It seems that everywhere I look on Facebook today there is outrage over the recent shootings of two men by police officers. Notice I didn’t say “two black men” because I’ll try to keep this post about police misconduct rather than about race, although I acknowledge that both of the men were black and I acknowledge that this is the primary reason for the social outrage. You’ll also notice I didn’t say “two unarmed men.” That’s because both of the men were armed, or at least that’s what it seems according to the information known and available at the time of this post.
The reason for this blog is because it’s difficult for me to sit and read all the blatantly ignorant posts that I see popping up all over, without responding in some way.
For those of you who know me, you’ll know that I’m strongly pro-police in most situations. More importantly than that though, I’m strongly “pro-let’s get all the facts before we judge the situation.”
Mostly though, what I want to talk about is the extreme misconception that police officers can do whatever they want without repercussions.
A friend, who I know to be of above average intelligence, made a post on Facebook today that there were 1200 police shootings last year and zero officers were convicted of murder or manslaughter. He then went on to say that if you have a high school diploma (a subtle jab implying that police officers aren’t capable of higher education degrees) and you want a job where there’s no accountability for your actions, you should become a cop.
I will say this much, he’s correct that zero officers have been convicted of murder or manslaughter from shootings that took place in 2015. What he failed to add (intentionally or ignorantly) is that fifteen officers have been charged and are awaiting trial on murder or manslaughter charges, and that many investigations are still open with charges potentially pending. In fact, already in 2016, two police officers have been charged and sentenced to prison for shootings that took place in 2013.
ALL police shootings result in a thorough investigation into that shooting, and, to the best of my knowledge, that investigation is done 100% of the time with an outside agency for impartiality. Many jurisdictions even use a citizen’s review board into all shootings, just so there’s not even a hint of impropriety. That’s right, a board made up of citizens gets to determine if the officer acted appropriately. The fact is, police officers are held to an extremely high standard in everything they do, and use of force elevates that standard even higher.
Philando Castile was shot on a traffic stop in Minnesota and the aftermath was caught on video by his girlfriend who was driving at the time. What we see in that video is a man who has been shot and is dying. He’s seated in the passenger seat, with his seatbelt on, and he’s slumped over, still breathing but obviously struggling. If you’re not used to seeing violence and blood, it’s probably not a pleasant thing to watch. What we don’t see, is what happened. We don’t see what led to the shooting and we don’t see the actual shooting itself because the video is started after it happens. The girlfriend claims that Castile was reaching for his wallet to get his identification, while the police officer (apparently) thought he was reaching for the gun he had concealed (legally, with a permit it seems) on his side.
Is this a tragedy? Probably. Did the officer act inappropriately? Maybe. We don’t know because we don’t have any other information. We don’t know what happened before the video was turned on. Hopefully the officer was wearing a body camera, or had dashboard video and audio because then we’ll have a better idea of what happened. Unless you believe that this officer came on duty that day and decided he was going to kill the first person who gave him any reason to do so, then you have to admit this is going to suck for everybody involved, including the officers, the department, and the community. Because if that officer thought Castile was going for his gun when he was actually going for his wallet, right now that officer is going through a living hell. If he killed a man without cause, after a split-second decision, he will be devastated and will have to live with that for the rest of his life. And he’ll probably be prosecuted and very possibly face prison time for his mistake.
Again, unless you believe the officer set out to murder somebody that day, this is either a justifiable shooting, or a terrible and tragic mistake made by an officer who made a bad decision in a split-second situation. But here’s the point…He will face an inquiry and he will be held accountable for his actions, right or wrong. We CAN NOT judge him or the situation until all the facts have been presented and the investigation is finished, and that will take some time.
The other shooting involved a man who was also armed, and who resisted arrest. The police in this case, responded to a call of a man who presented a gun in a threatening manner (a crime known as brandishing in many locations). Upon arrival, they attempted to arrest Alton Sterling and during that arrest, he was shot. Here, we have a different scenario for sure. We know Sterling was armed and we know that he resisted arrest. Those facts are evident in the video. What’s not evident is whether or not Sterling tried to draw his weapon while he was fighting with the police officers.
Proponents of Alton Sterling on social media will tell you how he was known affectionately as CD man. Even “news” outlet headlines, in an astonishing lack of journalistic integrity, use such headlines as “Police kill man selling CD’s on street.” Opponents of Sterling will tell you about his lengthy criminal rap sheet that includes several felonies and resisting arrest charges. Neither of these are valid points whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if Sterling was a nice guy who sold CD’s and it doesn’t matter if his rap sheet was a mile long. He doesn’t deserve to be killed by the police either way, unless he did something in that moment that justifies their actions. And we don’t know if he did because his actions while he’s fighting with the police do not come through on the video. One of the officers shouts out that he has a gun, the other officer draws his weapon (appropriately), and warns the man that he’ll be shot if he moves. We see one of the officers jump away, falling over Sterling in his attempt to get out of the way. We hear a gunshot of unknown origin, the camera moves away, and we hear more gunfire. Then the camera switches back and the officer is trying to slide away on his back with Sterling immobile and dying. Another officer comes up and removes something from the man’s pocket (that appears to indeed be a gun).
Again, a full inquiry and investigation will be performed here, and if the officers acted inappropriately, they will likely be charged with a felony. We can’t judge them though, without all the evidence, and just based on a partial video of the incident. NOBODY IS QUALIFIED TO JUDGE THESE OFFICERS BASED ON WHAT IS SHOWN IN THOSE VIDEOS.
Neither of these cases even remotely resembles the case of the Michael Slager, the officer in Georgia who shot Walter Scott in the back while he was running away. In that case, the video turns on while Officer Slager is engaged in a physical confrontation with Scott who then disengages and runs. Slager draws his firearm and opens fire, striking Scott several times in the back. He then handcuffs Scott, returns to the scene of the fight where he appears to pick up a fallen weapon (Taser I believe) which he then carries over to Scott and throws on the ground next to him. Officer Slager has been charged with murder, and guess what? He’s probably going to be convicted, just based on the video evidence alone. And I’ll be honest, I have a tough time not judging his guilt, even with my stand that nobody should be judged until all the facts are in, just because the video is so clear and so damning.
But these other two? Nope. Sorry. Not going to judge either officer until we know all the facts, and certainly not based on some crappy video. For those of you who think you can sit and judge those officers, I challenge you to take on what they have. Police communities everywhere are hiring officers; go apply. Go change things from within and go walk a mile in a police officer’s boots and then try to judge them for their decisions. Because the job is a little tougher than all you social media judges might think.
Police officers live in fear of the accountability they’ll be held to every day. I’m not saying they are afraid of their intent being judged. What they’re afraid of is their decisions, often made with partial information and no time to think, being judged after the fact, with full information and disclosure of facts. The fear they live with every day is that they’ll make a mistake; that they’ll be forced to make a decision that will turn out to be wrong and that they’ll kill an innocent man. Sometimes that happens and they’re not charged. They’re not charged because logical people understand the difference between a light-of-the-day analysis of an encounter, and a split-second life or death decision with partial information. But even when they’re not charged, they still have to live with the guilt of a decision that could have been made differently. And they often have to face a civil trial where they can be held financially accountable even if they’re not criminally accountable.
I’m friends with many good police officers, and I dread the day one of those officers is faced with such a decision. Because the average public will never understand the fear that police officers go through every time they have an encounter with a member of the public that doesn’t go smoothly. Every time somebody decides to run or decides to fight. The delicate balance between not using enough force in an escalating situation that results in them getting hurt or killed, and using too much force that results in the citizen getting hurt or killed. It’s not easy and I will not judge based on a few seconds of a shaky camera phone video. Neither should you.