Why Did Police Kill Jose Guerena?

After an Arizona SWAT team opened fire on the former Marine, many troubling questions were left unanswered, including why officers refused to let paramedics help Guerena. The tragedy brings into stark focus the ongoing debate about law enforcement and racial profiling.

SWIFT INJUSTICE?: Former U.S. Marine Jose Guerena was shot down in his own home by police.

The morning of May 5 must have been a nightmare for the Guerena family. After a SWAT team shot 71 bullets at 26-year-old Jose Guerena in his home, his wife Vanessa Guerena dialed 911, begging for an ambulance. It was about 9:30 a.m. in Tucson, Ariz., and Jose Guerena, a former U.S. Marine and Iraq War veteran, had just confronted the SWAT team with a rifle.

Paramedics arrived at the scene and waited an hour and 14 minutes for the clear to go in, but deputies never allowed them to treat or examine Guerena. At 10:59 a.m., Jose Guerena was pronounced dead. Of the 71 bullets, 22 had hit and killed him.

Vanessa Guerena later told the media that she and her husband thought the raid was a home invasion. She had seen a man with a gun through a window and had awoken Jose Guerena, who had been sleeping after working a night shift, according to news reports. Vanessa Guerena said her husband told her and their 4-year-old son Joel to hide in the closet and then went to face the intruders.

Moments later, the SWAT team opened fire on Jose Guerena. Some police officers later explained they thought they saw a muzzle flash, but they later learned that Jose Guerena hadn’t even taken his gun off safety.

As Jose Guerena bled to death, the 911 operator asked Vanessa Guerena questions to determine if she was calling from one of the houses a SWAT team had been sent to. The recording of the phone conversation has been released and can be heard on the Arizona Daily Star website.

“Please send me an ambulance and you can ask more questions later, please!” Vanessa Guerena said over the phone.

The video of the shooting taken from an officer’s helmet camera has been released and published by KGUN 9 news. (Note: The video is not graphic. You can see and hear the SWAT team shooting, but Jose Guerena’s body is not visible.)
 

Facing pressure to come clean with the details, the sheriff said last week that the raid was part of a 20-month drug and homicide investigation. But in the end, police didn’t find any drugs in the Guerena home. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department has reluctantly been releasing more information over the past month, including the above video, a transcript of their interrogation of Vanessa Guerena (part one and part two), and the transcript of the debriefing after the shooting.

On Thursday, the Sheriff’s Department finally released the search warrant, along with affidavits and property sheets. The new information gives us an idea why they suspected Jose Guerena of being connected to their drug and homicide investigation, but lacks any evidence that would have warranted an arrest.

But now, not even the most condemning evidence could diminish the tragedy that occurred. Perhaps one of the reasons this particular tragedy strikes deeply is because history carries many such stories of police aggression against minorities—revealing a prejudice that hasn’t disappeared.

In the instant an officer’s finger rests on the trigger, the shade of the suspect’s skin can influence their decision to fire. University of Chicago assistant professor Joshua Correll and other researchers ran a study in which police officers had to decide whether or not to shoot a suspect in a video simulation. The study found that officers made the decision to shoot armed black suspects more quickly than armed white suspects, according to “Race as a Trigger” in The Chicago Reporter.

When such a racial bias exists, the death of Jose Guerena is yet another incident that is widening the rift between law enforcement and minority communities.

Even if the SWAT team was convinced Jose Guerena was ready to shoot them, was it necessary to fire 71 bullets at him, and then leave him to bleed to death? And even if Jose Guerena was a criminal (and there’s no proof that he was), does that mean he deserved to die? Without a trial, and under the gaze of his wife and son, no less?

In this instance, one can’t help but think authorities treated the Guerena family worse than criminals, rather than treating them like people—a dying father, a wife mourning the loss of her husband, and a son traumatized by his own father’s death. Which should make you think: where’s the line between righteously enforcing the law to protect society and enforcing it so aggressively that you forget your suspects are fellow human beings?

How are we as Christians called to respond when that line is crossed? Should we demand justice for Jose Guerena’s death, extend forgiveness to the officers who perhaps realize now that they made a terrible mistake, or both? And how can we heal the rift that’s grown between law enforcement and minority communities?

In the end, it’s kids who ask the toughest questions. Reyna Ortiz, a relative looking after Vanessa Guerena and her children, told ABC News that Jose Guerena’s 4-year-old son Joel is asking, “Why did the police kill my daddy?”

About the author, Catherine Newhouse

Catherine Newhouse is an UrbanFaith blogger from the Chicago area who attends the University of Missouri, where she is majoring in journalism, religious studies and international studies. She has written for Christianity Today, the Columbia Missourian and The Chicago Reporter, a newsmagazine that investigates race and poverty in the city. She blogs at ponderingpeace.tumblr.com and can be contacted via Twitter and email.
  1. This has NOTHING TO DO WITH RACE. I wish you would stop that. This has to do with the POLICE STATE and the MILITARIZATION of the POLICE.
    Please stop using the Obama Race Card. IT STINKS!!
    This death is about the prohibition of a plant, called CANNABIS.
    You obviously need to do more research. As Christians we must work to end the Police State mentality and prohibition. If you Christians (why do you have to label everyone???) could have helped us for the last 40 years, maybe this would not have happened.