I remember where I was the night Deven died. I was at home watching a movie with my husband when the first emergency vehicle flew past my house. Living right on the main road that leads in and out of town, it’s not unusual to hear sirens now and again. But that night, they just kept coming. And then the online gossip started. A police officer had killed a seventeen-year-old boy on his way home from church, who, just moments before shots rang out, was on his knees with his hands in the air, surrendering. What?!
THINGS LIKE THAT DON’T HAPPEN HERE
No, really, they don’t. Grand Ledge is a peaceful town with virtually non-existent violent crime statistics, much unlike the nearby larger town I grew up in. It’s safe, quiet, quaint, friendly- picture perfect, really. Our police officers don’t kill people, let alone children. Grand Ledge simply isn’t that kind of place. There had to be more to the story.
I’ve always been a staunch supporter of our men and women in uniform. The job they do and the risks they take in the interest of public safety make them heroes in my eyes. All of my interactions with law enforcement in my 35 years of life have been positive, most of them of a helpful nature (give or take a bogus traffic ticket or two.) I remember sitting at my dining room table with a young, red-headed Grand Ledge Police Officer on more than one occasion in recent years, thanks to a crazy former neighbor who was constantly calling the police on me for the most ridiculous offenses, such as: stealing the rusty old shovel he used to clean up his dog’s messes (I didn’t), stealing his parking spot (the townhouse complex we lived in didn’t have assigned parking), and allowing my children to “play too loudly.” Every time, Officer Red Hair would knock on my door, an apologetic smile on his face, ask to come in, and then we would sit and joke about how bonkers the old guy next door was before he went over to his place to chastise him about calling the police for such nonsensical reasons. When I first heard about the shooting, I thought of him. It was impossible for me to imagine him or any of his coworkers killing someone, anyone, especially a kid, without just cause.
THE AWFUL TRUTH
It took over three months for the official report on Deven’s death to be released by the Eaton County Prosecutor’s Office, which can be read in its entirety HERE. During that time, the nation rioted over the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police in Baltimore, and was outraged over alleged police brutality at an out of control pool party in McKinney, Texas. All the while, no one seemed too concerned about the teenager gunned down by police on his way home from church. Not even people in the community where it happened. I wonder why that is?
The same day the prosecutor's report was released, so were the videos from Sgt. Frost’s bodycam and Deven Guilford’s cell phone. The prosecuting attorney determined that Sgt. Frost was acting in self-defense when he shot an unarmed teenager seven times, and the sheriff’s department restored him to full duty. I needed to know why. If this man was going to be back policing the streets that my teenage son is driving on, I needed to feel safe in that. So, even though I knew it would break my heart to do it, I watched the video. And the truth behind the death of Deven Guilford is more horrific than anything I could have imagined.
The video can be viewed in its entirety below. It starts from the viewpoint of Frost’s bodycam just after he pulls Deven over for flashing his brights at him (which Deven did as a courtesy because he thought Frost's brights were on), then becomes a split screen when Deven begins recording with his cell phone. Just as the physical altercation begins, Frost’s bodycam conveniently goes black. He claims it was ripped from his body during the struggle. Deven’s cell phone, which has been thrown into the road by Frost at this point, continues to record audio until the tragic end.
WARNING: DISTURBING FOOTAGE
Award winning actor/director Matthew Cooke did a tremendous job breaking down the video and the prosecutor's report, which you can view HERE:
It’s been argued that Matthew’s video is biased. Of course it is. He believes that a teenage boy was murdered by a police officer, and his video poignantly explains all the reasons why. To that end, this article is also biased, because I believe the same thing. But just because someone feels differently than you about an issue doesn’t mean you can discount the facts they present to you. The following are FACTS (followed by commentary in italics, lest someone claim I'm trying to pass my opinions off as facts):
FACT: Sgt. Frost was aware that his headlights were too bright before he even pulled Deven over for flashing him. He admits to Deven on video that a “couple other people” had flashed him that evening and told him they thought his brights were on when he pulled them over. In fact, police records reveal that Sgt. Frost pulled over another vehicle at 8:21pm, and was informed that the driver thought his brights were on. Deven was pulled over just four minutes later. (Source: Video footage from the scene and prosecuting attorney’s report.)
Based on this information, it can be argued that what Sgt. Frost was doing was entrapment. He knew the lights on his new police vehicle were too bright, yet continued to pull people over when they flashed him as a courtesy. Certainly after the first time he was flashed by a citizen, his concern should have been getting the lights fixed, not continuing to use them as an excuse to pull people over. In Deven’s own words, “I could not see. I was gonna crash. I was just doing that to be polite.”
FACT: While argumentative, Deven’s behavior was not dangerous or threatening. Sgt. Frost called for backup twice, but did not wait for backup to arrive before escalating the confrontation from verbal to physical by trying to pull Deven out of his car. Only thirteen seconds pass between the time Sgt. Frost requests priority backup, and the time he opens Deven’s door and begins trying to pull him out of the car, which Deven’s seatbelt prevented him from doing. (Source: Video footage from the incident.)
Had Sgt. Frost followed protocol and waited for backup to arrive, Deven would still be alive today.
FACT: Sgt. Frost explained in his written statement that the reason he didn’t wait for backup before trying to pull Deven out of his car was because Deven made a phone call, and Frost suspected that he “may have been part of a sovereign nation or militia movement and feared that the phone call being made was to summon others to come to the scene.” Phone records show that Deven was actually calling his girlfriend, whose car he was driving, and whose house he’d left his driver’s license at. (Source: Prosecuting Attorney’s Report.)
As a member of the community where this occurred, I can tell you that the militia argument is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard in my life. Either Frost is lying to try to justify his actions, or he is an extremely paranoid individual. Either way, he is not someone I want ‘protecting and serving’ the town I live in.
FACT: Sgt. Frost failed to properly deploy his taser. Even the most basic training dictates that a taser must be fired from a distance of at least three feet away in order to be effective. Frost was quite literally on top of Deven at the time he fired the taser- much too close for it to work. As a result, only one of the barbs imbedded in Deven’s skin, the other in his shirt. This would have caused Deven extreme pain, but not enough of a jolt to completely incapacitate him. Taser barbs quite often have to be removed by medical professionals. Individuals are routinely taken to the emergency room after they have been tased for removal of the barbs and treatment of the wounds. (Source- Video footage from the scene and prosecuting attorney’s report.)
FACT: Deven makes no attempt to become physical with Sgt. Frost until AFTER he is tased. As stated directly in the prosecuting attorney’s report: “Michigan law gives a person the right to use force or even take a life to defend him/herself under certain circumstances. If a person uses force within our state’s definition of self-defense, their actions are justified under the law, and they are not guilty of a crime. The Supreme Court clarified that ‘a person is never required to retreat from a sudden, fierce and violent attack; nor is he required to retreat from an attacker who he reasonably believes is about to use a deadly weapon'.” (Source- Video footage from the scene and prosecuting attorney’s report.)
This statement was made in support of Sgt. Frost’s decision to use deadly force, but can just as easily be used to justify Deven’s actions. It is reasonable to believe that a teenager who has been forced to lay on the side of a busy highway in the dark, in below freezing temperatures, wearing nothing but a t-shirt and jeans, who has just had his only lifeline, his cell phone, tossed into the street, has an officer on top of him with his knees in his back, and has just been tased, would feel threatened. According to the law cited in the very report used to exonerate Frost, Deven was within his legal rights at that point to fight back. To what degree Deven did fight back is unknown, as the video is unclear. A freeze frame screen grab from Frost's bodycam video does show Deven getting up and appearing to charge toward Sgt. Frost, but it is safe to assume that, at this point, Deven feels he is fighting for his life.
FACT: Studies have been conducted on police recruits and at the request of Taser International to determine the impact a taser jolt can have on a person's brain. Researchers found that otherwise healthy police recruits suffered “statistically significant reductions in several measures of cognitive functioning five minutes after being tased.” (Source: Pacific Standard.)
Why is this significant? Because it supports the theory that Deven may not have been capable of decision making or conscious thought in the seconds immediately following him being tased. Which means that his decision to physically charge Frost, if that is in fact what happened, may have not been a conscious decision on his part at all.
FACT: Eleven seconds pass between the moment Deven begins to rise from the ground after being tased and the moment the first gunshot is fired. In that time frame, this is Sgt. Frost’s official account of what happened: “Sgt. Frost reported that Deven had quickly jumped from the ground and knocked him backwards after the taser deployment. Deven was swinging his fists. Sgt. Frost backpedaled from Deven and reached for his sidearm. Deven hit him in the head several times with his right fist. Sgt. Frost fell to the ground and Deven sat on his hips, repeatedly punching him in the head. Sgt. Frost’s head hurt, and he tasted blood in his mouth. His eyesight was blurred by blood running into his eyes. He reported feeling as though he was going to lose consciousness. Sgt. Frost decided to shoot his attacker, in part because he feared that if he lost all consciousness Deven would take his gun and shoot him. Sgt. Frost's first attempted gunshot failed. The handgun jammed and the cartridge failed to fire. While he rolled slightly to his side and used both hands to clear the gun (ejecting the unfired cartridge), Sgt Frost was still being hit on his head. Sgt. Frost then turned the gun toward Deven and fired seven times in rapid succession.” It should be noted that Deven’s body was found in a snow-filled ditch, on the other side of the car from where the altercation began, some fifteen feet off the roadway. (Source: Video footage from the scene and prosecuting attorney’s report.)
All of that happened in the span of ELEVEN SECONDS? How anyone can believe that is beyond me. Also curious is how Sgt. Frost was able to draw his gun if Deven was sitting on his hips, punching him in the head and face as he claimed. Just as the jumbled video was slowed to show Deven rising and charging at Frost, an independent third party froze a different part of the video, just before the first shot is fired. It appears to show Frost raising and pointing his gun while using his laser sight. The trajectory of the laser is up and about four or five feet out. This would disprove Sgt. Frost’s claim that Deven was on top of him when he shot him.
FACT: Per Deven’s autopsy report as detailed in the Prosecuting Attorney’s report, at least three of the bullets fired entered his body at a downward trajectory- the wounds to his head, right chest, and lateral left lower chest. The wound to his head was fired at “close, near-contact range, as evidenced by soot on skin.” "Abrasions to Deven’s right forehead, right chin and right chest, right side torso and left forearm were seen." Absolutely no mention is made of injuries or abrasions to his hands. The photographs of Frost’s injuries show blood trailing down his face, rather than back toward his ears, and are not consistent with the images of him captured by another officer’s dashcam video just moments after the incident. (Source: Prosecuting Attorney's report, photos released by ECSD, dashcam video footage obtained through FOIA.)
This evidence does not coincide with Frost's account of events. If Deven was sitting on Frost’s hips, on top of him, how was Frost able to shoot “down” at him? If Deven punched Frost in the face and head “several times” with enough force to render him nearly unconscious, his hands would be bruised, bloodied, and possibly even broken. Yet there is no mention of any sort of injury to his hands in the report. If Frost was lying on the ground with Deven on top of him as he was being “punched repeatedly,” the blood on his face would be trailing across the sides of his face, toward his ears. The fact that it is running straight down his face is more consistent with him being in a sitting or standing position the entire time. In addition, dashcam footage from one of the first responding officer’s vehicles obtained through a FOIA request shows Frost walking away from Deven’s car with another officer just a few minutes after the incident. He is walking unassisted, does not appear to be “near the point of unconsciousness,” and has just a little bit of blood running down the center of his face. Additional evidence obtained through FOIA reveals audio of him asking how his face looks, laughing, and referring to Deven as a "stupid kid." Frost’s injuries were minor, and he was released from the hospital the next morning. There was no abdominal wound, and he was never in critical or even serious condition, as was widely reported by media outlets in the days following the shooting.
Video of Frost walking away from the scene:
|Photo of Frost after arriving at the hospital. Must have been a bumpy ride?|
FACT: A dashcam video obtained through a FOIA request shows Officer Blevernicht of the GLPD talking on the phone, even laughing, and stating that Frost is "not seriously hurt" just moments after the incident. (Source: Dashcam video footage obtained through FOIA.)
Despite this, Deven's family was led to believe that the officer who killed their son was rushed to the hospital with life threatening injuries. Similar stories were reported by multiple media outlets, greatly exaggerating Frost's condition.
FACT: Sgt. Frost declined to be interviewed during the investigation conducted by the Michigan State Police, but agreed to talk during an internal investigation conducted by the Eaton County Sheriff’s Department. The internal investigation cleared Frost of any wrongdoing, saying that he followed all department “regulations, general orders and training.” Sheriff Tom Reich stated he doesn’t believe changes in department policies are needed, and said of Guilford’s death, “I can’t say that it’s not going to happen again.” (Source: Lansing State Journal, 8/22/15.)
Frost failed to properly operate his gun after failing to follow protocol and wait for backup, failing to properly use his taser, and failing to be able to physically subdue an unarmed teenager who had never so much as been in a fist fight. At a bare minimum, he is terrible at his job. To say that additional training isn’t needed is incredibly negligent. Also, how is it possible that the only law enforcement officials he's ever spoken to about what happened are his coworkers?
FACT: Sgt. Frost is back out patrolling the same street where he took a life not even six months ago.
He wasn't charged with murder, wasn't fired, and wasn't given a desk job- he's back on the streets, pulling people over for traffic violations. It must be pointed out that BEFORE he killed a teenager, he was bad at his job. He didn't know how to properly deescalate a situation, follow protocol, fire his taser or his gun, and was paranoid about militias that don't exist. Now, he's killed a child after being, according to him, 'viciously attacked' during a routine traffic stop. People all over the world have seen his face and know his name and believe he's a killer. And we're supposed to believe he's better at his job or less paranoid now?
A TOWN DIVIDED
How anyone can watch the videos and read the reports and still come to the conclusion that Frost is innocent, I will never understand. But that is what many people believe. Our town seems to be split right down the middle- those who support the Guilfords and those who support Sgt. Frost. I wish I could say that things haven’t gotten ugly, but they have, and continue to. Frost’s supporters and the general public feel it’s time to “move on.” But Deven’s family and supporters want justice. How can we, as a community, even begin to heal when so many of us believe that a teenage boy was murdered, and his killer is back out policing the streets? I don’t know the answer to that. How do we get into these heated debates online that often turn into insults and threats and nit-picky arguments that usually wind up so far off base from where they started, and then go grocery shopping at the same stores, or sit beside one another at the movie theater or doctor’s office? I don’t know the answer to that, either. We as a society have become so accustomed to being “keyboard warriors,” saying whatever we want without consequence, we’re forgetting that in this instance, the people we’re fighting with are our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends.
I know that personally, it hurts my heart every time I find out someone I know/care about/respect is on Sgt. Frost’s side. I grew up a quote unquote liberal in a houseful of conservatives, so I’m no stranger to a difference of opinions, conflicts, or even staying quiet sometimes just to keep the peace. There are so many issues that can be sidestepped or avoided in the interest of remaining civil, but to me, the unwarranted death of a teenage boy at the hands of a law enforcement officer is not one of those things. So how do we advocate for something we feel incredibly passionate about without going to war with half the town? Who knows.
I’m of the belief that at this point in time, nobody is going to change anyone’s mind. We all feel how we feel, and we all have to find a way to make peace with the difference of opinions. If the topic of Deven’s death comes up in conversation, and I can tell that I’m talking to a Frost supporter who is at least some degree of informed about what happened, I change the subject. While I may question your judgment, I will accept your stance. I won’t respect it, but I’ll accept it. I will never shy away from stating my opinion, but I won’t debate it with you. I will, however, continue to spread Deven’s story and share the additional information as it comes out. The supporters, the uninformed, and the unaware are who I’m reaching out to. I will admit, however, that there are triggers that can draw me into any conversation. I’m working on that. Lies, sheer ignorance, and blatant defamation of Deven and his family are just a few of them. Regardless of how you feel about the issue, I find it downright deplorable, the things people are saying about a dead child and his family. The Guilfords are our neighbors. They’re not a news headline, they are members of our community. Have some damn respect.
THIS COULD HAVE BEEN YOUR SON
It could have been my son. I think about that fact often. Just like Deven, my son comes from a loving home. Just like Deven, my son is a good kid. He’s smart, athletic, loves his family, loves his friends. Those are the qualities that keep me from selling him on the black market when he’s being argumentative and defiant. Because, guess what? TEENAGERS ARE OFTEN ARGUMENTATIVE AND DEFIANT. As a parent, I’ve had to learn how to deal with it without losing my shit. I would assume police officers are expected to be able to do the same? Sgt. Frost didn’t pull over a dangerous threat to society. He pulled over a scared, stubborn kid who didn’t have his license, was driving someone else’s car, and felt he shouldn’t have been pulled over in the first place. Police officers are trained to DEESCALATE situations, not make them worse. And Frost made things worse at every turn.
I would like to think that my son would know how to conduct himself during a traffic stop, but you know what? Before this happened, he might not have. He might have challenged the validity of the stop. He might have been afraid of getting in trouble at home if he got a ticket, or of being taken to jail if he didn’t have his license on him. He might have tried to argue his way out of it. And he might have ended up just like Deven because of it. What a sickening, sobering thought.
That would never happen now, of course. He refused to watch the video of Deven’s traffic stop, because he was afraid it would upset him too much. But I made him read the transcript of the video. The first words out of his mouth were, “That cop was being a jerk. I would have done the same thing.” What a terrifying thought. Even worse is what I said to him in response. “Would you argue with a random stranger that was armed with a gun?” I asked. His response, of course, was a resounding ‘no.’ “Then you don’t argue with a police officer," I told him. "They are armed and they can be dangerous, especially in this day and age. Just do what you’re told, and we’ll deal with the rest of it later.” What an awful way to have to look at it. But we now live in a community where a routine traffic stop over bright headlights can escalate into a teenager being shot seven times. Where the officer who pulled the trigger is back out on the same streets, conducting traffic stops, without so much as a slap on the wrist. The next teenage boy he pulls over may very well be my son. Or yours.
HE SHOULD HAVE JUST COMPLIED
Yes. A thousand times yes. Of all the arguments “the other side” makes, this is the one I agree with most. Deven should have just told Sgt. Frost that he didn’t have his license on him, and then fought the ticket in court. But. Here’s where I remind you that Deven was a teenager. Teenagers aren’t exactly known for their stellar decision making. He felt that the stop was unwarranted (which it was), and he was driving someone else’s car without his driver’s license on him. It’s reasonable to assume that he was afraid he’d get a ticket, or possibly even be arrested. In the video, he does tell Frost that he forgot his license and is going to get it. At that point, Frost very accusingly says, “You don’t have your driver’s license? Why is that? You do not have your driver’s license on your person, correct?” So Deven goes back to questioning the validity of the stop in the first place, in an attempt to avoid having to produce documentation that he does not have. Was it the right decision? No. But did Deven deserve to die because of that decision? NO. It’s been said that he was being stubborn and disrespectful. Stubborn, yes. Disrespectful? If you consider questioning authority disrespectful, then yes. But his tone remained pleasant, he called Sgt. Frost “sir,” and even some of his last words were polite, and seemingly confused by Frost’s hostility- “I don’t have a weapon.” Frost was being combative from the moment he walked up to Deven’s window and referred to him as “partner.” He knew exactly why Deven flashed his brights at him, yet he proceeded to argue with him about his admittedly too-bright lights for several minutes. If Deven was being uncooperative and difficult, so was Frost. Since when do we hold teenagers to higher standards than law enforcement officers? Anyone walking around with a gun and a badge should be able to deescalate an argument with an unarmed teenager without having to resort to deadly force. Period.
LET IT GO
While I struggle with comprehending how anyone can support Sgt. Frost, I have an even harder time with the people who are completely indifferent to the situation. How can you be "sick of hearing about" something as incredibly important as the conduct of our law enforcement officers and the safety of our citizens? "Let it go," they say. Life is not a Disney movie. We can't just turn a blind eye to unpleasant things and hope that they go away. Would you be able to let it go if Deven was your loved one? I wouldn't. I would burn my city to the ground. (Metaphorically, not literally.) But I did consider that the Guilfords might just want peace, and that the people advocating for them without being asked to do so might be doing more harm than good. I don't know them, after all, and we all deal with grief differently. So as hard as it was for me to bite my tongue sometimes, I did it. If what they wanted was to move on, I certainly didn't want to be guilty of perpetuating the debate. Then I heard from a member of the Guilford family, who thanked me for my support and asked me to write a letter to the attorney general's office on Deven's behalf requesting an independent investigation and that Frost be fired. They aren't ready to move on. They want justice for their beloved Deven, as I think any family in their position would. The thought of losing a child is absolutely unimaginable. To have it happen in such a violent, senseless way is beyond tragic. But to feel like the community you live in doesn't support you? We need to do better for one another. It is possible to support Deven's family, even if you feel Sgt. Frost was just in his actions. And that is what EVERYONE should be doing.
I'm also troubled by the fact that the Prosecutor's report reads more like a defense put together by Frost's attorney than an impartial report. There are many, many discrepancies. One of the most glaring is the exaggeration of Frost's condition following the incident. Evidence obtained through a FOIA request reveals him laughing, talking, and walking unassisted just moments after killing Deven, with injuries much less severe than those that show up later in photos taken at the hospital. I've never been one to believe in conspiracy theories, but this entire thing just screams cover-up, and it's so frustrating that more people don't see that. In his report, the prosecuting attorney stated that Deven was the "initial physical aggressor," even though the video CLEARLY shows otherwise. Frost is the one that tried to pull Deven from his car. Frost is the one that sat on him, knees in his back, and tased him. Deven never made a single move that could even be considered close to threatening until AFTER he was tased. The entire report is incredibly biased, and is full of holes.
BLACK AND WHITE
One of the things that has bothered me the most about Deven's case is the lack of attention it has received. There has been no national media coverage, and very little local news coverage. Walk into a room full of people here at "ground zero" and ask them who's heard of Deven Guilford. Maybe half of them will raise their hands. Maybe. But everyone knows the names Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Michael Brown. Why is that? Because we only care about what CNN tells us to care about? That's a problem. The YouTube videos made by Matthew Cooke have been the most widespread coverage on Deven's case to date. And yet, I've ready many comments on said videos to the effect of, "He only gets this fancy video because he's white. You wouldn't care if he was black." Seriously? If Deven was black, the entire world would know his name. But because he's not, he's only got a very small group of people advocating for him, demanding justice for him and his family. The ONE bit of attention his story has gotten on a national level, people want to begrudge him because of his skin color? That's just sick and wrong.
UPDATE: In early October 2015, Deven's family filed a civil lawsuit against Jonathan Frost and Eaton County. Only then, almost eight months later, did Deven's story begin to gain traction on a national level. Versions of his story were featured on CNN, Headline News, The Today Show, and others.
Be fearless. Be loyal.
For more about the #JusticeForDeven movement, visit the FB page created by his family HERE.
9/15/15 UPDATE: Deven's story continues to spread, and I am amazed by the outpouring of support the family continues to receive. There will be #JusticeForDeven, I am more sure of that now than ever.
I was made aware of a compatibility issue with a few of the video links not playing on certain devices, so I have posted new links for all of the video clips, and they all should be viewable now.
Additionally, as more information becomes available through the FOIA files, I will share it in updates to this post so that all of the information is still viewable in one place. Here is one new piece of information:
This is audio from the Michigan State Police interview of the man that was pulled over by Frost just four minutes before Deven. It disproves the claim by Eaton County that Frost's vehicle wasn't equipped with a dashcam. Listen to what he says: "You have been identified through VIDEO FOOTAGE ON A PATROL VEHICLE of the Eaton County Sheriff's Department as having been stopped..." But I thought there was no dashcam?
9/20/15 UPDATE: More FOIA information. Bodycam footage from one of the first officers on the scene, ECSD Sgt. Tietsort.
Tietsort: "These people that are pulled up here were witnesses (unintelligible), get 'em out of here."
Frost: "How's my face look?"
Tietsort: "What's that?"
Frost: "How's my face look?"
Tietsort: "It's not bad."
This is the first good look at Frost's face following the incident. There is some blood, yes, but where's all the blood that shows up later in the official photos of his injuries taken at the hospital?