Insider investigated five recent police killings of transgender people. None of the officers involved have been charged.
By May 5, 2020, Jayne Thompson had been hitchhiking across the desolate Southwestern desert for weeks. She was meandering along the edge of the highway near Moab, a dusty tourist destination in eastern Utah, when a local sheriff's deputy spotted her.
The deputy asked Thompson to move to an adjacent walking path, farther from oncoming traffic, police records show. But for about a mile, she kept wandering back to the white line. Thompson was carrying a walking stick and a vintage dagger, which friends said she kept for protection while traveling.
Something appeared to be off. When the deputy, now joined by a sergeant and highway-patrol officer, asked for her name, Thompson said she was "Neo, from outer space." She didn't appear to be a threat, so the officers parted ways after Thompson explained that she was headed to "the great beyond."
In reality, Thompson, a 33-year old transgender woman, was headed to Grand Junction, Colorado. That's where she stood by the side of the road four days later, on the morning of May 9, when a man called 911 to request a welfare check. He worried that Thompson — who was standing still for so long that passersby thought she was a mannequin — wasn't well. When the man tried to speak with her, police records show, Thompson offered only a "1,000-yard stare."
A Colorado state trooper named Jason Wade, a Marine veteran with a haircut to match, responded to the scene. As he later recounted to investigators, his request for backup, made while he was still on the way, was his first during his nine years as a trooper. Like his counterparts in Moab, Wade indicated that he, too, thought something was off.
In the weeks leading up to that morning, Thompson had spiraled into a deep depression, friends and colleagues said. She'd spent most of 2020 working at a bar in Bisbee, Arizona, an old mining town on the border. Thompson suddenly left town after several outbursts at work left colleagues concerned she might be suicidal.
"She had issues with substance abuse and signs of mental illness. I'm not sure if one led to the other," said Dana House, the owner of The Quarry Bisbee and Thompson's former boss. House said mental health services were "impossible" to obtain in the small town of Bisbee, situated nearly 100 miles from Tucson, the nearest large city.
Thompson arrived in Bisbee — an LGBTQ-friendly community that House described as "a blue dot in a sea of red" in politically conservative Arizona — from her home state of Ohio in late 2019. Earlier that year, Thompson's brother died after he was run over in his wheelchair; several years prior, her sister was murdered.
"There was a lot of trauma," House said. "She didn't let people get too close."
Like most people in Thompson's life, House didn't know where she was on May 9, 2020. She was standing motionless at the corner of a busy intersection in Grand Junction when Wade, the state trooper, stepped out of his patrol car and approached her. When Wade identified himself, he later told investigators, Thompson reached into her waistband and retrieved a dagger — likely the same one she'd been carrying outside Moab.
Footage from Wade's dashboard camera captures a clanging sound that appears to have been her dagger falling to the ground. Wade then takes several steps backward and screams at Thompson, "Get on the ground!" He points his gun at her, and, for the first of hundreds of instances by law enforcement over the following days, misgenders Thompson, telling a dispatcher, "He pulled a knife on me."
The final 11 seconds of Thompson's life were caught on the dashcam. She grabs something from the ground, which Wade later said was the dagger. Thompson runs around Wade, nearly veering into oncoming traffic, before turning around and running back toward him. Wade repeatedly tells her to "get on the ground." In his account to investigators, corroborated by the footage, Wade said Thompson "planted, turned, and took several steps towards me with the knife extended out."
Wade opens fire. Four bullets from his pistol send Thompson's body tumbling to the ground.
He continues to point his gun at her while waiting for backup. At one point, after yelling at Thompson to drop the knife, Wade mutters under his breath, "Goddamnit."
As other officers arrived, Thompson lay motionless on the ground. Nearly eight minutes had passed since Wade began shooting. Instead of offering first aid, one officer shot her in the leg with a less-lethal round in a brutal attempt to determine whether she was alive. When she didn't respond, officers used her walking stick to dislodge the dagger she still clutched in her hand and handcuff her.
Thompson had no pulse. An autopsy found that a bullet had pierced her heart and right lung, killing her on the spot.
A lack of accountability
Insider spent the past year investigating deaths of transgender and gender-nonconforming people from 2017 to 2021, collecting extensive documentation and interviewing friends and family members of those who died. We found that five people were killed by police officers. Of those who died in custody during this period, we identified three cases — Roxsana Hernández, Johana Medina León, and Layleen "Xtravaganza" Cubilette-Polanco — where the deaths sparked substantial allegations of negligence. A fourth, Penélope Díaz Ramírez, was strangled by a fellow prisoner. We included these nine cases in our database of 175 homicides.
Among the police killings, we found patterns. Documents obtained by Insider show that in every case, officers quickly turned to use of force, with lethal consequences. All but one of those killed by the police were in the midst of mental health crises. While the individuals in each case were armed, Insider found no evidence that the officers involved attempted to de-escalate. And none used less-lethal forms of force.
None of the five homicides have resulted in charges against the officers. In four of the cases, the deadly use of force was deemed justified by local prosecutors; the investigation into the 2017 killing of Kiwi Herring remains open. In two of the killings, the identities of the officers who pulled the trigger have been hidden from the public; Insider was able to identify the officers involved in Herring's killing through police records.
Experts who study police use of force said both mental illness and transgender status put people at greater risk when confronted by law enforcement. An investigation by the Washington Post found that one in five police killings since 2015 involved mental illness; our sample size, while much smaller, shows a substantially higher rate.
Finding mental health assistance is especially challenging in rural areas like Grand Junction or Sharon, Pennsylvania, where a police officer shot and killed Sean Hake, a 23-year-old transgender man, in 2017. Research shows that discrimination, a dearth of providers, and lack of access to transportation are common barriers to mental health care for transgender people in rural areas.
W. Carsten Andresen, a criminology professor at St. Edward's University who has studied homicides of transgender people, reviewed case documents for each of the police killings Insider identified over the past five years. He questioned why Wade immediately confronted Thompson upon arriving at the intersection. He noted that Thompson wasn't a threat to anyone when Wade arrived, and that the trooper was called to conduct a welfare check. If Wade was concerned enough to call for backup, Andresen said, "Just sit there and wait."
Thompson's death shook the community of Grand Junction, including the man who called 911. He placed the call after trying to talk with Thompson. In an interview with police investigators, the man was described as "very emotional" and was "struggling with feeling responsible" for Thompson's death.
The investigation didn't take long. Ten days after Thompson's death, the local district attorney Daniel Rubinstein announced he wasn't filing charges against Wade. Had Thompson survived, he said, he would have filed "felony assault, attempted assault, and menacing charges" against her.
Among the pieces of evidence investigators collected from the crime scene was a cardboard sign. In black marker, Thompson had scrawled the words "KNOW PEACE."
'Unnecessary and excessive'
When Wade sat down with his lawyer and two investigators assigned to the case, he described his training in the so-called 21-foot rule, which grew out of an influential 1984 SWAT Magazine article by Dennis Tueller, a Salt Lake City police sergeant at the time. Tueller conducted a series of role-plays and concluded that someone 21 feet or closer could theoretically stab an officer with a knife before the officer could unholster their gun and shoot.
That "rule" has come under scrutiny in recent years. Randy Shrewsberry, the executive director of The Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, told PBS' "Frontline" last year that the concept "has no scientific basis at all" and failed to provide officers with guidance on how to properly assess a threat. Tueller himself has said repeatedly that he never intended to create a standard, lamenting that police trainers sometimes "bastardize" the guidance to justify shootings.
In addition to Thompson, Insider investigated three other police killings in which the person was wielding a knife when they were shot. In no case did officers attempt less-lethal force, such as a Taser, before shooting.
After the police killed Sean Hake outside his home in Pennsylvania, records listed his manner of death as "suicide." But Hake didn't die by suicide — he was killed when a trio of officers from the Sharon Police Department responded to his mother's call for help during a domestic dispute with her son.
As the officers sped toward the house, dispatchers told them Hake was emotionally unstable and had "been involved in suicidal and self-harm incidents." Hake was sitting in a car outside the home with a box cutter, which he'd just used to cut himself, when officers confronted him.
Hake got out of the car and "moved quickly" toward the officers, records show. After they yelled at him to drop the box cutter, Hake continued to walk toward one of them, saying, "fuck you, shoot me," two officers later told investigators. Sgt. Ryan Chmura said the officers "were out of options" when he fired three rounds at Hake, killing him on the spot.
The day before he was killed, Hake took to Facebook to share big news: his doctor and his psychologist had signed off on a consultation for gender-affirming surgery. Hake's first appointment would be later that month.
"This is going to be such an amazing experience. Life changing," Hake wrote. "I wanna cry I'm soo insanely happy."
About 36 hours later, Hake was dead.
Hake's family filed a civil-rights lawsuit. In responding to the lawsuit, lawyers for the Sharon Police Department denied that the claims in the case, which moved quickly to settlement talks, had "merit."
An expert report prepared for the family by the criminologist Paul McCauley, a former Pennsylvania police officer, found the use of deadly force against Hake "was unnecessary and excessive." McCauley noted that none of the Sharon police officers warned Hake that they might shoot. Given the distance between Hake and the officers at the time of the shooting, McCauley found that a Taser or pepper spray could have been used effectively. With three officers at the scene, he added, two could have resorted to shooting Hake as a last-ditch approach had less-lethal options been ineffective.
The officers, McCauley found, failed to establish "a coordinated tactical plan that considered lesser force options, which was contrary to accepted police practices." Worse, McCauley said, the officers lacked training on how to interact with people in a mental health crisis. Between dispatchers alerting officers about Hake's history of mental illness and Hake's "shoot me" comment, McCauley said officers should've recognized that they might be facing a "suicide by cop" scenario.
"The police objective in these situations," McCauley wrote, "is not to accommodate, but to de-escalate and prevent the harm."
The minutes leading up to a police response to a crisis situation can be as critical as the moments after arrival, advocates say. Crisis-intervention organizations such as CIT International, a training and awareness nonprofit, have long argued for plainclothes officers to work in tandem with emergency medical personnel when responding to a crisis situation or welfare check.
"Law enforcement does and always will have a role to play in a crisis-response system," CIT International's executive director, Ron Bruno, told Insider. "However, that role should be in support of a robust system that provides non-law enforcement options when appropriate, including triaging of 911 calls for possible diversion to crisis lines for resolution."
Alternative crisis-intervention teams, which generally consist of social workers and emergency medical technicians, have been tested in cities across the country in recent years. In some cities, these teams have responded to nearly 20% of all calls.
Who killed Tony McDade?
That Thompson and Hake were struggling with their mental health was clear to many people who interacted with them in the weeks leading up to their deaths. The same was true for Tony McDade, a 38-year old transgender man who lived in Tallahassee, Florida.
Snapshots of the week leading up to McDade's death in May 2020 are scattered across social-media posts and news stories. He had been dating a woman who lived in the same complex as the apartment he shared with his mother. After the relationship ended, McDade got into an argument with the woman's adult son, Malik, who, relatives said, was trying to protect his mother from McDade's unpredictable outbursts and threats of violence. Malik, along with several of his family members, attacked McDade outside the apartment complex the day before McDade was killed by police.
That night, McDade posted a live video to Facebook. Filmed in a dark room with cinderblock walls, he holds his phone close for 88 minutes, peering intently into the camera, his raspy voice oscillating between the past and the present. Violence and depression are constant themes. McDade is somber, describing the sexual violence that had scarred generations of his family. He laughs while explaining that women won't let you help them with laundry "until it's been washed." More than anything, McDade is angry, vowing revenge for the attack against him.
McDade's mother, Wanda, calls him a few times as he's recording. "Wanda, lay down," he says. "Lay down and rest your nerves." At one point, McDade asks viewers for ammunition for a handgun he'd acquired — one that he wasn't legally allowed to possess after spending much of the past 20 years in prison on drug and weapons charges.
McDade often returns to the concept of masculinity. "Y'all motherfuckers were born men," he says, addressing his attackers. "It took five of you to kick and punch and have me on the ground."
"I should have been fucked up. And look at me," McDade brags, pointing to a spot on his face. "These two little knots, they're so little you can barely see them." He repeatedly vows violence. "Me and the law will have a standoff after I end you bitches," McDade says, adding that he was "killing and going to be killed, because I will not go back into federal prison."
McDade was sexually abused as a child and dealt with mental illness for much of his life, Wanda, who referred to McDade using female pronouns, later told the police. McDade "wanted to be all together," Wanda told a local newspaper reporter. But he was struggling, she said, and in "so much pain." In his video, McDade said he had attempted suicide in the past. In retrospect, the video feels like a suicide note.
The next morning, the Tallahassee police responded to a 911 call about a fatal stabbing. The victim was Malik, and witnesses told the police that McDade was responsible. McDade called his mother, who met her son just before the police arrived at the scene. In the final seconds of her son's life, Wanda desperately tried to warn the police that McDade was in a severe mental health crisis. As she talked to one officer, a second officer confronted McDade.
At that moment, McDade — described in police reports as a woman who was "somewhat masculine in appearance" — pointed his unloaded .25-caliber Bryco pistol at the officer. The officer opened fire on McDade, killing him. Wanda was only feet away.
She later told investigators that McDade pointed a gun at police "because Tony couldn't commit suicide" himself and wanted officers to kill him. Wanda said McDade experienced severe mood swings, "up one minute and down the next." When the police searched McDade's apartment the next day, they found several bottles of prescription medication, including an antidepressant and a mood stabilizer commonly used to treat bipolar disorder.
The initial police report recording McDade's death was sparse. The officer, whose name is redacted, fired his gun, hitting McDade "one or more times." More detailed records later released by the Tallahassee police show that the officer fired seven rounds at McDade.
In an interview the officer gave investigators, he said he believed McDade would have killed him had he not shot first, echoing what Jason Wade told investigators when he killed Jayne Thompson.
The officer said he had turned his body-worn camera off earlier that morning and forgot to turn it on when he began his patrol. When investigators asked him whether that was intentional, he said no: "Why would I want to obscure what was, clear as day, a lawful act?"
Two days before McDade's death, on May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.
The tension that subsequently gripped the country was palpable in Tallahassee after McDade's death, police documents show. The officer who killed McDade, whom witnesses described as white, got into a colleague's squad car as a "hostile crowd" — many of them Black residents of the apartment complex and surrounding neighborhood — formed around McDade's lifeless body. The officer who shot McDade would later tell police investigators that "fear for my immediate safety has completely dominated my life."
Today, the officer's identity remains a secret. In an ongoing legal dispute, the police union has argued that Florida's Marsy's Law, a 2018 constitutional amendment designed to protect the identities of crime victims, can also be applied to police officers who might face retaliation. A few weeks after McDade' death, a court ruled that the city of Tallahassee had to release the names of the officers involved. But the ruling was appealed, and in 2021 another judge ruled in favor of the police union, allowing the department to continue withholding the officer's name. A Florida Supreme Court hearing to resolve the dispute is scheduled for December 7.
'If police show a little bit of humanity, they don't lose anything'
McDade isn't the only transgender person killed by an officer whose identity has been shielded from the public.
A pair of St. Louis Metro Police Department officers who fatally shot a 30-year old transgender woman named Kiwi Herring have also had their names kept secret. But Insider was able to identify them with police memos obtained through a public-records request.
The morning of August 22, 2017, Herring, who lived in St. Louis with her wife and children, stabbed her neighbor with a knife during a dispute, records show. The neighbor recounted the attack to police while "covered in blood."
When two officers confronted Herring in her apartment, she swiped at an officer with a kitchen knife, cutting his left arm with a "minor laceration," police memos show. It's unclear whether the officers attempted to deescalate the situation before firing half a dozen rounds at Herring, killing her on the spot. Herring's 4-year-old son witnessed her death before a third officer whisked him away.
The police chief at the time said that two officers shot Herring. Accounts of the incident from officers who responded to the scene show that Thomas Halfhill and Willie Haymon were the only two officers in the apartment when Herring was shot. A spokesman for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department declined to answer questions about why the department hadn't previously disclosed their names. "We do not discuss personnel matters," Sgt. Charles Wall said in an email.
In the weeks and months leading up to her death, Herring and her wife were often harassed by other residents of the apartment complex because of Herring's transgender status and sexual orientation, her sister-in-law said. She told HuffPost that the neighbor Herring stabbed was "homophobic and made fun of her," adding: "We couldn't understand why he was so angry."
An investigation into Herring's death by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner remains "open" today – more than five years later – according to Gardner's spokeswoman Allison Hawk, who declined to answer questions about the case or say when the office last took action on it. Gardner dropped assault charges in 2021 filed against Herring's wife, who police say handed Herring the knife she used to stab their neighbor.
A community vigil held for Herring took a violent turn when a car drove through a crowd of people marching in the street to protest her death, injuring three people. The incident happened less than two weeks after a man drove through a crowd of anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing Heather Heyer (the man was sentenced to life in prison for hate-crime offenses).
Andresen, the criminology professor who reviewed police records obtained by Insider, said a common theme in each case was that the police didn't appear to start by offering their assistance. "The police have to portray themselves differently," Andresen said. "And say, 'I'm here to help you,' and give that message and be clear about that."
The police killings Insider investigated represent stark reminders of the risks transgender people face when interacting with law enforcement. In a 2020 survey by The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and mental health organization for LGBTQ youth, 29% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported having been harassed or mistreated by the police. Nearly half of respondents to the 2015 US Transgender Survey who said they had interacted with police in the last year reported being misgendered, meanwhile; among Black respondents, 12% reported being physically attacked by police and 6% reported being sexually assaulted.
Andresen is concerned that none of the law enforcement records indicate that the police recognized the person they were dealing with was transgender. "This is a group of people who are very scared of the police, and that doesn't come through in any of these documents," Andresen said. "If police show a little bit of humanity, they don't lose anything."
Of the police killings Insider reviewed, Scout Schultz's spurred the most reform.
The evening of September 16, 2017 — just five weeks after Herring was killed — the Georgia Tech Police Department received a 911 call reporting a suspicious person who was "possibly intoxicated, holding a knife, and possibly armed with a gun on his hip."
The officers who responded didn't realize that Schultz, a 21-year-old student, had called the police on themself. They also didn't know that Shultz had left suicide notes in their dorm that night. But it seemed clear that something was off, as Schultz slowly shuffled toward officers next to a parking lot, barefoot.
Officers ordered Schultz, who was nonbinary and intersex, to drop what they believed was a knife. As a lawyer for Schultz's family would later highlight, however, the knife was really a common multitool, its small blade tucked away. Each officer pointed their pistol at Schultz; none used less-lethal force, such as pepper spray.
In video footage captured by a bystander, an officer yells at Schultz to speak. When Schultz doesn't respond, one of the officers, Tyler Beck, fires his gun, killing Schultz. As school officials would later acknowledge, Beck was the only officer at the scene who hadn't been trained in crisis intervention.
"He hadn't been through the training for how to deal with mentally unstable people," Schultz's father, Bill, told Insider. "That seemed insane to me, especially in a pressure-cooker environment like Georgia Tech."
Schultz's parents filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, which ultimately settled for $1 million. Today, campus police all carry Tasers. A rainbow-colored mural now covers the staircase leading up to the building on campus where Schultz took computer-science classes. Georgia Tech's LGBTQ resource center, meanwhile, was given resources to expand, while the school bolstered its mental health services for students.
Some law enforcement agencies mentioned in this story told Insider they had updated their guidelines for how to respond to mental health crises. Chief Edward Stabile of the Sharon Police Department told Insider that in the wake of Sean Hake's death, de-escalation training was mandated for all officers, with many also receiving regular crisis-intervention training. "We work to ensure that as many officers as possible take this 40 hour course when offered, which included officers involved in the incident," Stabile said.
The case of Layleen "Xtravaganza" Cubilette-Polanco, meanwhile, prompted accountability. Cubilette-Polanco died from an epileptic seizure that she suffered while in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. She was in custody after being unable to post $500 bail. Per Department of Corrections policy, jail staff members were required to check on Cubilette-Polanco every 15 minutes. But guards ignored her in her cell for more than 30 minutes several times on the day she died, a scathing report by the New York City Board of Correction found.
Cubilette-Polanco's death led to disciplinary action against 17 guards and calls from New York City's mayor at the time, Bill de Blasio, to end solitary confinement at all city jails. A state law that took effect earlier this year bars prisons from holding incarcerated people with mental or physical disabilities in solitary confinement, while a New York City bill that would extend the ban on solitary confinement to all imprisoned people recently secured approval from two-thirds of local lawmakers.
Other in-custody cases prompted wrongful-death allegations. Attorneys with the Transgender Law Center sued the federal government over Roxsana Hernández's death, alleging gross negligence in her medical care. Johana Medina León's family filed a similar claim against Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A lawsuit filed by Cubilette-Polanco's family, meanwhile, ended in a landmark $5.9 million settlement — the largest ever recorded for Rikers. The lawsuit Hake's family filed against the Sharon Police Department settled out of court.
Other law enforcement killings have been met with indifference.
Sgt. Troy Kessler, a public information officer for the Colorado State Patrol, described Jayne Thompson's death as a "use of deadly force in self-defense." He told Insider that state troopers "receive ongoing training in crisis intervention" but that there "have been no changes made to the agency's crisis-intervention protocols" since Thompson was killed.
Spokespeople for the St. Louis Metro Police Department and the Tallahassee Police Department declined to comment for this story. Neither agency has made any changes to use-of-force policies as a result of the deaths of Herring and McDade.
Despite the changes at the Sharon Police Department and Georgia Tech, the officers responsible for Hake and Schultz's deaths were never charged. In a statement days after he killed Schultz, Beck's police-union attorney said that Beck "regrets the situation he was faced with."
The comment didn't sit well with Schultz's mother, Lynne. Beck, she told Insider, "should have taken some personal responsibility" for her child's death.
- India's GDP growth surges to 8.4% in Q3, 2023-24 growth rate pegged at robust 7.6%
- Fiscal deficit at Jan-end touches 63.6% of full year target: Govt data
- Cabinet approves 3 semiconductor fab units, to generate 80,000 jobs
- RIL shares climb nearly 1% after announcing mega merger
- Key infra sectors' growth slows to 15-month low of 3.6% in January