for Rogers. Upon that discovery, the Suffolk district attorney took his case to a grand jury. Hall was indicted and charged with second-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty.
Before the case went to trial, Hall was fired for filing inaccurate reports and misconduct in a 1990 incident in which he was accused of breaking a prisoner’s arm at the police booking station.
At the trial, prosecutors said Hall intentionally fired into the pavement to scare Rogers, but the bullet ricocheted off the ground and hit the youth.
Young residents in Rogers’s neighborhood testified that Hall had threatened to harm or shoot them in the past. One witness said Hall had threatened another young friend, saying, “You keep on running, or I’ll shoot you or sic my dog on you.’’ In addition, a ballistics expert testified that in tests, Hall’s gun did not fire when dropped.
A jury convicted Hall of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 5 1/2 to 10 years in prison.
“There’s not a day goes by that I do not feel the pain of my murdered son,’’ Rogers’s mother Judy said.
Rogers’s family was awarded $500,000 in a settlement with the city for the shooting.
In a brief conversation with Boston.com, Hall’s sister said her brother would not comment. “He hasn’t had a life,’’ she said. “His life was taken and over with back then.’’
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