Because We Train ’em That Way

The story of 60-year-old Roy Middleton being shot in his driveway, reaching into his mother’s car for a smoke, by a cop who was called for a suspected car theft. has already made the rounds, but the response of Florida Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan on CNN raises some curious problems.

On Thursday, Morgan defended the officers’ actions as standard procedure because Middleton “did not comply.” Asked by CNN’s Chris Cuomo how police could justify 15 shots at a 60-year-old man, Morgan said the officers saw a metallic object in Middleton’s hand as he made a “lunging movement” toward them. Middleton explained this in his account: He turned around because he thought the entire thing was a practical joke played by a neighbor.

“Right now we are comfortable from a training perspective that our officers did follow standard protocols,” Morgan said. “I believe the standard we use and train to is a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case which is a reasonable test.” The officers are on paid administrative leave, pending an investigation.

So what he’s saying is innocent movements by an innocent man in his own driveway are sufficient cause to kill him. Sure, he didn’t die, but that’s only because the cop was a lousy shot. They get no bonus points for being a lousy shot.

What I suspect Sheriff Morgan meant to say is that there was no way his officer was going to take a chance of being shot by Roy Middleton because of the First Rule of Policing.  The fact that his deputy had no clue whether Middleton was a criminal or a guy going into a car in his own driveway didn’t change the officer’s perspective. The deputy had no clue, so he had no choice but to shoot. Ignorance allows far more latitude than knowledge.

But did the deputy presume that Roy Middleton, black man, was more likely a criminal than guy at his own home?

Although he described the situation as a tragedy, Morgan also noted “This is a common occurrence. We live in a very violent society.”

Do we? Is our “very violent society” to blame for forcing the deputy to shoot first and figure out who he was shooting later?

That much is true, particularly for black men stereotyped by police. A study from psychologists at the University of Chicago found that racial bias can lead civilians to make the wrong assumptions in fast-moving simulations, and without proper training, it plays the same role for police. Over the years, dozens of unarmed black men have been shot by law enforcement.

This strikes me as piling assumption on assumption. While I have no doubt both the Chicago study, as well as the racist assumption that blacks are more likely to be criminals, is valid, it’s a rather generic observation. It may be true in this instance, but it may also not be the case. Had Roy Middleton been a white man, he may just as well have been shot. The First Rule of Policing applies to everyone.

The situation for the deputy, a call in the middle of the night for a car theft and a guy in a car doesn’t scream racial prejudice. It screams weird. It’s weird that a neighbor would call the cops on another neighbor. It’s weird that it took Roy Middleton so long to get a smoke that he was still there when the cop arrived to check out the call. It’s weird that Roy Middleton thought it was a practical joke in the middle of the night. It’s weird that Sheriff Morgan thinks that shooting a guy in his own driveway isn’t a problem. And mostly, it’s weird that Sheriff Morgan is satisfied that the killing of an innocent guy in his own driveway can be dismissed as a “common occurrence.”

But then, there is nothing about the shooting of Roy Middleton that overcomes the assumption that the deputy assumed a black man to be a criminal rather than a homeowner, either.  The only way to test the theory is to determine how it would have played out if Roy was of a different skin color, and that isn’t going to happen.

But what does happen is that black men are disproportionately shot by police, suggesting that the assumption that they are more likely to be a threat, more likely to be a criminal, makes it more likely that a cop will assume the worst of them and fire quicker than they would be inclined to fire if they saw a white guy doing the same thing. It’s easy to deny this, and it’s easy to point out individual anecdotes of white men being shot without justification, but neither does much to alter the disproportionality of their shootings.

Race aside, it raises the other problem of police shooting unarmed people upon the claim of fear of possible threat. For both the cop on the street as well as the police administration involved in the post-shooting rationalization process, any articulable explanation for a perceived threat is sufficient to make the killing of an unarmed person “justified” under the First Rule of Policing.

At the core of this post-hoc review is that tacit belief that the life of a cop is of greater value than the life of the person they kill.  It would be unreasonable, and unacceptable, to demand that a police officer put his life in danger by waiting to find out whether his perceived threat is real or, well, just wrong.

Assertions like “he had a shiny metal object in his hand as he turned” are more than sufficient to justify a cop shooting a person in the street. Of course today, every child has a “shiny metal object in his hand,” called a cellphone, or a iPod, or some other gadget. This is our world, and our world would give rise to a justified police killing of pretty much anyone.

And as the shooting of Roy Middleton demonstrates, it’s no safer in your own driveway, behaving in a way that a person is completely entitled to behave, than anywhere else.  And a person may be even less likely to walk away unharmed if he happens to be a member of a race with a darker complexion.

Yet, none of this trumps the First Rule of Policing, and lives are only as safe as the tolerance to a threat by the most fearful cop on the street, or the cop most inclined to assume that a black guy is more likely a criminal.  And this is the way cops are trained, which makes it all okay.

17 comments on “Because We Train ’em That Way

  1. Rick Horowitz

    How many non-officers suffer no consequences when they explain the reason they shot someone is that they didn’t realize that the person they shot was an innocent, and they perceived a threat?

  2. C. N. Nevets

    Whatever happened to training in disarming individuals? In defusing tense situations? In removing yourself from a life-threatening scene? Wasn’t there a time when those were standard, or is that a myth that I’ve bought into?

    I understand the need for emergency personnel to place some priority on protecting their own lives, but I am honestly perplexed as to how deadly force has become the first rather than the last resort when those lives are under threat.

  3. DannyJ119

    Because pulling a trigger is way easier. Easier to teach. Easier to execute. Policing simplified.

      1. Ken Bellone

        Am I the only one who is disturbed by the use of the word “hero”? I have. Seen true heroism in action, yet today the word seems to apply to many groups, but particularly to police, firefighters and first responders in the post-9/11 world. The meaning of the word has been watered down more than a drink at your local chain restaurant.

        That may seem off-topic, but the action’s of these officers who shoot first are defended by the all-accepted concept of ” officer safety”, which trumps all.

        You cannot, by definition, be consumed with concern for your own safety over those you are sworn to protect and expect to be considered a hero at the same time. That is not a knock on any profession, just an observation.

        Where hero-worship begins, danger lurks for the rest of us.

        1. REvers

          Most cops are not heroes. A hero will lay down his life for yours. Most cops will lay down your life for theirs.

          Yes, I stole that from somewhere.

  4. A Random Defender

    15 rounds fired and only one struck him on the leg? I shouldn’t laugh, but I chortled a little bit at that fact.

    Sobering that his life depended on the police being terrible shots.

    1. ExCop-LawStudent

      What makes you think that all police officers are expert marksmen? Most aren’t and don’t practice near enough to maintain a high-level of proficiency (which drove me crazy as a firearms instructor).

      When you add in the fact that high stress causes a reduction in fine motor skills, I don’t find it surprising at all.

      I’m not defending the decision to shoot, just explaining the lack of accuracy.

  5. Onlooker

    Yes, I’m absolutely convinced that this kind of all too common incident these days is the result of training that emphasizes the 1st rule of policing (FROP), as well as a mindset of paranoia. When they are constantly drilled on the dangers that exist and are put on edge as a result, and then given the FROP as their guiding principle, we shouldn’t be surprised at the awful result.

    There’s more to it, of course, as nothing is so simple. But clearly there has to be a radical shift in the culture of our cops to turn this around. How does that come about? Inertia is a powerful force.

  6. Charles B. Frye

    I was a tad surprised recently when reading a news report about a police response to a robbery call that turned out to be student film-makers making a movie.

    The report mentioned that one of the officers knocked the (fake) gun out of one of the actors’ hand, and no one was shot.

    The report ended with the information that the youngsters got a good “talking to” and no arrests were made.

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