Break out your pencils, gentle readers, it’s time for a pop quiz. What do Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, and Paul O’Neal have in common? Yes, they are all black men who died under controversial circumstances at the hands of the police, but you get only partial credit if your answer was limited to those facts. To get full credit, you must have included the point that they all would be alive today had they merely followed the lawful directions of the police officers who were trying to arrest or detain them.
Recall that Eric Garner died of a heart attack after resisting NYPD officers’ attempts to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island; Freddie Gray died in police custody after attempting to flee from officers in Baltimore; Walter Scott was shot after running away from a traffic stop in North Charleston; Laquan McDonald was shot by one of several Chicago police officers trying to detain him over a car break-in; and Paul O’Neal was shot by a Chicago police officer while running from a stolen car, one that he had only moments before rammed into a police cruiser.
To this list we now add Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott, who last week were shot and killed by police officers in Tulsa and Charlotte, respectively. And already I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the No Justice, No Peace Hallelujah Chorus. “But Dunphy,” they cry, “you don’t get the death penalty for not listening to the police!”
Which is true, as far as it goes. But these men were not shot because they failed to follow police commands. They were shot because the police officers perceived an imminent threat of death or great bodily injury if they did not use deadly force to stop it. Whether or not those perceptions were reasonable under the law remains to be seen. To that point, Betty Shelby, the Tulsa police officer who shot Crutcher, has already been charged with manslaughter.
As for Keith Scott, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief Kerr Putney remains adamant that Scott was holding a handgun when he was shot. A video of the incident shot by Scott’s wife, released by NBC on Friday, strongly suggests Scott was indeed armed with a handgun as he exited his car. Officers can be heard repeatedly ordering him to drop the gun. Indeed, just before the fatal shots were fired, Scott’s wife can be heard saying, “Keith, don’t you do it!” It’s unclear in the video what the “it” was, but the woman’s reaction reveals her concern that Scott was placing himself in danger. He was.
On Saturday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police released videos captured by a dashboard camera and an officer’s body-worn camera, but neither of them shows clearly what Scott did in the moments before he was shot. What can be seen clearly from the dashboard camera is that Scott exited his car and was backing away from it with his hands at his sides when four shots were fired in about one second. What, if anything, he had in his hands cannot be seen in either police video.
The incident and its aftermath bear similarities to the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. When Brown was killed by a Ferguson police officer, there was abundant evidence available that very day, including witness accounts and forensic evidence, that showed the shooting was justified. Despite this, the “hands up, don’t shoot” falsehood, first offered by Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, was allowed to spread. This led to rioting amid the expectation that the officer would be charged and convicted. Soon after the shooting in Charlotte, the tale spread that Scott was not armed but was instead holding a book when he was shot. When local officials did not move swiftly to counter this version, demonstrations devolved into rioting.
While there is no evidence – none – that the Scott shooting was unjustified, this hasn’t prevented calls for the involved officers to be charged with crimes and summarily fired. To their credit, both the police chief and prosecutor in Charlotte have not handed the mob the scalp they cry out for.
Not so in Tulsa, where, in an address to reporters that was more of a sermon than it was a statement of facts, Tulsa County district attorney Steve Kunzweiler announced on Thursday that he had charged Officer Betty Shelby with manslaughter in the death of Terence Crutcher. The shooting was captured on video shot from a police helicopter and from a police car dash-cam, but neither video is dispositive as to the threat or lack of one posed by Crutcher. What can be seen is that Crutcher, who had inexplicably left his SUV parked in the middle of a road, walks toward it with his hands raised while Shelby follows. Another officer joins Shelby and positions himself to her left just before Shelby fires a single round at Crutcher. In neither video is it clear where Crutcher’s hands were when the shot was fired.
Kunzweiler’s statement of charges offers two different grounds for accusing Shelby of manslaughter. The first posits that Shelby’s fear of Crutcher resulted in her “unreasonable actions.” The second rationale posits simply that Shelby “unlawfully and unnecessarily” shot Crutcher. The fact that Kunzweiler chose to charge Shelby on these parallel theories suggests that, at least as of now, he lacks sufficient evidence to support either one.
Whichever theory Kunzweiler ultimately pursues, the case against Shelby is not as strong as the hasty decision to charge her would indicate. Some viewers of the videos might see no conceivable justification for the shooting, but I have no doubt that many police officers were reminded of the 1998 murder of Deputy Kyle Dinkheller of the Laurens County, Georgia, Sheriff’s Department. Dinkheller was shot and killed by a man who exited his pickup truck during a traffic stop, then returned to the truck and retrieved a rifle from it. And in 2010, Montana Highway Patrol Trooper David DeLaittre was murdered under similar circumstances by a man who, also after exiting his truck, retrieved a shotgun from it and opened fire. Videos of both these murders have been widely viewed in police training sessions, and I expect them to play a part in Officer Shelby’s defense.
Over the last few years the belief has arisen that a fleeing or resisting suspect – even an armed one – has the absolute right to be subdued without being harmed, with the consequence that some officers are acting with undue restraint even as danger signs become obvious. Witness what happens in this video when two South Carolina police officers show restraint in detaining a man whom they at first thought they were arresting for the minor offense of marijuana possession, but who in fact was armed with a handgun. The deference they showed the man nearly cost them their lives.
Whatever the misdeeds of any of the police officers involved in these incidents, it remains a fact that even in those instances where the officers were charged with crimes, the officers had legal cause to detain the men who later died in the encounters. It was the decisions made by those men that set the fatal chain of events in motion. Yes, police officers are obligated to follow the law, but so is everyone else. When the police catch you dirty, the only wise choice – and the only legal one – is to put your hands up and do as you’re told. If Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott had done that, just like all the others mentioned above, instead of being martyrs to a discredited movement, they’d be unknown but alive today.
(Artwork by Shutterstock.com.)