Friday, September 23, 2016

THOUGHTS ON POLICE SHOOTINGS



I look at the world around me and I sometimes think I am trapped between Wonderland and Oz and my ruby slippers aren't working. In Charlotte last week a black police officer shot an armed black man who appeared to be in attack mode; several days of riots followed; and the Justice Department announced it’s going to open an investigation. In Tulsa a white police officer shot an unarmed black man who was reported to have had his hands up at the time; no riots; no Justice Department investigation. Can someone explain to me how that makes sense? I understand that the officer who shot the man in Tulsa eventually got charged, but the riots in Charlotte seem to have happened before any official response could be formulated. 

Perhaps there is a greater degree of trust of law enforcement in Tulsa than in Charlotte. Perhaps things happened beyond anyone's control in Charlotte that didn't happen in Tulsa. I think, however, that one cause of the riots in Charlotte was a lack of public understanding of the dynamics of armed confrontations, regardless of the ethnicity of the participants. Maybe if people could look inside the investigation of a police shooting it might help them to understand the dynamics of the tense situation that develops after a police shooting. The story I am about to tell is true to the best of my memory, but the names and places have been concealed.

A long time ago a group of officers got into a high speed chase with a young black male who was dealing illegal drugs—I think it was crack cocaine but I’m not sure. After a long chase they finally got him stopped. With guns drawn, they got him and the passengers out of the car and the officer who was dealing with him had him put his hands on the roof of the car so he could search him. The officer did not holster his handgun. He also violated Jeff Cooper’s Third Rule of Firearms Safety: “Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.” He was also carrying a handgun with a very light trigger pull. For my own personal use, I modified that rule to “Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until your sights are on the target," but I’m digressing.

The young man spun around and elbowed the officer in the side of the head, knocking him to the ground. When the officer hit the ground, his muscles reflexively tensed and he accidentally pulled the trigger. The bullet shot almost straight up, slightly grazing the young man’s back. The injury would have been slight except for the fact that the man had his head cocked back. The bullet entered the back of his head, killing him. That night everyone, officers and passengers, told basically the same story—officer begins to search man; man spins, knocking officer down; gun goes off when officer hits the ground; man is shot in head.
 
Back in the day when this happened there were no bodycams or in-car videos, no cellphones with video cameras, nothing except eyewitness testimony. Our office (the State Attorney’s Office) was called out, and either we or the sheriff called out the FDLE crime scene van. FDLE worked the scene and we took tape recorded statements from everyone. The body was sent to the Medical Examiner, and his findings corroborated the story everyone at the scene was telling. It seemed like an open and shut case of accident, and a pretty good lawsuit for negligence on the part of the man’s survivors.

There was unrest as a result of the shooting, and we wanted to try our best to allay the fears of the citizenry. Our usual procedure for police shootings was to take the shooting to a grand jury and, if the shooting was justified or excusable, to have the grand jury return a report of their findings. Grand jury proceedings are secret, and people are naturally suspicious of secret proceedings. 

I got the bright idea that we should have a public hearing and put the testimony out in the public domain so that everyone could plainly see that this was clearly an accident. The way to do that would be to hold a Coroner’s Inquest, which is a public proceeding. Florida has done away with Coroner’s Juries and might as well do away with the office of the Coroner completely, but under then-existing law the County Judge was the Coroner. I talked my boss into holding our first and last Coroner’s Inquest on a police shooting.

On the morning of the inquest, the courtroom was virtually empty. The only people who were there were the witnesses we had subpoenaed and the camera crew from the local TV station. We were going to put on the eyewitnesses in the morning and put on the evidence from the Medical Examiner and the Crime Lab in the afternoon. We had some very good CSI type evidence which completely corroborated the eyewitness testimony, and we fully expected that we were going to be able to satisfy everyone that there was no malice involved in this tragic accident.

We started running into trouble when we put the passengers on the witness stand. The way they told it, the officer wasn’t quite guilty of first degree murder, but he was certainly guilty of second. They gave the TV station some excellent sound bites—well, the TV news would call them excellent, I would call them atrocious. We had transcribed the passengers’ statements, and we impeached the Dickens out of them with prior inconsistent statements, but that sort of testimony doesn’t make for good sound bites.

When lunchtime came, the TV guys packed up and left. They had to get back to the station to edit their videotape for the 6:00 o’clock news. The courtroom was empty when the forensic scientists testified to facts which proved the passengers’ accusations against the officer were untrue. I didn’t watch the news that night, but I understand that the news played some of the most inflammatory statements made by the passengers and nothing said by the officers. There was a riot that night and a couple of buildings got burned down.

One thing that contributed to that long-ago riot was a TV station more concerned with sensation than with significance, but another thing that contributed to it was my bone-headed assumption that news coverage of the Coroner’s Inquest was going to be objective. It would have been far, far better to have heard the testimony behind the closed doors of the grand jury and let the grand jury file a report outlining the facts and circumstances of the shooting. No sensational soundbites, probably no burned buildings. 

Police shootings are inevitable. Officers confront life-or-death situations against armed and dangerous people on a daily basis, and sometimes they have to shoot them. I think the key to defusing such situations lies in doing some prior planning for how to handle the inevitable AND some prior public relations to let folks know that police officers are not ogres. 

In my job I usually got called out after the shooting was over, but sometimes I wound up as an interested observer to armed confrontations—and most of them were handled without loss of life. The common denominator that ran through all the confrontations I witnessed was this: The officers didn’t want to hurt the suspect, and they darn sure didn’t want to kill him. They bent over backwards to not use deadly force. 

By far and away the vast majority of officers are competent, professional, and restrained in the use of deadly force. Once a group reaches a certain size, however, there are going to be some knuckleheads and rotten apples in the group. I think that for people on the outside looking in on incidents like what happened in Tulsa and Charlotte, it would be good to remember a few things:

[1] Even the most “unbiased” appearing reporting can be terribly skewed, especially when it comes fast on the heels of an incident.

[2] It is best to wait until all the facts are in until forming a fixed opinion.

[3] Remember how inefficient and ineffective governmental bureaucracy is. Give it time to work before getting into attack mode; and then the best place to attack is the ballot box, not the local convenience store. 

[4] Always keep in mind the words of President George W. Bush: “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”