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.