Before U.S. Forest Service police repeatedly shot Brooks Roberts in May, he was already disabled and required the use of a wheelchair. Now, at 39 years old, Brooks is unlikely to ever walk again: He is paralyzed from the waist down, has limited use of his right arm, and cannot control his bowels. Such is the punishment for being unhoused in America.
In late August, Brooks and his attorneys filed a claim against numerous government agencies seeking $50 million in monetary damages for “extreme suffering” caused by the shooting. According to the claim, Forest Service officers, in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management, shot Brooks “needlessly and recklessly” on May 19: through his arm and back shoulder, in his armpit and the bottom of his spine, through the middle of his back, and several times in his legs. The officers opened fire when they saw Brooks was carrying a gun — but they were wearing civilian clothing and had not identified themselves as police, according to the complaint.
“Because this incident involved federal law enforcement officers, the investigation was handled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It would be inappropriate for us to provide any additional comments at this time,” the Forest Service said in a statement provided to The Intercept. The FBI declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing investigation, and the Department of Justice and BLM did not respond to requests for comment.
The obscene multiagency operation began with a devious trick, designed solely to arrest the Roberts family for low-level misdemeanors related to their overstay on national forest land outside of Boise, Idaho.
Police body camera footage shows two undercover Forest Service officers approached the small trailers in which Brooks, his mother Judy, and his brother Timber had lived since they were evicted from their rental home in 2020. The officers said they needed help starting their car, so Timber promptly went out to get his truck and retrieve jumper cables. They then grabbed Timber and forced him to the ground as he screamed for help.
“They shot him in the back when he was defenseless and immobile.”
According to the claim, “Mr. Roberts, hearing his brother’s cries for help, wheeled out in his wheelchair to find what appeared to be his brother being carjacked or robbed. As he approached his brother to save him, officers saw the .22 revolver Mr. Roberts carried and opened fire on him.”
The complaint adds that Brooks did not fire his gun, and he swiftly threw it on the ground, several feet away, when he realized the men were police. “They shot him in the back when he was defenseless and immobile,” the claim states.
Another body camera video of the shooting’s aftermath shows Brooks writhing on the ground covered in blood and mud, crying that he cannot feel his legs, as police continue to pull his arms behind his back to force him into handcuffs.
“I’m sorry,” Brooks can be heard apologizing, “I didn’t know you were cops.”
The shooting is as frenzied and chaotic as it is gruesome, and drenched in what seems to be a disregard for human life. The circumstances that brought dozens of law enforcement officers to ambush an unhoused family over minor misdemeanor charges are emblematic of a social order that turns financial hardship into terminal poverty, and poverty into a crime managed by deadly state violence. “Organized abandonment and organized violence,” as abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore has long put it.
“Federal police officers planned in secret to arrest this homeless family on minor misdemeanor offenses by preying on their good graces. Officers knew that the family would help two people that they thought were stranded motorists,” Craig Durham, one of Brooks’s attorneys, wrote me via email. “It’s a shame that in the wealthiest nation on earth, our federal government will expend so many resources to hassle a homeless family, botch an arrest so badly, and permanently injure someone, rather than just help them find a place to live.”
The Robertses were not staying in trailers — which lacked running water, heat in frigid winters, and air conditioning in brutal desert summers — out of choice. They had been trying to find housing since their eviction in 2020, when Judy lost her job of 13 years at a manufacturing plant after being T-boned in a serious car accident.
According to the wrongful shooting claim, the Roberts family tried to find emergency shelter as the Covid pandemic raged but were told all options were full. “For months they moved from place to place across southwest Idaho, encountering law enforcement who told them, again and again, to move on.” A criminal complaint against the three family members for violations relating to their overstay, and against Timber for a further count of disorderly conduct, notes that law enforcement officials had been informing the family of the need to move off forest land since late 2020.
In this country, the poor do not fall through the cracks, because these are not cracks but traps — from which there is no release.
In this country, the poor do not fall through the cracks, because these are not cracks but traps — from which there is no release. In the winter of 2021 to 2022, Judy suffered severe frostbite as the family stayed on BLM high desert land. “Her feet eventually froze to the floor of an old school bus. Hallucinating, she was rushed to the hospital, but doctors could not save her feet,” the claim filing noted. “After a double amputation, she spent several months in physical therapy learning how to walk with prosthetics.”
The following summer, Brooks was injured during an overnight Walmart shift, which left him requiring a wheelchair for mobility. The family was again forced to move by the BLM and set up their trailers further north on Forest Service land. That winter, 26 inches of snow left Judy, Brooks, and Timber snowed in and stuck. Nonetheless, the government continued to charge all three of them with multiple misdemeanor counts related to staying on federal lands.
In February 2023, the family appeared in court, were arraigned on “multiple misdemeanor violations” and granted pretrial release. A warrant was issued for the family’s arrests in May, however, after they “continued to violate numerous federal laws,” and after Timber allegedly shouted obscenities at federal officers and threatened members of the public, according to the government’s complaint. Forest Service and BLM agents then planned their undercover arrest operation, even though the matter was already in the courts. According to Brooks’s wrongful shooting claim, “No agent contacted the Robertses’ appointed attorneys. No agent reached out to see if they would surrender on these charges, as they had before.”
“I got social security disability, which they garnished for nonpayment of tickets for staying too long on forest land. We needed that money to get into an RV place. They should be using their resources to help people find a place to live instead of persecuting them,” said Judy, in a statement shared by Brooks’s attorneys.
“How can we get on our feet when you keep ticketing us to take away our money that we could have used for housing?” Brooks added. “It just makes the problems amplified. If the person is struggling to find a place and then they get arrested, then they really have trouble, because they don’t have the ability to find a place when they’re in jail.”
Like every state, Idaho lacks thousands of much-needed affordable rental homes. Last December, Boise-based organization Charitable Assistance to Community’s Homeless, or CATCH, reported the number of people experiencing homelessness in the city had doubled since 2020. Like the Robertses, a growing number of people who cannot find housing turn to staying on public lands in trailers and encampments. In a Boise State Public Radio report last year, a BLM supervisory field staff ranger said the number of people living on BLM land in Idaho had increased “tenfold, at least” in recent years.
Most national parks have a camping stay limit of two to three weeks. A crucial 2018 federal court decision, however, ruled that unhoused people cannot be punished for sleeping on public land if no shelter beds are available. “The government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit decided in Martin v. Boise, a ruling that covers the jurisdiction in which the Roberts family were continuously harassed and punished for their homelessness.
Durham, the attorney, told me he and his team believe Martin v. Boise applies in this instance and will be using it to defend the Roberts family in the criminal case brought against them by the government.
Local, state, and federal authorities have keenly sought ambiguities and loopholes in Martin, like banning daytime camping and sanctioning certain encampment sites, so that all others can be cleared without providing the sustainable permanent housing that should be a right.
In the summer of 2022, the National Park Service cleared two unhoused encampments from federal land in Washington, D.C., citing “threats to public health and safety.” The action clarified, in no uncertain terms, who does and does not get to count as “the public” in the eyes of our federal government. Similar rhetoric was deployed to defend the brutal killing of Jordan Neely, an unhoused Black man in crisis, on a New York City subway in May; officials invoked a selective view of a “public” deserving safety, from which Neely was violently excluded.
Following Brooks’s shooting, the National Homelessness Law Center called on the Biden administration “to issue an executive order eliminating all federal police activities in their response to homelessness, and instead to mandate a housing- and services-only approach that is rooted in choice, healing, and racial justice.”
In May, the Biden administration announced an initiative to partner with the country’s major cities with the aim of a 25 percent reduction in national homelessness by 2025 — an already insufficient goal that will still be hard to obtain amid soaring housing prices, slashed social services budgets, and the billions more being poured into policing by Democrats and Republicans alike.
“Data clearly show that a police approach is expensive, diverts community resources that could be used for housing, disproportionately harms Black people and other people of color and is overall ineffective at solving homelessness,” the National Homelessness Law Center said in a statement.
The Roberts family’s story is yet another reminder of the consequences of criminalizing poverty and homelessness. Timber took a plea deal and currently awaits his sentencing in jail. After being released from the hospital in mid-August, Brooks joined Judy in a hotel, where they have relied on donations and support from local mutual aid networks.
“They are now right on the verge of being on the streets unsheltered again,” Ritchie Eppink, an attorney for Brooks, wrote to The Intercept. “Because their money is about to run out.”
Correction: September 6, 2023, 5:12 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article said Timber was staying in a hotel with Judy, while Brooks was still in the hospital. Brooks was released from the hospital in mid-August, and Timber is currently awaiting his sentencing in jail.