BROWNSVILLE, Texas - The parents of a teenage student who was fatally shot by U.S. police inside his South Texas school are demanding to know why officers took lethal action, but police said the boy was brandishing - and refused to drop - what appeared to be a handgun.
The weapon turned out to be a pellet gun that closely resembled the real thing, police said late Wednesday, several hours after 15-year-old Jaime Gonzalez was repeatedly shot in a hallway at Cummings Middle School. No one else was injured.
“Why was so much excess force used on a minor?” the boy's father, Jaime Gonzalez Sr., told The Associated Press outside the family's home Wednesday night. “Three shots. Why not one that would bring him down?”
His mother, Noralva Gonzalez, showed off a photo on her phone of a beaming Jaime in his drum major uniform standing with his band instructors. Then she flipped through three close-up photos she took of bullet wounds in her son's body - including one in the back of the head.
“What happened was an injustice,” she said angrily. “I know that my son wasn't perfect, but he was a great kid.”
Interim Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez said the teen was pointing the weapon at officers and “had plenty of opportunities to lower the gun and listen to the officers' orders, and he didn't want to.”
The chief said his officers had every right to do what they did to protect themselves and other students even though there weren't many others in the hallway at the time. Two officers fired three shots, hitting Gonzalez at least twice, police said.
Shortly before the confrontation, Jaime had walked into a classroom and punched a boy in the nose for no apparent reason, Rodriguez said. Police did not know why he pulled out the weapon, but “we think it looks like this was a way to bring attention to himself,” Rodriguez said.
About 20 minutes elapsed between police receiving a call about an armed student and shots being fired, according to police and student accounts. Authorities declined to share what the boy said before he was shot.
The shooting happened during first period at the school in Brownsville, a city at Texas' southern tip just across the Mexican border. Teachers locked classroom doors and turned off lights, and some frightened students dove under their desks. They could hear police charge down the hallway and shout for Gonzalez to drop the weapon, followed by several shots.
David A. Dusenbury, a retired deputy police chief in Long Beach, California, who now consults on police tactics, said the officers were probably justified.
If the boy was raising the gun as if to fire at someone, “then it's unfortunate, but the officer certainly would have the right under the law to use deadly force.”
A recording of police radio traffic posted on KGBT-TV's website indicates that officers responding to the school believed the teen had a handgun. An officer is heard describing the teen's appearance, saying he's “holding a handgun, black in colour.”
Less than two minutes later, someone yells over the radio, “Shots fired,” and emergency crews are asked to respond. About two minutes later, someone asks where the boy was shot, with the responses that he was shot in the chest and “from the back of the head.”
Superintendent Carl Montoya remembered Gonzalez as “a very positive young man.”
“He did music. He worked well with everybody. Just something unfortunately happened today that caused his behaviour to go the way it went. So I don't know,” he said Wednesday.
Gonzalez Sr. said he had no idea where his son got the gun or why he brought it to school, adding: “We wouldn't give him a gift like that.”
He said he last saw his son around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, when the boy said goodbye before leaving to catch the bus to school. And he said nothing seemed amiss the night before when he, his wife and their son went out for nachos then went home and watched a movie.
Gonzalez Sr. was struggling to reconcile the day's events, saying his son seemed to be doing better in school and was always helpful around the neighbourhood mowing neighbours' lawns, washing dogs and carrying his toolbox off to fix other kids' bikes.
Two dozen of his son's friends and classmates gathered in the dark street outside the family's home Wednesday night. Jaime's best friend, 16-year-old Star Rodriguez, said her favourite memory was when Jaime came to her party Dec. 29 and they danced and sang together.
“He was like a brother to me,” she said.