The Watering Hole, Monday, December 5, 2016: Deadly Force Is Not Always Justified

After posting some cryptic messages on his Facebook page on the morning of November 28, 2016, 18-year-old Abdul Razak Ali Artan, a refugee from Somalia, drove his car over a curb at Ohio State University into a crowd of people, then exited the car and began attacking people with a butcher knife. Officer Alan Horujko arrived on the scene within a minute and, as a police spokesman put it later, “eliminated the threat.” That’s cop-speak for “he killed him.” But did he really have to? Was killing Artan the only option available to “eliminate the threat”? You and I weren’t there but, even so, I seriously doubt Officer Horujko had no other option to “eliminate the threat.” And what exactly does “eliminate the threat” mean? Which was the “threat”? Artan himself or the butcher knife he was using on people? If Artan was disarmed of the knife, can one automatically assume he was still going to continue to try to kill people? It’s certainly possible, I agree, but can it be automatically assumed, and therefore used as justification to say that killing him was the only option available? Don’t cops carry several kinds of weapons? Don’t they have batons with which to beat down on someone’s arm to knock a knife out of his hands? Don’t they have tasers? Don’t they have any other options besides guns? And even with the guns, do they always have to shoot to kill? Is it because they’re such bad shots that the only chance they have of hitting a suspect is to aim for the torso? That’s what some argue. Well, they don’t call them bad shots (which many street cops appear to be based on the news reports of how many shots were fired versus how many times the suspect was hit), but they seem concerned that having to shoot at a knee or leg would be too chancy, and might result in a missed shot. They miss anyway, so I don’t understand that argument.

Ross Elder is a military veteran (he served in Operation Enduring Freedom) and freelance writer for Soldier of Fortune Magazine. Thank you for your service to our country, Mr. Elder. He believes that Americans simply do not understand why it is justifiable for police to use deadly force against even unarmed people. As he puts it, “The problem with the public outcry and the rioting in pursuit of “JUSTICE” is that most people know exactly nothing about physical combat and life threatening situations. They assume that if a person is unarmed that deadly force cannot and should not be employed. And they are wrong.” I couldn’t disagree with him more because there are several things wrong with what he said. First of all, we understand that there will be times when deadly force must be used, but they should always be as a last resort, not the first option, which is what appears to be happening with many of these cops killing unarmed black men. Second is his framework. He equates the situation of a police officer confronting an unarmed person (male or female) behaving in a potentially dangerous way with that of a soldier in a war facing an enemy in combat. They are not at all equivalent. The soldier has a duty to kill, distasteful as I find it. The police officer does not. The cop is not a soldier in a war, no matter how often you may hear some describe themselves as such. Their duty is to protect the public from the bad guys.

But that doesn’t mean their job is to find the bad guys and kill them. They’re supposed to stop the bad guys from doing any bad things they’re doing, and then bring them to justice for the bad things they did. By law there’s a process to which everyone is due, and it’s called “due process.” So important is due process that it’s enshrined as a guaranteed right in the US Constitution. That process involves many different people working in many different roles across many different government agencies. There are checks and balances along the way to ensure that the guarantee of due process is not ignored with impunity. And there’s a point early on in the process where the role of the police officer who first encountered the suspect no longer involves protecting the public from him, or even physically handling him in any way. He may testify against him during the trial, where his proper role is to present evidence. But he does not determine if the suspect is guilty of violating the law. And he does not determine what punishment the convicted will face. And he does not carry out that punishment. And even if the charge was “Failure To Obey The Lawful Orders Of A Police Officer,” the punishment would not be execution. Sadly, that has often been the punishment meted out for just such a crime, but without the whole due process thing.

Mr. Elder’s argument goes further astray when he starts equating the situation of a police officer confronting an unarmed person (male or female) behaving in a potentially dangerous way with that a civilian being attacked by a mugger or rapist, or even a killer. Again, the two are not equivalent at all. As a private citizen, you do have the right to defend yourself. And if you have a REASONABLE belief that your life is in danger, you can justify using deadly force. But civilians are not police officers, and do not have to concern themselves with protecting the rights of their attacker during the attack. And, yes, they do have rights. Once there is no longer a threat to your life (a real threat, not just a hypothetical one, or the old standby of the existential threat), there no longer exists a justification for the civilian to use deadly force. He’s not allowed to go after the attacker and kill him. Now some may say that states with so-called Stand Your Ground laws do allow such behavior if you continue to believe your life is in danger. But, again, it has to be a reasonable belief. And that’s part of the problem. People who are frightened, especially when they think their life is in danger, are usually unable to think reasonably.

Though I have no legal training, I don’t understand how a state law can override your federal right to not be deprived of life, liberty or property with out due process of law. It doesn’t matter that we may be talking about a civilian doing the killing and not the government. That’s irrelevant. The power to deprive someone of their life is not the government’s to give away to civilians. You can’t say that enumerated right only applies to police and judges trying to take your life and not to civilians. That’s stupid! It doesn’t say anything about to whom that power is denied, and it certainly would not be the framers’ intent that civilians be allowed to go around killing each other for whatever reasons they wish. So letting a state write a law that specifically allows someone to do that would clearly be unconstitutional. So, no, Stand Your Ground laws must be struck down and the old standard of Duty To Retreat must be reimposed.

Perhaps you’ve seen this meme:

americadoingitwrong

Mr. Elder says this meme “is not only misleading, it’s just plain stupid”. He writes, “First, let’s talk briefly about combat and self-defense.” Well, no, let’s not. A police officer on Main Street, USA, is not a soldier in Afghanistan. But he continues, again, based on the very false idea that what the cop is doing is exactly the same as what the soldier is doing. “When it comes to shooting an attacker, there is no school of training that directs you to take one shot then wait to see the reaction of the person you just shot. Then, if they are still a threat, if you actually hit them, take one more shot and, again, wait to see the reaction of the attacker before repeating this process until the threat is no longer present. If there IS such a school of training out there, please let me know. Then, run screaming from the building because you are being improperly trained by really stupid people.” No, they are not. It’s only stupid if you believe your one and only objective should be to kill the person you’re confronting. But it’s not. The street cop’s job is not to kill. That’s usually left to SWAT teams and Hostage Negotiating Teams. The street cop is there to make sure as many innocent lives are protected as possible while making sure the suspect is not denied his rights under the Constitution. He’s supposed to arrest the perpetrator, not skip the arrest, decide he’s guilty, sentence him to death, and then carry out the execution. All within a minute of arriving on the scene. Or in the case of Tamir Rice, two seconds. What gave those police officers the right to claim a life-threatening danger existed anywhere outside their own minds? And therein lies the crux of the problem. We allow someone’s frightened state of mind to become a justification for using deadly force in a situation where it clearly ought not be warranted. And with Stand Your Ground laws, sometimes the killer only has to tell the cops, “I swear, I thought he was going to kill me,” and the questioning of him as a murderer stops, no arrest is made, and he never has to prove that what he said was true.

I realize the law may be written differently, but it should not be so that merely believing your life is in danger justifies the use of deadly force. What if it’s not? What if it never was in danger? Are you still going to say that the use of deadly force was justified when in reality no actual threat to your life existed? How? To defend it is to say that you imagined a situation that just wasn’t real, and then acted on that false belief to take another person’s life. And you think that should be a valid, legal defense? “I swear, I thought he was an alien from outer space, and I had to kill him before he returned to his natural form and killed us all. It’s okay. We’re all safe now. You’re welcome.” What if he really, truly believed that? And what if, just what if, he was actually right? I know, it’s highly unlikely, but you have to agree it’s not totally impossible, is it? But, no, he probably killed that guy because he’s a murderous asshole who just didn’t like the guy he killed for some other reason having no connection to reality. But why give him some potentially legal excuse at all? Why not make the law say he has a Duty To Retreat, and can use deadly force only when confronted with no other options? Stand Your Ground laws pretty much make deadly force your go-to option, since they allow you to assume the other person is going to kill you if you don’t kill him first. What if, in your twisted little mind, you assume the other guy will kill you because of the color of his skin or the religion you believe he practices? Because there are people out there who will kill another person for those reasons. And it doesn’t matter if they’re made to answer for them or not, because their victims will still be dead.

The average police officer on patrol is not a combat soldier in a wartime situation. Nor is that officer a civilian under assault without the benefit of a police officer nearby to assist. They are trained in self-defense techniques, including unarmed combat. Are they unable to utilize those techniques, or feel they are just not good at them? Then why are they graduating the academy? And because they are not in a combat situation, they can’t think of themselves as soldiers whose goal is to kill. Their job is to subdue the suspect (thus eliminating the threat to public safety), arrest him, and bring him to face the due process of law to which he is entitled. We say that people in America are innocent until proven guilty. It may surprise many Americans to know that’s not how it works even in some of our “friendly” foreign countries. If enough evidence exists to believe you might have done the crime, it’s up to you to prove you didn’t. You should feel lucky we do it the right way here, assuming the right way means not convicting innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit. Assuming, of course, you live long enough to enjoy that due process of law. Your chances of enjoying that due process are better if you’re white. Which is a whole other side to this problem into which I do not wish to go.

[This post originally appeared on Pick Wayne’s Brain on December 4, 2016.]

This is our daily open thread. Feel free to discuss anything you wish.

The Watering Hole, Saturday, November 7, 2015: Adrenaline Rush To Judgment

There is a misunderstood problem in America that is not being talked about from the proper perspective. There are police officers, few in number to be sure, but there nonetheless, who have killed unarmed people who were absolutely posing no life or death danger to the police officer whatsoever. What has exacerbated the problem are the fruitless attempts to hold these police officers criminally liable for taking those lives. Time after time, a police officer caught on video killing an unarmed civilian has walked away free and clear of any punishment for his (or her) crimes. And they clearly were crimes from a moral standpoint. There shouldn’t be any way to defend these actions, should there? Well, if you don’t consider being human as part of the problem, there apparently is.

We are human beings, which means we are animals. I’ll give the more religious ones of you out there a moment to absorb that fact……….[looks at watch]………that’s enough time. And as animals, we have things called survival mechanisms. These are the natural, innate reactions we have to certain stimuli. When we suddenly smell a new aroma we hadn’t noticed before, our brains immediately kick in to identify it. Once we are confident we know its origin and have assessed any danger to ourselves, we unconsciously desensitize our nose to it (if it isn’t too pungent.) This makes our nose and brain better able to notice new smells, like smoke, which alerts the brain to the danger of fire (an association we learned as youths.) This is when our innate flight or fight response kicks in. The adrenal glands start producing adrenaline in case we have to move quickly or exert great strength. Fear can also stimulate the flight or fight response, which likewise produces extra adrenaline. You are now in an adrenaline rush, stimulated into believing, rightly or wrongly right now (but who has time to check?), that your life is in danger. And we humans in this situation do not think, we act. We do something. (Assuming we are not, literally, paralyzed with fear, which does happen, no shame in that.) But we have to do something, as they say in the movies, we can’t just sit here and wait to die. And what we often do is act without thinking things through thoroughly first. We are trying to resolve the situation in a way that puts us out of danger as quickly as possible. This is just part of the reality of being an animal prone to chemically reacting to stimuli in a certain way. If you were to inject yourself with adrenaline right now, you would be so hyped up you’d be looking for something you could call dangerous, just so you could react to it. Your brain would tell you that you are seeing danger where a less hyped-up mind, able to calmly think for a few moments, not subject to a reflex action that demands swift resolution of a crisis situation, would not. You’re not thinking clearly when your brain is telling you to react to anything you see as possibly being dangerous until you feel calm enough to decide that the danger has passed. Your brain is telling you to do whatever you have to to remove yourself from danger. Either you’re going to run as far away from the danger as you can (take flight), or prepare to battle against whatever you think is about to kill you (fight). Some refer to this as “standing your ground.”

Do you think at this point it would be wise to have a gun?

And that is the perspective from which we should be addressing these police shootings of unarmed people. Now, before we get sidetracked, yes, there has been in many of the cases that have come to the public forefront, an element of racism involved. And that is a serious problem in and of itself, and it often plays a significant role in these killings because it contributes to the sense of fear that the cop is feeling at that moment. That cop with a gun at his side. The one whose flight or fight response is about to kick in, but who knows he can’t resort to flight in this situation. (The cop can’t run away from the guy running away from the cop.) He must resort to fight. And what he is about to fight may very well not be an actual danger to him at all. But his brain is not perceiving it that way. His beliefs, formed in part by his experience, are leading him think a danger exists. Yes, that belief may be that all black men are armed and dangerous, but whatever the reason, however motivated, the belief is that a danger exists where none actually does. And that cop has a gun.

Many of these recent shootings involved either an emotionally unstable cop who shouldn’t have been allowed to become a cop in the first place, a veteran cop of some years with a history of valid excessive force complaints, or a very inexperienced cop not used to being in a situation where he thought his life was in danger. None of these are ideal situations, where you might feel comfortable about the cop involved having a loaded gun available. But that is what has been happening more and more lately. At least we are hearing about it more and more, and that is because of social media. But that begs the question of how many of these shootings are happening that are not caught on video? They are happening, and have been happening more often in the past, when there was less of a chance of the killing being recorded for later confirmation (or manipulation, as in the criminal case against the cops who tried to kill Rodney King for no valid reason.) We usually just took the word of the cop in question because there was no visual evidence to the contrary. Of course, this was usually after he had some time to formulate an explanation for his actions. We’re often never sure of what happened because we only heard one side of it, the other side being dead. And the fact that these cops are getting acquitted even after video of the events contradicts their story, as clearly evident in the case of Officer Lisa Mearkle, who shot and killed David Kassick in Pennsylvania after a foot pursuit, which began as a traffic stop over an expired inspection sticker, is an aspect of the problem that won’t go away without addressing the fact that we are giving cops deadly weapons and letting them use them in non-deadly situations, even though they think it is a deadly situation (or so they claim afterwards.) We can never be sure what happened because they can never be sure what happened. With or without the videos, a cop pumped up with adrenaline is not thinking clearly. (Were they calm and rationale, they would not be pumped up with adrenaline.) We are allowing them to defend their actions by claiming a perception of being in danger even absent a confirmation of a danger to them or the public existing. And we know that the very situation they are in can cause them to misperceive the truth of what is really happening. Is that a gun? I see no evidence it isn’t, so it must be. And we are not only allowing this defense to excuse their actions, we are even training our cops to shoot to kill, rather than shoot to wound. The problem is they are shooting to kill in situations where the person they are killing would never have faced the death penalty for whatever he is believed to have done. And this never seems to come up in the discussions I see on this topic. We are letting cops use deadly force in situations where the alleged crimes being committed would never have resulted in the death penalty.

Eric Garner wasn’t selling loose cigarettes without paying the taxes when cops strangled him to death. He was accused by someone and several cops confronted him to question him about the situation. He wasn’t in the act of selling those cigarettes when confronted. Whatever happened after that point, Eric Garner did nothing that would have brought him the death penalty if convicted in court. Selling loose cigarettes without paying the taxes is not a capital crime. Refusing to talk to cops harassing you for something you aren’t doing is not a capital crime. Failure to obey a cop is not a capital crime. Resisting arrest without any weapon is not a capital crime. Holding a toy gun, pointed down to the ground, is not a capital crime. Holding a toy gun in a non-threatening manner, in a store that sells that very toy gun, while talking on a cell phone is not a capital crime. Why are we letting cops get away with using deadly force at all in situations where the person they killed would not have faced the death penalty for anything he did?

Why are we giving deadly weapons to people we put in tense, but not deadly, situations, where the very natural instincts that are a part of being human, are going to make them think they perceive danger where none actually exists? Why are we letting the misperception of danger excuse the use of deadly force in those non-deadly situations? The human brain arrives at a conclusion in one of two ways – either by factoring in the details one perceives and arriving at a conclusion about what is happening, or presupposing what is happening and using the absence of contradictory evidence serve as proof that the theory is correct. In virtually all of the cases of cops killing unarmed civilians, this is how that cop arrived at the perception that his (or her) life was in danger. He assumed what he saw or heard was a gun, then took the fact that he could not see proof he was wrong as proof he was right. We can’t continue to do things this way. We have to change the rules and the training for use of deadly force. We have to train cops in non-lethal techniques to diffuse situations rather than escalate them. We have to drill it into their heads that the use of deadly force is a LAST resort, not the first reaction to the perception of danger, given that it’s more likely no actual danger exists. We have to do a better job of screening applicants to a police force, such as finding out why they were fired from their previous police force. We have to do all these things and more. But we have to do them now, before another unarmed person is murdered by a cop who had no business being issued a deadly weapon in the first place.

This is our daily open thread. Discuss whatever you wish. Just don’t shoot me.