Aunt Who Witnessed Fatal Police Shooting in Kansas Recounts What Led to Death of Mentally Ill Teen
In Kansas, Ottawa police shot and killed Joseph Jennings, an 18-year-old who was mentally ill, on August 23. At least two officers on the scene were well aware that he suffered from seizures and had responded to a call one day ago to take him to the hospital to pump his stomach after he tried to overdose on drugs and kill himself. Still, the police responded with a heavy-handedness that resulted in Jennings’ death.
Brandy Smith was Joseph Jennings’ aunt. While he was her nephew, she raised him like a son. And she was at the scene while police officers surrounded him.
The biggest question Smith has is why police did not bring anyone to assist them so they could de-escalate the situation and calm Jennings down. She said tried to help the officers, but they rejected attempts to help.
In an interview, Smith was asked to describe what had happened to her nephew. She was very concerned that she would speak to another media outlet and her words would be twisted. She seemed to want, more than anything, someone to listen to her and hear a full account of what had transpired before, during and after the police shooting so people could better understand what happened. She volunteered almost all of the information about Jennings that appears in this report. And, she talked for nearly thirty minutes, managing to keep her composure even though her voice demonstrated that this was all very painful for her to discuss and relive.
As she described, She could see the crime scene from her bedroom window. “I ran over barefoot and all, screamed at the top of my lungs. As you can tell, my voice is hoarse and this is not from crying. That’s Joseph Jennings. Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. He just got out of the hospital. He’s suicidal. Don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I said it.”
“I told Joseph, please, Joseph don’t do this. It’s not worth it. We love you. We’ll get you some help. Don’t do this,” Smith recalled. “He told me go home. I told him, no, I love you. I’m not leaving. You need to just calm down, work this out.”
Both Smith and her husband attempted to help the officers so this did not end so tragically.
“I went over there trying to assist them. I had guns in my face. … Pointed at us. I came over. I was in reaching distance of Joseph Jennings. I told my husband to get him. My husband went to reach for him, and the police said get back or we’ll shoot. I said let us get him. Please let us. We can get him,” Smith recounted.
“He’s got a gun,” the police told her. “I said yes, I’d never seen a gun. If he’s got a gun, it’s a BB gun. We don’t own weapons. I’m telling you he just got out of the hospital at 4:20. I got to the house at 4:30. There’s no way. He’s been in my sight the whole time. Please don’t shoot him.”
Police decided to use a taser, but Smith asked the officers not to use the weapon because Jennings suffered from seizures and had heart problems. So, police decided to fire beanbag rounds at him instead.
Smith further recounted, “They said beanbag him. They bean bagged him. He lost his balance a little. He kind of took some deep breaths, a little bit. Never did he reach for a weapon. They beanbagged him two more times. He lost his balance. They beanbagged him again. He was getting ready to go down. His arm came up a little, and they opened fire on him—24 rounds.”
Ottawa police have claimed 8 officers were involved. Smith maintained that it was at least 14 police officers, who participated in the shooting incident.
“Like they said in their own news conference,” Smith said, “Every situation is different.” But, if police know that, “why do they not realize that when something like that goes down? Why? If every situation is different, then they should handle every situation differently.”
Smith is upset with what police officers on the scene did, but she wanted it to be clear she has no “vendetta” against police.
“We are not angry toward the police department,” Smith explained. “We understand they had policies and procedures in place to protect and serve the community. However, those same two officers that were here that night when they assisted in taking him to the hospital and had his stomach pumped knew him, knew his mental state. That’s what gets me and rips my heart out the most.”
When asked what happened at the start of the interview, Smith did not start by describing the shooting that killed Jennings. She started with what had happened in the days before and the “roller coaster of emotions” that Jennings had been struggling with in what would sadly become the final days of his life.
Four days before police shot him, he was hospitalized for a seizure that “lasted about an hour and a half.” Smith said Ransom Hospital was “taking its time to treat him.” She wanted the hospital to release Jennings to another hospital. They became insistent and that led to the hospital calling the police.
Two officers arrived, but by then the situation was calmer. The officers indicated that once Jennings woke up he could sign himself out and go to another hospital.
“We got home. We took him to the Lawrence Hospital to treat his seizures. He was fine. He came home,” according to Smith.
Three days after, Jennings came to Smith and said he wanted to talk. He believed these would be the last moments of his life.
…He came in [and] told me he wanted to talk to me. I went over in the bedroom to sit by him and he asked me if I forgave him. I told him of course. I don’t know what you’re talking about, but of course I do. He seemed really tired. He said, well, I’m not going to be here in thirty minutes. I said what did you do Joseph? He was reluctant to tell me. He would not tell me. He had just gotten his prescriptions filled that day.
I said, Joseph, what did you take? I had my husband call 911. The same two police officers that were at the hospital during that seizure were the first on the scene to assist him with his overdosing. The cop was very sarcastic towards him, not very empathetic or sympathetic at all. [He was] very untrained on how to handle situations like that…
Jennings was taken to the hospital. He was there until 4:20 pm the next day. On Saturday, the hospital and psychiatrist released him. Smith believed in their judgment, “that he was okay enough to leave.”
She was told to “keep an eye on him. I said I would do my best. He was eighteen years-old. I can’t control him.”
Jennings came home, took a short nap, woke up and then he wanted to ride his motorcycle. Smith said she asked him not to go too far. He rode to a parking lot and then went around the block. When he came back, the motorcycle was no longer working properly.
He was upset and agitated, but Smith made it clear he had not yelled or screamed. She suggested he go for a walk. They would get his bike fixed.
“He loved his motorcycle. He had just gotten it not too long ago,” Smith added. “Next thing I know, I’m getting ready to make dinner, send my husband to the grocery store to pick up a few items.” About five minutes later she learned police were about to shoot Joseph.
Smith is willing to be patient and wait for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s review of the shooting to be completed, however, she wants everyone to know that Joseph Jennings was not a “troublemaking teenager.”
“I raised Joseph. I had to witness my nephew, my son die,” Smith declared. “He didn’t want to live. And, I understand you can’t stop somebody if they don’t want to live, but, at the same time, he deserved help, not to be killed.”
Jennings had been in foster care since he was 11-years-old. He managed to “beat all the odds,” Smith said, and finish high school. He was enrolled in Neosho County Community College. He had a full scholarship. He was about to begin his second year of college and get a certificate in underwater welding. He already had graduated last year with a certificate in welding.
He had wanted to be in the military. His seizures prevented him from enlisting, which disappointed him, but he sought other opportunities.
Jennings had not trusted the police to help him. As Smith said, who could blame him? But, remarkably, she did not call for their prosecution. She expressed a desire to see the officers learn and recognize that what they did was wrong so that next time they did not do the same thing again.
“I understand the need to take care of a situation. I feel me and my husband could have saved Joseph Jennings’ life if they would’ve just known and had the training to allow us,” Smith asserted.
“We need to stand up and help these police officers get the knowledge and training they need to help those that are disabled or to help them not to shoot and ask questions later.”
“I understand they want to go home to their families. I want them to go home to their family. I appreciate the ones that are out there doing the right thing. My cousin’s a police officer. I respect them. I do, but when something like this happens, it just tears my heart out because I know that they’re not all bad,” Smith explained.
Yet, she added, “You hear too much of teenagers getting killed. You know, their brains haven’t even developed enough to comprehend what the consequences of their actions are.”
“Do I believe Joseph Jennings knew what he was doing at the time? No,” Smith said. “And the reason why I say that is he was in this frame of mind. When you’re suicidal, you’re in the zone and people with these emotional scars and suicidal tendencies are very sensitive people. That’s why they’re in that situation. And the force that they used against him was uncalled for.”
Police had weapons that appeared to be AR-15s—military-grade rifles, according to Smith.
She mentioned what has been happening in Ferguson. Though the two incidents are distinctly different, she is worried about police overkill. “When are we going to put a stop to it?”
“It seems like they want to be in charge or power, and you don’t undermine my authority,” Smith declared. “I respect authority but there’s a fine line when you have to give respect to get it. You’re there to protect and serve your community, not your community protect and serve you.”
“I just hope and pray that these police officers go away from this incident with the knowledge to know how to handle another situation like this and not be so brutal about it,” Smith concluded.