The latest incident involving a police shooting (North Charleston, South Carolina) to hit the national news is a cop that shot a man in the back as the man was running away. The cop fired eight times, hitting the man five times. The man was killed. It appears that they were in a scuffle, that the officer hit the man with a Taser, and after that they scuffled. It looks as if the Taser either was dropped or was thrown prior to the scuffle. After the shooting, the cop looks as if he picked something up and dropped it near the man that was fleeing. He radioed in that the Taser had been taken away from him, shots were fired, and the suspect is down.
So, to recap: 1) Cop confronts man, man is Tasered. 2) Man scuffles with cop after being Tasered; Taser is either lost by or taken away from the cop. 3) Man flees the cop. 4) Cop shoots the man from behind. 5) Cop moves something from near himself to near the downed man. 6) Cop calls it in. 7) Man dies. 8) No weapons other than the Taser are found by the man. This case is all over social media, with a huge amount of opinion being expressed regarding the incident.
What is my professional perspective on this? The shooting looks bad to me. First, though, here’s a little information on the police shooting someone from behind. If a police officer shoots someone in the back, that is not in and of itself a disqualifier indicating a bad shoot. If the individual that is fleeing from the police has committed a violent felony, and the police officer believes others may be at risk if that person escapes, shooting is warranted, if the individual is armed or not. Couple cases in point: First, the Boston Marathon bombing. Once cornered, if the suspect(s) had decided to run away from the police, the police would have been justified in shooting them, period. Secondly, if an individual just stabbed, shot, or bludgeoned someone, and that individual runs from the police, the police are justified in shooting the fleeing suspect, even if that person is shot in the back. This is a different standard than for non-police personnel. A civilian has the right to self-defense, but if the suspect is fleeing, the civilian is not in imminent danger. In that regard, a civilian shooting someone from behind that is fleeing is much more problematic.
As I said, in the current incident, it looks like a bad shoot to me. I am more than willing to allow the case to be investigated, and if it is found that the cop acted improperly; if he is subsequently charged, tried, found guilty, and imprisoned, so be it. However, that is not what troubles me. What bothers me is that it appears that all that will matter with this incident is the racial component. Because the cop in this case is white, and the man that died is black.
So in my view, I fear that the cop has little to no chance for any fair evaluation of what happened. Did the police officer shoot the man because the cop is a racist, and a black man was running away from him? That is a possibility. Could the cop have genuinely feared for his life during the struggle and made a horrid, terrible decision that cost a man his life and then tried to cover it up? That’s possible as well. I don’t know. I don’t know the cop, and I’m not competent to read his thoughts at the time he pulled the trigger. On the other hand, folks are going to say that it isn’t really relevant what he thought. “White cop shoots Black man,“ and in this case, shot him in the back. But even that isn’t the main point. As long as it’s “White cop shoots Black man,” the initial assumption is going to be racism. Actually, it doesn’t matter if the cop shoots him in the front, back, side, top or bottom, it doesn’t matter what the circumstances surrounding the shooting are, it doesn’t matter how many witnesses there are or what they say. “White cop shoots black man.” That’s all that matters. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if the cop shoots the black man. If the white cop arrests the black man, if the black man gets bruised or battered in any way, the initial assumption is that it’s racial. If the black man is merely confronted by a white cop, it’s the same assumption.
What was the cop thinking? Doesn’t matter. All that matters is that a white cop shot a black man. What was the black man thinking? Likely folks will say he was terrified of the white cop and fearing for his life, fought with the cop and ran, ultimately (in this incident) losing his life. So, what the black man thought was extremely important. The white cop’s thoughts? Irrelevant.
I have tried to educate folks on why cops do what they do; what cops think, why it’s important for the police to operate as they do in probably 99.999% of the situations they encounter. But my efforts mean nothing. Folks are going to think what they are going to think, and cops are (in their minds) going to remain racist, and for them the cops are going to remain in many (if not most) cases, the bad guys.
The problem is that cops, including me, just can’t win. Heck, according to the narrative, we’re so racist (and deluded/ignorant/stupid, use whatever sobriquet you wish) that we don’t even know we’re racist. The system is so racist to begin with, that even if a cop is trying to use good motivation, it’s racist anyhow! Even the investigation cannot be trusted to be a fair and partial evaluation (unless the cop is found to be wrong, then at least in this case, justice prevailed), because the system is so inherently racist, that the cop will likely get a pass for killing a black man.
Are there racist cops out there that should not be police? I would say that is very likely. But even after a career spanning three and a half decades, I have never seen or heard of a cop acting on a racist impulse to harm, or arrest (or not arrest) someone based on the color of that person’s skin. What a person thinks, and what a person acts on, are not necessarily the same. Are there people of color that have gotten a bad shake from the police due to racism? Sure, I have known a few that have suffered from that, people that I care about. Do racist incidents happen? Yep, I will not even argue that point. I recognize that inequity exists, and that we must fight it.
But, back to the present case. Did the officer act inappropriately, and should he be punished? I am willing to wait for the investigation to be concluded. For me, I don’t care what the skin color of the cop is, or of the man he killed. If the shooting was appropriate, it was appropriate. If it was not, it was not. What I am not willing to do is sit in judgement prior to the facts of the case coming out. What I am not willing to do is to allow the “courts of public opinion” to make the final determination.
Do I sound bitter? You bet. I am tired of police officers automatically being assumed to having acted from racist motivation. And one more aside. During my career as a Detective Sergeant, I was assigned a case in which a fellow police officer was accused of improperly hitting a man with his flashlight during an arrest. I worked with my partner in Detectives and the District Attorney’s office, and ultimately I charged the police officer with assault. The cop was stripped of his badge and gun, processed like any other arrestee, and taken to trial. And yes, the cop was white, and the victim was black. But as I indicated earlier, that is likely irrelevant. Because according to the narrative, I am a racist, and I serve a racist system.