A security guard who shot 60-year old Jiansheng Chen in Chesapeake, Virginia last month now faces second-degree murder charges, and the security company he worked for has been fired by the Homeowner’s Association at the complex where Chen was killed.
Chen was reportedly playing “Pokemon Go” — an enhanced reality game wherein users visit local landmarks to collect pokemon and send them into battle — on the evening of January 26th when he pulled into the driveway of the clubhouse at the Riverwalk community complex less than a mile from his house. While parked in his minivan, Chen — whom family say had started playing the mobile app to better relate with his grandkids — was confronted by a vehicle driven by security guard 21-year-old Johnathan Cromwell of Virginia Beach that pulled up in front of him to block him. Chen then backed his minivan out of the Riverwalk clubhouse driveway and turned to face the street, apparently preparing to leave. That’s when Cromwell reportedly got out of his car and fired several shots from a handgun, hitting Chen five times, including four times in the chest.
Chen, who was 60 years old and unarmed, died on the scene.
In the aftermath of this clearly unjustified shooting, several questions have been raised. Did Cromwell receive proper training in how to non-violently de-escalate a confrontation, particularly when engaging someone whose English language proficiency is limited and who may not be able to understand (and therefore comply with) verbal orders? Was Cromwell’s rush to use lethal force influenced in any way by implicit anti-Asian bias? Was Cromwell even permitted to carry a firearm in his capacity as a private security guard?
Dispute over this latter point may underlie the announcement today that the Riverwalk Homeowner’s Association (HOA) has fired the security company that sent Cromwell to patrol the complex on the night of Chen’s shooting. The Riverwalk HOA says their contract explicitly calls for unarmed guards, whereas the private security company hired to patrol the community, Citywide Protection Services, says the contract they signed permitted their guards to carry guns. It is illegal in Virginia for a security guard to bring a firearm to a site that requests unarmed security patrols.
The progressive militarization of private (and public) law enforcement and public safety officers is a growing concern in America, as these officers are increasingly using lethal force to resolve even the most minor of confrontations. Riverwalk residents report that Cromwell’s excessive reaction to Chen’s presence at the clubhouse was part of a larger pattern of overly aggressive behaviour by Citywide Protection Services security officers in the community. Meanwhile, others have unnecessarily lost their lives to private and public security in the last several years. In 2012, self-appointed “neighbourhood watch coordinator” George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a fellow resident at their gated community who had gone to the store for candy and a drink. Meanwhile, over a thousand people are killed annually by public law enforcement officers, according to The Guardian’s The Counted; most of those victims are Black, although some such as Barry Prak, Fong Lee, Feras Morad, and Ryo Oyamada are Asian American. Indeed, although people of colour make up roughly one-quarter of America, we (and in particular Black, Latino and Native people) make up nearly half of those killed by law enforcement.
These startling statistics suggest that it’s time to take a long and hard look at law enforcement culture in America. Do the people we hire to protect public safety actually fulfill their mission to serve and protect? Or, has our law enforcement’s increasing embrace of military-style tactics and weapons — as well as a lack of police accountability and a general failure to challenge the implicit bias of public safety officers — undermined that public service mission when it comes to the safety of communities of colour? Again, I wonder: who watches the watchmen?
Acknowledging this problem, three Congresspersons, including Asian American Representatives Grace Meng and Bobby Scott, have come together in a joint statement calling for a law that public safety officers be required to receive comprehensive training in non-lethal de-escalation tactics. It reads in part:
We are deeply saddened over the death of Jiansheng Chen. We are also concerned about the manner and circumstances in which he lost his life. Many questions remain and need to be answered, and we call on local authorities to conduct their investigation thoroughly and expeditiously. We must know how a game of Pokémon Go turned into a fatal shooting.
It is our hope that Congress will act in a bipartisan manner to ensure law enforcement personnel receive high quality, evidence-based training in non-lethal de-escalation tactics. We must continue to work together to emphasize the need for reasonable and effective polices that reflect our nation’s moral obligation to keep our communities safe.
Meanwhile, Virginia’s Asian American community is demanding justice for Jiansheng Chen, including creating a Facebook page and organizing street protests caught on video in the following clip.
A local resident also started a Change.org petition demanding charges be filed against Cromwell. That petition was delivered to the Chesapeake Commonwealth Attorney’s Office at 4500 signatures, and currently has collected over 3000 more.
As of Monday, Citywide Protection Services says that Cromwell is still an employee at the private security company even while he faces criminal charges in Chen’s death.