Police Shootings: A Tough Job and Misconduct

It can scarcely be questioned that police officers have a very difficult job that exposes them to far more danger than most any other job. At the same time, there are many everyday Americans who feel unsafe around police officers. It is doubtless that police misconduct does occur, but there are many incidents where it is not so clear whether misconduct has taken place. In the past few months, many such events have taken place, stoking tempers in both law enforcement and civil rights groups. Is the outrage warranted? Has there been police misconduct? Let’s look at two recent incidents.

“It Looks Like a Firearm That Could Kill You”

One such incident took place in Columbus, Ohio. The situation was as follows per current reports; an investigation is ongoing.

On September 14, 2016, the Columbus Police Department responded to a report of an armed robbery. A short time after speaking with the victim of the robbery, officers identified three individuals who matched the description given by the victim. Two of those individuals decided to run when ordered to halt by the officers; one of them was Tyre King. During the pursuit, King pulled what looked like a gun from his person. Police 2

At a snap decision, King was shot and killed by Officer Bryan Mason of the Columbus Police Department. Investigation at the scene later found King did have a gun, but it was only a BB gun. However, the BB gun was a very close replica to a common pistol. Police commented at a press release after the incident “it looks like a firearm that could kill you.”King’s companion, Demetrius Braxton, told police that he and King had performed the robbery that was reported. Officer Mason is currently performing desk duties while an official investigation takes place.

The outcome of the incident is, without a doubt, tragic. However, it is another question as to whether Office Mason ought to be disciplined. Under the current reports of the facts, King was reaching for a realistic looking firearm at the time he was shot by Officer Mason. If this was to happen to any person in the US, one might consider it self-defense. One wouldn’t expect that person to accept being shot at. In short, one might accept a person defending themselves in kind. However, one might also assert that Officer Mason could have tased or restrained King instead of shooting him.

Currently, insufficient facts are available as to whether either of these options would have been possible. On balance, under the current reports of the situation, it would be reasonable to not discipline Officer Mason as his actions appear to be legitimate self-defense.

“That Looks Like a Bad Dude”

Another such incident took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The situation was as follows per current reports; a lawsuit is ongoing.

On September 16, 2016, Tulsa police received two reports of an abandoned vehicle in the middle of a road blocking traffic. Upon arrival at the scene, Officer Betty Shelby found Terence Crutcher with the vehicle. Upon engaging Crutcher, Officer Shelby noted many indicators that Crutcher was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Officer Shelby ordered Crutcher to put his hands up and Crutcher complied. Crutcher began to wander back and forth between the abandoned vehicle and Officer Shelby’s police cruiser.

Officer Shelby claims that Crutcher refused to comply with commands given at the scene. At this point, additional officers arrived as did a police helicopter. Crutcher, hands still in the air, walked towards the abandoned vehicle and faced the vehicle. At this point, one of the officers in the police helicopter commented “That looks like a bad dude,” referring to Crutcher. There is a sudden flurry of movement from Officer Shelby and three backup officers. First, one of the backup officers tased Crutcher then a female voice over police radio yells “shots fired!” Officer Shelby had shot Crutcher who fell to the ground and died. Officer Shelby was later placed on administrative leave then charged with manslaughter.

Again, this was doubtlessly a tragic event, but did Officer Shelby deserve the manslaughter charges brought against her? Unfortunately for Officer Shelby, there’s no evidence to support a claim of self-defense. No weapons were found at the scene, nor were any found in Crutcher’s car. Current reports of the events do indicate Crutcher was acting strangely throughout the encounter. However, the mere fact that someone acts strangely should not be sufficient to use deadly force. In fact, according to the video evidence, Crutcher had his hands up through most of the encounter.

Officer Shelby also asserts that Crutcher did not comply with her orders. Even if this were true, which is uncertain at this point, this doesn’t seem sufficient to justify deadly force. Indeed, when backup arrived, the backup officer elected to use a taser to restrain Crutcher. Overall, it seems clear that deadly force was not justified in this situation and therefore it seems fair to charge Officer Shelby.

The Bigger Picture

These incidents were tragic. However, in the bigger picture, we must keep perspective. Law enforcement officers have a difficult job. A dangerous job that puts officers at risk of their life every day. To keep perspective though we must also accept that the authority we grant to law enforcement demands oversight and reasonability. Misconduct must be investigated and, when justified, officers must be disciplined.

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