Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
As part of our ongoing investigation into gun violence, which costs the nation at least $229 billion a year, we documented the stories of eight survivors. How does the toll add up for a victim of street violence? What does it cost to lose a loved one to suicide, or in a mass shooting? From Brooklyn and Chicago to Cheyenne and Oakland, these are some of the prices paid. (See the rest of our special investigation here.)
On the afternoon of July 5, 2013, Antonius Wiriadjaja was walking in his Brooklyn neighborhood when a man stalking an ex-lover pulled out a gun and began shooting at her in broad daylight. A stray bullet pierced Wiriadjaja's chest and lodged in his stomach. A stranger rushed over to help, compressing Wiriadjaja's wound until the ambulance came. At the hospital, Wiriadjaja was put into a coma, beginning what would be a two-week stay. Then, "it took me seven months of physical therapy to regain most of my day-to-day functions, and about 18 months of psychiatric treatment to stave off PTSD," he says. "I would never wish this amount of pain and misery on my worst enemy."
Part of Wiriadjaja's response was to blog about his recovery, including a series of photos displaying his scars. His medical and mental-health treatments have totaled about $169,000, most of which have been covered by his health insurance. Still, his deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses cost more than $20,000 and ate up all his savings. For a while, he says, he had to couch-surf with friends "while my insides were still sloshing around." He was told that he was eligible for reimbursements from the state's office of victim services, but the process was so daunting on top of his recovery and return to work—"like adding an extra full-time job"—that he decided to move on.
Today, Wiriadjaja is an assistant arts professor at New York University in Shanghai. "I know I'm lucky, because I had savings, health insurance, and an incredible support network," he says. "Many other gunshot survivors are not. I count my blessings every day." The man who helped save his life on the street was shot and killed in South Carolina last year.
On May 27, 2010, Kamari Ridgle had just left a liquor store in Richmond, California, when a car pulled up behind him and shots rang out. He was hit 22 times before the perpetrators sped off. Ridgle was 15 years old.
"When I was shot, I was that kid in and out of juvenile hall," he says, describing his time as a drug dealer. "You develop a name, and people don't like you." The gunshots shattered his elbow, mangled an arm, damaged his intestines and liver, and tore through his spine. He was transported by helicopter to a nearby hospital, where he underwent multiple emergency procedures. He would have a dozen surgeries, including some later to remove bullets. It was nearly a year before he rolled out of the hospital with his wheelchair and a colostomy bag. Medicaid covered most of his costs.
Three men were tried for attempted murder in connection with the shooting. All three received long prison sentences.
Today, Ridgle is a full-time accounting and criminal-justice student at Sacramento City College. He notes he was quick to grasp the financial curriculum: It's not that the streets don't have good businessmen, he says, "it's that they all get killed."
On February 20, 2014, during a tribal council meeting in Alturas, California, a woman named Cherie Rhoades, angry about an eviction proceeding, walked in with two 9 mm handguns and opened fire. After one gun jammed and the other ran out of bullets, she pulled out a butcher's knife and began stabbing people. Two people were critically injured and four died. Shelia Lynn Russo, a 47-year-old administrator, was among those shot and killed.
Philip Russo, her husband, was a part-time correctional officer at the local county jail. After Rhoades was taken there on the day of the shooting, Russo was told he could no longer guard the building—for Rhoades' safety.
Not long after, Russo was laid off. Shelia had earned the majority of their household income, about $60,000 annually. Russo lived off savings while he looked for a new job; he now works as a security guard at a medical center in Redding. "I waited my whole life to meet someone like Shelia," he says. "Then all too quickly she was gone." He has become an advocate for tighter firearm regulations and for survivors of gun violence: "I knew that I wanted to get into victims advocacy because I so desperately needed it, and there seemed to be a great lack of it," he says.
His wife's suspected killer has pleaded not guilty to four counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder. The trial is expected to begin in 2016.
On April 4, 2006, in a neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, Pamela Bosley's 18-year-old son, Terrell, was unloading a drum set from a van in preparation for a church choir rehearsal when a man walked up and opened fire on him and his bandmates. Terrell was rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he died a few hours later. He was one of Chicago's 384 gun homicide victims that year. Bosley describes Terrell, then a college freshman and the oldest of three siblings, as "my outgoing son." He was a starter on his high school football team, had performed as the lion in a school production of The Wiz, and played bass in jazz and gospel bands. He'd planned to major in music and tour the world.
The few hours when Terrell clung to life in the hospital cost about $10,000, which was mostly covered by the family's health insurance. Later, Bosley spent thousands of dollars out of pocket on therapy and antidepressants for herself and another family member, who was hospitalized at one point for depression. Bosley also lost several thousand dollars in earnings during a six-month leave of absence from her operations job at a bank.* She twice attempted suicide. "I could be okay one hour, then the next minute I could look at something and be broken down," she says. She regained some balance, but when she returned to her job, her coworkers' chatter about their kids, and her memories of Terrell visiting her at work, were too much to bear. She took a job at another bank.
In 2007, Bosley and her husband started a service to help gun violence survivors join support groups. Her second son is planning to become a medical engineer, and Terrell's youngest brother—who was just eight at the time of Terrell's death and used to pray nightly that no one else in his family would get shot—is now a thriving high school junior. But justice has been elusive: In 2008, a man was charged in connection with Terrell's murder, but prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence, and no one has been convicted.
On December 1, 2005, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, BJ Ayers' 19-year-old son, Brett, who had been struggling with depression, sat down in a chair, pointed a gun at his head, and pulled the trigger. He was rushed by ambulance to the hospital, where he passed away later that day. He had no health insurance. The emergency care costs, about $35,000, were paid for by the hospital's state-backed "benevolent fund."
In the days following Brett's death, representatives of the Cheyenne Police Department's victim assistance program came to the house to remove the blood-soaked carpets and chair. They also helped clean Brett's favorite cowboy hat, which he'd been wearing that day.
Four years later, his older brother Beau, 26, took his life with a gun, leaving behind a girlfriend and their one-year-old son. Beau had worked in construction for the state, and his salary of about $37,000 had been the primary source of income for his young family.
Losing two of her three sons prompted Ayers to start a suicide prevention organization called Grace for 2 Brothers, which holds support meetings for people who have lost loved ones to suicide. She is not interested in gun control, but says that when it comes to suicide prevention, "we have to talk about lethal means." The choice to commit suicide is often impulsive, and preventing access to guns can be crucial, she says. "In that instant, if someone has chosen to use a firearm, there's almost no chance that person will survive."
On the night of December 11, 2010, Paris Brown was at a bingo hall when one of her sons called to tell her that someone had just shot Dominic, the fourth of her seven children. As she ran out to her car, she burst into tears—earlier that evening, Dominic, 19, had handed her a gift for her birthday and told her he loved her. The next time she saw him, he was sprawled on the pavement at an intersection in East Oakland, surrounded by police cars.
After the funeral, Brown says she felt deeply alone, despite her large family. She began a year of grief counseling through Catholic Charities of the East Bay, which assist victims of violent crime. State and local government funds covered the costs, about $10,000. "I could be anywhere and I could just cry," Brown says. "It's an ongoing thing that you feel. I guess I'm going to feel it for the rest of my life."
Brown called the Oakland Police Department every few months to check on the status of the case. In 2013, detectives told her that they'd identified a suspect in Dominic's murder, but that there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute without a witness stepping forward. No one has done so, and Brown no longer wants to focus on it. "Let God handle it," she says, "I stress about it enough." Over the past decade, a majority of gun murders in Oakland, which consistently ranks among America's most dangerous cities, have gone unsolved.
On the evening of November 15, 2004, Jennifer Longdon and her fiance pulled into a strip mall parking lot in Phoenix to get some dinner when a truck sideswiped theirs and a man got out and began shooting. Her fiance took a bullet through the brain that left him profoundly impaired. Longdon was shot in the spine and left paralyzed from the chest down.
The physical devastation was followed by financial ruin. Longdon, who lost her health insurance shortly after the shooting, has been hospitalized at least 20 times over the past decade. One especially bad fall from her wheelchair in 2011 broke major bones in both legs; she came close to having them amputated and had to have titanium rods inserted.
There was also the $40,000 in modifications to her home, just so she could wheel through the front door, make dinner, or take a shower. And the $35,000 for a custom lift-equipped van (and the steep insurance rates that came with it). "I don't think people understand the way nickels and dimes add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars—millions of dollars—over the lifetime of an injury," she says.
There were also the costs that might never be measured: "The loss of innocence for my then 12-year-old child. What it's cost him in terms of not being able to study for exams because Mom might be dying today."
The Phoenix police investigated, but the crime was never solved. Longdon rarely returns to the place where it happened, but she took us there. "I'm not willing to let this spot have that much power in my life," she told us. "I'll conquer it. I do a little bit every time."
Shortly before 9 p.m. on November 20, 2008, 18-year-old Caheri Gutierrez sat in the passenger seat of a friend's car at a stoplight in Oakland, on her way to a part-time office-cleaning job. It may have been from a nearby gang incident: Suddenly a single bullet hissed through the window and struck Gutierrez through the jaw.
She spent the next month in the hospital undergoing multiple procedures, including surgeries to reconstruct her facial bones and install dentures. Medicaid covered most of the $120,000 in costs. In a psychological assessment shortly after the shooting, a social worker wrote that Gutierrez was "remarkably strong and resilient" but "unable to speak" and "communicates through writing." When the police came, Gutierrez scribbled down that she had no idea who had pulled the trigger, or why. The case wasn't solved.
Her hospital stay was followed by many months of physical therapy and counseling. Gutierrez had also worked in retail before the shooting, but now she struggled to find a customer service job. "I felt like employers didn't want to hire me because the scars were so prevalent," she says.
Her caseworker from Youth Alive, a local nonprofit that aids victims of violent crime, helped her relocate to a safer neighborhood and continue with counseling. Today, she works for the organization herself, mentoring teens. She's also attending nursing school. And each November 20th is now a special occasion with family and friends. "We go out and have dinner," she says. "I like to celebrate that I'm still here."
Antonius Wiriadjaja: Sim Chi Yin/VII; Kamari Ridgle: Preston Gannaway; Philip Russo: Peter Earl McCollough; Pamela Bosley: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR; BJ Ayers: Matt Nager; Paris Brown: Peter Earl McCollough; Jennifer Longdon: Brandon Thibodeaux; Caheri Gutierrez: Preston Gannaway
Black drivers are more than twice as likely to get pulled over for investigation than white drivers.
Jaeah LeeApr. 10, 2015 7:20 PM
Police car dashcam footage shows Michael Slager pulling over Walter Scott for a broken brake light.
On Thursday, South Carolina's Law Enforcement Division released the dashcam footage of the moments leading up to officer Michael Slager's fatal shooting of Walter Scott. It opens with Slager following Scott, who was driving a Mercedes-Benz, into a parking lot. They stop, then Slager walks up to Scott's window, asks for his license and registration, and informs him that he was pulled over because of a broken brake light. Slager returns to his car. Moments later, Scott opens his door and runs away. A chase ensues, culminating in Slager firing eight shots and killing Scott.
In the aftermath of Scott's death, little attention has been paid to fact that it was precipitated by a traffic stop. But Scott certainly wasn't the first such encounter to go wrong: Both of the two other fatal police shootings in South Carolina over the past year that led to criminal charges also began with traffic stops. One was for a suspected DUI. The other was for a busted tail light.
A search of news reports from the past decade turns up several other fatal police encounters that began with traffic stops: The deaths of Julio Eddy Perez in Los Angeles in 2008, DeCarlos Moore in Miami in 2010, Noel Polanco in New York City in 2012, Jerame Reid in New Jersey in 2014, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles in 2014, and David Kassick in Pennsylvania this February. (A 1976 traffic stop that nearly killed a black man prompted the Supreme Court to review—and approve—police officers' use of chokeholds.)
So how often do traffic stops turn into police shootings? The short answer is that we don't know. But there's compellingevidence that black drivers are disproportionately likely to get pulled over. The Department of Justice's 2011 Public-Police Contact Survey reported that black and Hispanic drivers were pulled over, ticketed, and searched at higher rates than whites. (It also found that cops used physical force against about 1 percent of drivers pulled over at traffic stops, but didn't specify the drivers' race.)
In 2014, three sociologists at the University of Kansas surveyed more than 2,300 drivers in and around Kansas City. They discovered that while stops over traffic safety violations showed little racial disparity, when it came to stops related to minor violations, like expired license plate stickers, black drivers were pulled over twice as often.
These "investigatory stops" provided what Slate's Jamelle Bouie describes as a "pretext for something more sinister":
In these, drivers are stopped for exceedingly minor violations—driving too slowly, malfunctioning lights, failure to signal—which are used as pretext for investigations of the driver and the vehicle. Sanctioned by courts and institutionalized in most police departments, investigatory stops are aimed at "suspicious" drivers and meant to stop crime, not traffic offenses. And as the authors note, "virtually all of the wide racial disparity in the likelihood of being stopped is concentrated in one category of stops: discretionary stops for minor violations of the law."
The difference between the two kinds of stops is dramatic. Where traffic safety stops are mostly painless (other than tickets), investigatory stops involve searches, impromptu interrogations, and occasionally handcuffs and weapons.
That Walter Scott was driving a Mercedes may not have helped. As the University of Kansas researchers found, an African-American man under 40 had a 36 percent chance of getting pulled over for an investigatory stop in a given year if he drove a domestic luxury car—versus 21 percent for if he drove a non-luxury car. (Scott was 50.)
And there's a growing body of research showing that implicit bias likely played a role in Slager's split-second decision to shoot Scott. But as Bouie points out, racial bias is hardly relevant when it comes to the traffic stop that started their encounter. "What matters is that this universal suspicion is baked into the culture of police departments across the country, such that all kinds of officers—black as well as white—engage in profiling"—an unknown number of which have turned lethal. And so long as that culture persists, Chris Rock's selfies will keep coming.
Anthony Scott holds a photo of himself, center, and his brothers Walter Scott, left, and Rodney Scott, right, at his home near North Charleston, S.C., April 8, 2015.
The family of Walter Scott, the man who died on Saturday after being shot eight times by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, has decided to sue Slager, the city of North Charleston, and its police department. The civil lawsuit, which will seek damages for wrongful death and civil rights violations, follows murder charges already filed against the now-dismised officer.
Scott's family is hardly the first to seek civil damages after a police killing. In recent months, relatives of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner have all pursued civil court claims, where success isn't contingent on a criminal ruling against any police officer. But in the event that the Scott family wins a settlement, it's highly unlikely that Slager himself will have to pay. As I reported in January:
Instead, taxpayers will shoulder the cost. Between 2006 and 2011, New York City paid out $348 million in settlements or judgments in cases pertaining to civil rights violations by police, according to a UCLA study published in June 2014. Those nearly 7,000 misconduct cases included allegations of excessive use of force, sexual assault, unreasonable searches, andfalse arrests. More than 99 percent of the payouts came from the city's municipal budget, which has a line item dedicated to settlements and judgments each year. (The city did require police to pay a tiny fraction of the total damages, with officers personally contributing in less than 1 percent of the cases for a total of $114,000.)
This scenario is typical of police departments across the country, says the study's author Joanna Schwartz, who analyzed records from 81 law enforcement agencies employing 20 percent of the nation's approximately 765,000 police officers. (The NYPD, which is responsible for three-quarters of the cases in the study, employs just over 36,000 officers.) Out of the more than $735 million paid out by cities and counties for police misconduct between 2006 and 2011, government budgets paid more than 99 percent. Local laws indemnifying officers from responsibility for such damages vary, but "there is little variation in the outcome," Schwartz wrote. "Officers almost never pay."
Schwartz's study did not include North Charleston or any other law enforcement agency in South Carolina. But if other jurisdictions serve as any indication, Slager likely won't pay a dime, even if a jury finds him guilty of murdering Scott. Out of the 7,000 cases of police misconduct Schwartz studied, only 700 officers were convicted of a criminal charge. And only 40 officers ever contributed to a civil settlement out of their own pocket.
But data shows that legal consequences for cops who kill remain rare.
Jaeah LeeApr. 8, 2015 5:50 PM
The Reverend Arthur Prioleau holds a sign during a protest in the shooting death of Walter Scott at city hall in North Charleston on Wednesday.
Michael Slager, the North Charleston police officer who on Tuesday was charged with the murder of 50-year-old Walter Scott, is one of at least three white officers in South Carolina over the past year to be charged in the shooting death of an unarmed black man. The South Carolina cases, all of which are ongoing, seem to stand in contrast to proceedings around recent high-profile killings by police in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Cleveland, including the swift reaction by authorities in North Charleston to harrowing footage of Scott's killing that surfaced Tuesday. "I have watched the video and I was sickened by what I saw," police chief Eddie Driggers told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday, not long after the city's mayor announced Slager's firing.
But data shows that the response to Slager's case is a rare exception. Between 2010 and 2014, according to Columbia, South Carolina's the State newspaper, at least 209 suspects were shot at by police in South Carolina, including 79 people who died. In only three of the 209 cases were officers investigated for misuse of force, and none have been convicted. Among the suspects killed, 34 were black and 41 were white (in four cases the suspect's race is unclear), and about half of all suspects shot were black, according to the data gathered by the State.
This mirrors what we know about the national landscape, although data on officer-involved shootings is far from comprehensive and broad patterns are difficult to discern. As Mother Jones has reported previously, officer-involved killings seldom lead to a charge, let alone a conviction. L. Chris Stewart, an attorney representing the Scott family, told the Los Angeles Times he believed that the video was the only reason Slager is facing charges.
The video from South Carolina, says a criminal-justice expert, "makes it almost impossible to claim that the victim was resisting arrest with violence."
There are key differences between the eyewitness video from Scott's case in North Charleston and the one that captured Eric Garner's death in New York, says Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The video of Scott's shooting "makes it almost impossible to claim that the victim was resisting arrest with violence," she says, or to suggest that the victim's general state of physical health caused his death, as police did in Garner's case. The video makes clear that Scott was running away when he was gunned down, she says. "So, where is the threat that would justify such a violent police response?"
Here are the two other recent cases in South Carolina:
In what appears to be a coincidence of timing, on Tuesday a grand jury in North Augusta charged police officer Justin Craven for the February 2014 shooting of Earnest Satterwhite Sr., a 68-year-old black man who'd driven away after Craven tried to stop him for a traffic violation. A prosecutor had sought to charge Craven with voluntary manslaughter, but the grand jury reduced the charge to a misdemeanor: firing a gun at an occupied vehicle. According toa report from the Associated Press, Satterwhite had been arrested and convicted multiple times for traffic violations, including DUIs, but he had no record of violence nor physical altercations with police on his criminal record.
In December 2014, a grand jury indicted former Eutawville police chief Richard Combs for murder in the May 2011 shooting death of 54-year-old Bernard Bailey. Combs had issued Bailey's daughter a traffic ticket, and when Bailey went to the town hall to contest it, he and Combs got into a physical altercation. Combs shot Bailey twice in the chest. The US Justice Department cleared Combs of criminal wrongdoing in 2013, but last August, after Eutawville agreed to pay a $400,000 wrongful-death settlement to Bailey's family, a local prosecutor brought the murder case to the grand jury.
Tennessee has joined a list that includes 17 states.
Jaeah LeeApr. 8, 2015 6:15 AM
Guns kill more people than cars do in a growing number of states, according to a new analysis of national mortality data from the Violence Policy Center. The report finds that in 2013, firearm-related deaths exceeded those caused by motor vehicles in 17 states and the District of Columbia. This means that four more states have crossed this threshold since 2012, including Louisiana, Missouri, Virginia, and Tennessee. In Nashville this Friday, the National Rifle Association opens the doors to its 144th annual convention.
The Violence Policy Center's report is the latest among severalstudies indicating that guns are soon likely to surpass cars as America's "top killing machine." While traffic safety regulations have helped reduce the number of motor-vehicle-related deaths over the years, the report notes that the number of deaths caused by firearms has been creeping up, as the chart below shows. That's noteworthy in part because about90 percent of American households own a car, but less than a third of American households own guns.