Guns, Misconduct, and Strategy

It was a bad shooting. A kid, innocent of any crime, would never walk again.

He was shot in the back by a detective while deciding what sandwich to buy at the counter of a little sub shop in Baltimore. The detective caught a glimpse of metal as the teen pulled an object out of his pocket. The detective fired.

The flash of metal turned out to be a lighter. There was no imminent danger, no crime in progress.

A police review was later quoted in civil suits against the city of Baltimore and the detective.

The detective “did not accost the suspects, identify himself as a Police Officer, and conduct a stop and frisk” or “identify himself as a Police Officer to the owner or employee of the Pizza shop and request they telephone for a back-up unit.” And “there existed insufficient facts and circumstances to warrant reasonable belief of imminent danger to himself.”

17 year old Ja-Wan McGee lost the use of his legs. He lived with that forever.

The police detective lived with it, as well as the loss of his career, for the next quarter century. Former officer Scottie McCown died in 2004.

Years after the incident, author David Simon defended the detective.

The area in which the shooting occurred had been afflicted with a series of robberies. One of the perpetrators had brandished a small silver pistol. The officer had watched the young man and a friend peering through the shop window as if planning something. He saw the metalic flash as that pistol, a gun putting the life of the shop owner in danger.

Simon goes on to a more general observation: that we in the non-policing public are often afflicted with a false expectation. We construct what Simon calls “the myth of perfection.”

It doesn’t matter that a shouted warning concedes every advantage to the gunman, that death can come in the time it takes for a cop to identify himself or demand that a suspect relinquish a weapon. It doesn’t matter that in a confrontation of little more than a second or two, a cop is lucky if he can hit center mass from a distance of twenty feet, much less target extremities or shoot a weapon from a suspect’s hand. And it doesn’t matter whether a cop is an honorable man, whether he truly believes he is in danger, whether the shooting of a black suspect sickens him no less than if the man were white.

– David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, 1991

In the deepest part of human nature, we abhor injustice. In a sort of emotional version of fight-or-flight, we face opposite motivations. We find ways to work against injustice, or we find ways to justify injustice. We blame the perpetrator or we blame the victim.

What we often fail to do is to acknowledge the terrible fact that some tragedy happens without malevolence. People can be injured or die when no guilty party is to be found, when no villain exists.

We cannot bring ourselves to believe that a bad shooting can happen at the hands of a good police officer. And yet it can and does.

That is not always the case, of course.

Redditt Hudson is a retired veteran of the Police Department here in St. Louis, where he served for 5 years. He agrees with the rough estimate of one expert police instructor.

On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.

If 5 out of 6 police officers act fairly in protecting citizens, then that means most encounters will be fair and benevolent. It also means that some encounters will be the moral equivalent of Russian roulette. Will the approaching officer be the 5 out of 6? or the 1 out of 6 you do not want to meet?

People of color are disproportionately the victims of police misconduct.

Police culture has a deep influence, and it varies from department to department. At our own occasional family gatherings in Illinois, relatives who travel by car share information on what routes they have learned to take.

On this road you’ll be safe if you obey the law, on that road you’re liable to be stopped and harassed as soon as you are seen driving while black. And if you are stopped, keep your hands visible – on the steering wheel until instructed by an officer to move. Some encounters with police can be counted on to be exercises in deliberate humiliation, with a whiff of danger.

A few politicians deny that police misconduct is a meaningful issue at all. They point to attacks by black criminals on black citizens as having a greater impact than police misconduct. That has both the virtue of being the truth and the fatal flaw of being irrelevant. Ordinary citizens should revile criminal predators. Ordinary citizens should not have to fear their own government or the agents of that government who are assigned to protect them.

There are sometimes collisions, even among people of good will. Can we understand spur-of-the-moment conduct that turns out to be fatally improper?

How can we not empathize with an African American motorist in Minneapolis who does everything he is told to do by a police officer, and does it with precision? Explaining to an officer that he has a firearm, and that he is licensed to carry the weapon, then obeying an instruction to reach for his driving license and automobile registration does not seem to leave much room for guilt. This seems to have been a man shot for doing the right thing.

The temptation is to judge every police shooting in a statistical context. Too many officers guilty of unjustifiable conduct are not held accountable, the logic seems to be, and so the next incident needs to result in an imposed penalty on an officer. Resisting that logic means that each case needs to be judged in its own context.

We do not yet know it to be the case, but it is not impossible to envision the reaction of a nervous police officer on a bad day, stopping a motorist who announces that he has a weapon and who then reaches suddenly for what turns out to be his wallet.

The fact, if it turns out to be fact, that the officer ordered the shooting victim to reach for his license and registration may not have been the only departure from safe practice. Experts explain that, with training and drill, tactical decisions can defuse bad split second decisions well before they can even happen. On-the-spot misjudgments are reduced when those judgments are replaced by strategy that is planned beforehand. Human beings do not have to decide what to do in a fraction of a second if they already know what to do.

Moments before shooting began in Dallas, police mingled with those who were protesting police misconduct, exchanging greetings, posing with protesters for photos. It was not an isolated event that came from spontaneous good will. The friendly interaction was part of a pattern that has been developing for years.

The Dallas Police Department has reduced complaints against officers from 147 in 2009 – 147 – to 13 so far this year. In the same period, serious crime also went down. This was not accomplished by cracking down on the police, or even by encouraging officers to be kinder and gentler. Training, management, and professional accountability have had an effect. It would in any organization composed of humans who are called upon to perform an important specialized role.

Much of the Dallas strategy came from science. A few years ago, Dallas police began participating in a national task force on 21st century policing. Experts joined with experienced professionals to examine and measure what has worked and what has not.

Like any professional organization, society is composed of humans. A professional organization can effectively act to make every weak link stronger. When everyone in an organization is affected by every weak link, making every link stronger will have an effect.

Human society is not so simple. Empowering those of good will is an intuitive step. But asking folks to be good guys does not, by itself, seem to be an effective answer.

Regardless of general good will, society’s weakest links have a disproportionate effect on the rest of us. Part of that comes from technology. The ability to efficiently kill or injure large numbers of people is becoming increasingly available at a lower cost.

Reflexive opposition to every rational step toward gun safety does afford a high degree of gun freedom. The most enthusiastic of gun advocates suggest that unrestricted freedom to own powerful weapons provides a needed check on the heavy hand of government, as enforced by agents of the law.

We have seen that philosophy put to deadly action by a sniper in Dallas. Agents of the law were precisely targeted.

The terrible reality is that society will always have some share of weakest links – those subject to emotional vulnerability, mental illness, religious zealotry, or simple malevolence. When we cannot have even delays in the sale of heavy weapons to those known by authorities as suspected terrorists, something is wrong.

Gun ideology, taken to an extreme, has made all of us vulnerable to every weakest link. I want to trust the friendly police officer patroling my neighborhood. With a little more caution, I can even trust a heavily armed neighbor, if I know him. I do not want to trust my life and the lives of my family to every armed stranger any of us may encounter.

  • Police and community can act together to promote cooperation and safety. We know this because, in many communities, it is being done.
  • Police tactical skills can be developed as we measure what strategies are effective in protecting police and the public. We know this because, in many police departments, it is being done.
  • As society continues to progress, perhaps we can even come to a time when people of color, when people of every color, no longer need to develop informal skills in order to survive encounters with some small number of those assigned to protect us.

Perhaps we can someday even find ways to invite every neighbor to live in peace.

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