Many videos have allowed distant eyes to learn that a police officer killed a person for no good reason, ending our slavery to conflicting statements about what happened and facile rationalizations of how it couldn’t be helped. Before then, we could pick a side and believe or not, but we could never know.
The increasing availability of video has fundamentally altered the equation of mindlessly siding with probability by conclusively proving that police are sometimes wrong, and when they are, they tend to lie about it or manufacture absurd justifications to excuse their wrongs. And people are increasingly unwilling to believe them no matter what our lying eyes tell us.
Then comes a video like the dash cam that captured the shooting of 70-year-old Bobby Canipe by York County, South Carolina, Deputy Terrance Knox.
Most cops will tell you that car stops are scary. A killer can forget to register his car just as well as a Sunday school teacher, and when a car is pulled over, the cop has no idea which one will be the driver.
Bobby Canipe was pulled over for expired plates on his pickup, a trivial offense to be sure. And the press conference following the shooting muddied the waters with the usual lily-gilding:
Prior to the shooting Knox does not sound like he said anything specific to Canpie, except a “hey, sir, sir” that gets louder and turns into an “ohhh” that indicates Knox believed Canipe had reached for a gun. This appears to contradict what police said at a press conference after the shooting, that Canipe exited his vehicle despite being told not to. An order not to exit the vehicle is not heard in the dashcam video.
But what is seen and heard is that Canipe got out of his truck, reached into its bed as Knox tried to get his attention, and pulled out something long, which was then pointed in Knox’s direction.
As critical as I’ve been in the past toward cops who put the First Rule above all else, pulling the trigger based on ignorance rather than justifiable fear of harm, this video is different. York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant defended Knox.
“I would have had to take the same action he did,” Bryant told reporters.
“You can’t wait to see a muzzle flash before you take action because when you see the muzzle flash, it’s too late,” he said.
Sadly, he’s right. It’s a fine line sometimes between reacting mindlessly and shooting someone who posed no rational threat, and committing suicide. This time, the deputy’s reaction was warranted, even if it was mistaken.
It’s helped, of course, by the fact that Knox’s post-shooting conduct makes clear his regret for having mistakenly shot Canipe, the sincerity of his error. But the justification for the decision to shoot exists at the moment it happens, not based on how the officer felt about it afterward.
Unlike the shooting of the teen with a Wii controller in his hand when he answered the door, for which there is no takeaway that could have improved the situation or prevented a child from being shot, Canipe’s “good guy” decision to get his cane from the truck bed violated a basic rule of interaction with police during a car stop.
While Canipe might have realized that he posed no threat, and while it might have made perfect sense to him, as he decided not to sit in his truck awaiting directions, but rather to walk to the cruiser, and while the use of a cane was necessary for Canipe to walk the distance, this was all avoidable using reasonable discretion and a bit of patience.
No, the police are not entitled to shoot people for no reason, the First Rule of Policing notwithstanding. But they are also not expected to commit suicide when someone pulls a long, slender object from the back of a pickup truck and points it toward them. There is no duty to die to protect people from the consequences of foolish behavior. Not even if they’re old, or crippled, or don’t realize that their “good guy” grasp of propriety isn’t shared by all.