The aunt of 18-year-old Joseph Jennings, who was shot and killed by two Ottawa law enforcement officers Saturday night, said her nephew did not have to die.
“They knew him,” Brandy Smith of Ottawa said on Sunday, her voice trembling with emotion. “They dealt with him the day before. He was suicidal. He had only been out of the (psychiatric) hospital for three hours when they shot him. I was screaming at the top my lungs: ‘That’s Joseph Jennings! You know him, don’t shoot him!’”
Officers and sheriff’s deputies were sent to the Orscheln Farm & Home parking lot around 8 p.m. Saturday in response to a man reportedly armed with a gun.
During the encounter, Jennings was shot by officers. He was treated at the scene by emergency personnel from the Franklin County Ambulance Service for gunshot wounds and transported to an Ottawa hospital. Jennings died of the injuries there, Ottawa police said.
At a Sunday news conference, authorities declined to answer specific questions about the shooting, including how many shots were fired and whether Jennings was armed. Franklin County Attorney Stephen A. Hunting said the Kansas Bureau of Investigation would conduct a thorough investigation but did not say when it would be complete.
He told Smith, “We certainly feel bad for your loss.”
Smith said her nephew suffered from depression, seizures and other mental problems and purposefully antagonized police in an effort to get them to shoot him.
“I think he was on a suicide mission,” Smith said as she stood in the store’s parking lot.
Jennings puffed out his chest at officers, Smith said, and made several gestures that could have looked like he was going for a gun. Smith believed she and her husband could have handled Jennings had the police let them. Instead, Smith said, officers told her husband to get back.
“They didn’t have to shoot and kill him,” Smith said. “Nobody deserves this.”
Ottawa Police Chief Dennis P. Butler said in a statement that the KBI is investigating the shooting. Once that is complete, the matter will be referred to the county attorney’s office, which will determine whether further action is needed.
An autopsy was being conducted Sunday in Kansas City, Kan., Hunting said.
Butler asked that the public remain patient and compassionate for those affected by and involved in the incident.
“We mourn the loss of any life. We extend our heartfelt condolences and compassion to the family of Mr. Jennings,” he said, reading from a statement. “We are thankful that no police officers or sheriff’s deputies were injured while defending themselves from the potential threat of serious bodily harm.”
Police officers are allowed to use deadly force “when they fear they are in imminent danger of bodily harm,” Butler said.
Smith attended the news conference held by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, Ottawa police, Franklin County Attorney’s Office and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. She asked Butler what the department’s policy was when dealing with individuals with mental issues.
“Every situation is different. I am not going to speculate what they knew or didn’t know,” Butler told Smith.
Jennings was described by his aunt as a smart and caring boy with a lot of potential who had finished high school, was learning welding and had “beaten all of the odds.”
Smith said she felt the pain of those in Ferguson, Mo., who also were dealing with a shooting by a police officer.
“I didn’t even think it would hit this close to home,” she said. “Now, I am living it, too.”