Dallas Cops Fight For the First Rule of Policing

Some think it’s a joke, or at least a half-joke, that the First Rule of Policing is make it home for dinner.  Police in Dallas aren’t finding it funny at all. It’s the First Rule, the prime motivation.  And because of the shooting of 19-year-old Kelvion Walker by Senior Cpl. Amy Wilburn, the Rule is at risk.

The Dec. 9 shooting at issue came about after two officers pursued carjacking suspects in another vehicle; the officer says she shot the victim after he failed to comply with orders to show her his hands, leading to concern he was going for a weapon.

An internal affairs investigation found Wilburn, 48, violated the department’s deadly use of force policy for shooting 19-year-old Kelvion Walker “without fear or justification.” Chief David Brown fired Wilburn on Dec. 30, following the internal investigation, and said he intends to revamp the use-of-force policy and change training.

The reaction of Dallas cops?

“The officer did her job, she doesn’t want to use deadly force but she has to, because she was surprised by suspect in the passenger side of the car,” [Dallas Police Association president Ron] Pinkston said of Senior Cpl. Amy Wilburn.

According to Wilburn, she couldn’t see Walker’s hands, so she shot him.

All of which concerned Pinkston and other officers, who say cops should be allowed to use force when their lives are threatened. And if they’re hampered by policy overhauls, Pinkston told KXAS that “I think you’re going to see officers get hurt, crime go up, and you’re going to see citizens get hurt.”

This is one of those highly nuanced details of police work that often separates the public’s understanding of the job from cops’, and is the clearest manifestation of the First Rule of Policing.  It’s not that Walker did anything to threaten harm to Wilburn.  He was unarmed, he took no “aggressive” action that would affirmatively give rise to concern for her safety. Rather, she didn’t see his hands, and therefore wasn’t certain that he wasn’t a threat.  Therefore, he was a threat.

Walker, on the other hand, says that he had his hands up, which is confirmed by a witness, and that Cpl. Wilburn shot by accident.

“I remember her walking past the car and I had my hands up and then she looked at me and I looked at her and she just shot,”  Walker said in the lawsuit. “I just remember yelling, ‘What you shoot me for?’”

“And then after that she was like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I apologize. I didn’t try to,’” Walker said.

This is irrelevant to the cops’ concern, both because Walker’s statements are not credible by definition as he’s not a cop, and what actually happened as opposed to the broader perception of Wilburn’s firing isn’t important.  To the cops, the message is that they are to risk potential death at the hands of a threat rather than shoot first as required by the First Rule.

The key word in the sentence above is “potential,” which the cops see as the flaw in the plan.  The use of deadly force in response to a threat of deadly force is, without issue, appropriate.  But the problem is that if cops are required to wait until they know a threat exists, they see the glint of steel as a weapon is pointed at them, it’s too late. Boom. Dead cop. There is no way they are going to violate the First Rule by letting the bad guy get the draw on them, to take the first shot.

There is a wide berth between certainty of safety and certainty of threat, however. The hidden hands, the sudden movement, the distracting argument while refusing an order to stand up, sit down, or place one’s throat beneath a boot.  Any of these things, plus a million others, could indicate that a moment later, a bullet could be traveling straight toward a cop at great velocity.

The problem is that these same things, plus a million others, could mean nothing of the sort.  Ranging from deafness, to confusion, to frozen in fear, to the mistaken grasp of the nature of the police encounter that good people don’t get shot for no good reason, will cause a person to behave in a way that a cop perceives as having the potential to be threatening.  And in a moment or two, the cop will find out that the person is just an ordinary, harmless citizen, acting the way millions of other ordinary, harmless citizens do.

But they want the authority to shoot them anyway. Just in case.  And not lose their job if it happens that they just shot an unarmed, harmless fellow, because their choice is to risk the possibility of harm or shoot first and blind, unknowing whether there is a threat but unwilling to take the chance.

In response to Wilburn’s firing, Dallas cops let it be known that they fear the streets if they can’t shoot first.

Ron Pinkston, Dallas Police Association president, gave city leaders hundreds of letters penned by officers Tuesday, reported KXAS-TV in Dallas, adding that many indicate cops are worried about losing their jobs if they’re put in a similar position.

One officer, a father, wrote that he typically thinks about his children when responding to calls, but now he’s just scared about the repercussions that using deadly force might bring him.

It appears to elude police officers that the harmless people they shoot, just in case, have children too.  But what non-police officers do not have is the First Rule of Policing, and that trumps all other rules when it comes to the job of a cop.  Something has to give in ambiguous situations, and it’s not going to be the life or job of a cop.

H/T Tim Cushing

14 thoughts on “Dallas Cops Fight For the First Rule of Policing

  1. Mannie

    The chanting of the First Rule, is evidence of the institutional cowardice of our police. Their rules of conduct and rules of engagement are much looser than those of MPs and Infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we’re trying to win their hearts and minds over there. At home, not so much, indeed the opposite. The cops seem to want the citizenry to fear them. They call it respect, but there is little actual respect for cops any more.

  2. JohnS

    There is a logical error in this ambiguity rider to the First Rule of Policing; it contradicts the first rule of Citizenry: Get home alive.

    Logically, if for the police, the rider is: ambiguity justifies lethal violence, then the same rule applies for the citizen, since both rule sets have the same objective: to get home alive.

    Thus under the ambiguity rider, a citizen encountering a police officer in an ambiguous situation has not merely a right, but a duty (to the citizen’s dependents/beloved) to immediately shoot the police officer. Because in an ambiguous situation the police officer is possibly going to shoot the citizen (and thus compromise the citizen’s right to go home alive).

    It is of course impossible to delimit the situations which are ambiguous, since ambiguity is itself ambiguous. That is, it is impossible for any citizen to be sure of his own safety if encountering a police officer, since he cannot know whether the officer thinks the situation is ambiguous, and thus justifies preemptive lethal violence. The citizen is, under the ambiguity rider, in danger of loss of life if the citizen does not act first.

    Logically then, the ambiguity rider on the first rule of policing amends the first rule of citizenry as follows: if you see a cop, kill him before he kills you.

    Somehow, I don’t think that is such a good idea for either the citizenry or the police. But that is the iron logic of the ambiguity rider.

    As a (really radical) alternative to the ambiguity rider, might I suggest an alternative modeled on the USCG’s meta-rule (which is: ‘you have to go out, you don’t have to come back’).

    The alternative to the ambiguity rule being a very bald instruction to the rookie cop: ‘yes, go home alive at the end of your shift, BUT, better you dead than a dead innocent’.

    To put it another way: ‘You don’t kill on speculation’.

    It comes down to this: To be an armed servant of the Constitution (which all Police officers necessarily are) requires subordination to the larger purpose of the Constituion, including when necessary, that ultimate sacrifice.

      1. ExCop-LawStudent

        The officers do not understand that thought process.

        I was speaking to a friend who is still an officer, and brought up that citizens had just as much right to go home alive as police, and that if officers screwed up, there should be consequences.

        I just got a blank look in return. They really don’t understand that philosophy any more.

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s been my question of how to change the culture. They won’t listen to outsiders. We don’t get it. So it has to come from inside, and there is no movement within the police. I tried to push LEAP to champion this aspect, but they have ignored it while wanting to be our best friends when it comes to the drug war. But they still won’t go against their own otherwise.

          How does this change?

            1. SHG Post author

              This is one of the areas where your experience would be invaluable. Write a post at your blog and put in the time. We would all benefit greatly from it.

  3. pml

    One reason they resist the change is that they figure only 2-3 out of 100 that are shot are not criminals, therefore 97 or 98 police officers made it home safe that othrwise might be dead. Those 2-3 civilians are a fair tradeoff against 97 police officers

    1. SHG Post author

      I think the math is a bit off, but yes, that could be part of it. Of course, if it was 100 innocents versus 2-3 police officers (and they’re all civilians, by the way), it wouldn’t change the equation.

  4. JohnS

    At one level it appears Dallas has identified part of their problem. The instant case appears to (probably/possibly) be an accidental shooting followed by a coverup. For which the police management canned the officer in question. Good for them. Compare that to NYC’s response to the recent blue shooters who missed the crazy guy and hit the bystanders. It is at least a step ahead that Dallas would not accept a coverup, even of something that was likely a non-criminal screwup.

    But on a deeper level, the response of the police officer’s collective remains fundamentally disturbing. Another commenter mentioned not being able to make the point with a police officer he apparently knew well.

    I have no simple solution, just this thought: a police officer, is like the civil service*, like the military. All three take the same Federal oath.

    At root the fundamental distinction is this: being a police officer is not a job, it is a calling. It is a position of sacrifice.

    To the extent that someone misunderstands the nature of policing as being just a job, they are susceptable to elevating their survival above that of those they are sworn to protect.

    To the extent they understand they have accepted a calling,
    they will understand whose lives necessarily have priority.

    Purhaps that is the way to persuade thru the blue/gray/green/dpu wall.

    Lets add: Rule Zero of Policing is ‘Don’t kill the innocent’.

    I somewhat doubt that most working officers actually hold to the ambiguity rider, because otherwise I expect the body count would be … Anyway, if it were really in widespread effect we would already in the middle of the bloodbath, of both sides.

    The great danger of any ambiguity rider advocacy by the police collectives is that some (more) officers may come to wrongly act on it. The best thing that everyone can do is explain (over and over and over and over) the fundamental danger to police officers of a shoot-first attitude.

    * I said they take the same oath; I didn’t say they take the same risks. But boy those paper cuts sting.

    1. ExCop-LawStudent

      Dallas officers do not take a federal oath. They take two oaths required by the Texas Constitution.

      I, ________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I have not directly or indirectly paid, offered, promised to pay, contributed, or promised to contribute any money or thing of value, or promised any public office or employment for the giving or withholding of a vote at the election at which I was elected or as a reward to secure my appointment or confirmation, whichever the case may be, so help me God.

      In the name and by the authority of the State of Texas, I, __________, execute the duties of the office of ___________, do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will faithfully of the State of Texas, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God.

      Neither oath is military or federal.

      1. JohnS

        Umm, per the Constitution all Federal and State officials are required, as a condition of holding Federal or State office, to take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.

        Article VI (in part): “…and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this constitution .”

        In most states, Police Officers would be part of the executive, (God knows what goes on in Louisiana, but that is another issue).

        The second part of the oath required by the Texas State Constitution cited by the previous poster executes the Federal Constitutional requirement.

        The oath for both Federal military and civil service positions is the same.

        It is not that police officers in a state are military (there are some potentially very nasty issues buried in the existence of uniformed State Police formations (but we digress)) but that as state officials they are required to take such an oath to the Federal Constitution.


  5. Onlooker

    “Dallas cops let it be known that they fear the streets if they can’t shoot first.”

    Easy answer. Tell ’em to get a new job. If we end up having an actual shortage of candidates we’ll address that at the time. Somehow I doubt that will be the case.

    These people need to re-earn that awe-filled respect they so desire and that is undeservedly heaped upon them these days.

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