Thursday, March 4, 2021
March 4, 2021

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Donnelly: Kevin Peterson Jr. didn’t have to die

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On Oct. 29, Kevin Peterson Jr., a young Black man, father of an infant, and former student at Union High School, died from police bullets while armed and resisting arrest during a set-up drug deal. The actions of three Clark County sheriff’s deputies are under independent investigation.

Meanwhile, there is another aspect to the story. Why did Peterson — not impoverished and educated for better opportunities — choose behaviors that so predictably lead to disaster?

We must not shrink from the issue of Peterson’s role in the tragedy. The stakes for other young people who may take the same path are high. If lessons can be learned, we must do so.

The sequence of events leading to Peterson’s death likely began years ago, with a series of life choices made by Peterson himself.

First, at some point in adolescence, he turned away from the opportunities offered by an advantaged high school to enter the illicit drug trade. He then decided to acquire a firearm from a relative and to boast on social media about his intent to use it on police if confronted.

But he could still have survived the confrontation with police on Oct. 29. Sadly, he decided to resist arrest when confronted by sheriff’s deputies, who demanded that he drop the gun. Instead, he decided to point a gun at police during a chaotic confrontation.

According to the heart-rending transcript of his final minutes, Peterson spoke by cellphone to his partner, Olivia Selto, telling her “I got set up.” But in making the decisions he did, and publicizing his violent intent to the world, he attracted the concern of a drug task force dedicated to major cases, and essentially set himself up.

Did he accept some measure of responsibility? We’ll never know. But we know he died apologizing to his loved ones, saying “I’m going to jail for the rest of my life. I’m sorry.”

All of us wish fervently that he were in jail, alive. That is what the sheriff’s deputies tried to achieve, unsuccessfully. Peterson in jail would offer hope of reform and eventual release, renewed fatherhood, and realized opportunities.

Why do young people in privileged schools yield to the temptations of selling drugs, joining gangs, and brandishing weapons? I posed this question to Rey Reynolds, a Vancouver police officer, father of seven children, and former school resource police officer at Union and other area high schools.

Reynolds believes such activities give adolescents a sense of power. They are attracted to the “quick buck” of a drug sale. The “flash in the pan” seems easier and infinitely more exciting than the tedium and low pay of first jobs. Reynolds has seen kids turn to firearms without realizing their danger to enhance their status and empowerment.

Reynolds paid tribute to Union High School as a “school of privilege,” for example, offering a nationally reputed choir of which Peterson was a member, he recalls. While a resource officer there, Reynolds observed many students from all backgrounds winning scholarships to our region’s colleges. So Peterson did not lack for opportunities.

A smiling, handsome Peterson has been pictured lovingly holding his infant daughter. Was he in awe of such a miracle and overwhelmed by his new responsibilities as a young father?

Adults must speak plainly and even graphically to young people about the dangers of poor decisions, offering them the tough love of responsibility and reality. Some local groups are already helping, such as Boys & Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Teach One to Lead One, and the Police Activities League. They deserve our support.

Kevin Peterson did not have to die.

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