Family members and friends of Jason Pero, a 14-year-old Native American boy shot dead by an Ashland County Sheriff on Nov. 8, lead a rally on Thursday demanding a federal investigation of the shooting.
Signs reading “Protect our kids from state violence,” “Justice for Jason” and “Truth is in the video” were held by the crowd which gathered outside the Wisconsin Department of Justice office.
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John Patrick, Pero’s cousin, said the two stories of Pero’s shooting, one told by the sheriff’s office and the other by the Wisconsin DOJ, contradict evidence the family has collected.
The DOJ report concluded Deputy Brock Mrdjenovich responded to a 911 call placed by Pero, who called himself in with the intent of suicide from a police shooting. When Mrdjenovich arrived at the scene he said he encountered a 5’9”, 300-pound man who fit the description given in the call.
Pero wielded a butcher knife and lunged at the officer twice, according to the report, and Mrdjenovich, retreating, shot Pero twice.
Neighbors and an eye-witness provided a video taken of the shooting which appears to contradict these accounts, Patrick said. The video allegedly showed Mrdjenovich standing by his vehicle with his gun drawn.
The narrative posed by the DOJ said Pero “had been despondent over the few days leading up to the incident,” and suggested Pero was attempting to be shot by the deputy.
Pero’s family said this doesn’t fit with the kind of person Pero was.
Nicknamed “Baby Jay,” the 8th-grader was described by Patrick as a “social butterfly.”
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“I always knew him as a sweet boy and kind boy. A big teddy bear.” Patrick said. “He always carried a sense of humor with him. That’s what he was about: laughter. He didn’t like confrontation.”
Patricia Hammel, an attorney who spoke at the rally, said the DOJ’s description of the subject was both taller and larger than Pero actually was.
Pero’s family sees the boy’s shooting not as an isolated incident, but as part of a pattern of excessive police force used against Native Americans and people of color.
“Even if everything the DOJ reported is true, should our police shoot a sick child?” Hammel asked. “Jason was not an animal, but he was shot down like one.”
Patrick said in a study by The Center on Juvenile Criminal Justice they said Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other demographic in the U.S.
Patrick said Pero is the 19th indigenous person shot by police this year.
“We must mourn Jason’s death,” Hammel said. “We white folks must also accept our responsibility as the inheritors of the wealth stolen from brown and black people to make sure that they don’t continue to suffer from militarized police violence and white supremacy.”
The police officers assigned to work on Native American reservations are often new to the job and have little experience working with marginalized communities with a history of historical trauma, Patrick said.
Better police training like community-oriented policing and equity training could have prevented this, he said.
The rally, which counted more than 70 people strong, marched from the DOJ’s office to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
At the rally, chants of “Native lives matter” and “No justice, no peace, no killer police” were said.
Pero’s family and the Bad River Tribe have requested a separate federal investigation be conducted by the U.S. DOJ’s Civil Rights Commission.
The family also demanded the sheriff’s office be more transparent in their investigation by releasing any evidence collected, like the 911 transcript supposedly placed by Pero to the public.
“Jason deserves no less,” Hammel said.