The “incident” involved a Springfield, Missouri police officer, Jason Shuck, who shot a panhandler outside Wal-Mart.
There’s no indication the man shot was armed at any time. He was running away from the officer when shot, police have said. Court records indicate that the man has been diagnosed with mental illnesses including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Sadly, it’s become a rather pedestrian story that a police officer shot a person for running away. No threat of harm to the officer. No First Rule of Policing issue. No threat of harm to anyone else. He just didn’t do as he was told, and it’s easier to shoot than run after him.
But what distinguishes this story isn’t the underlying facts, but the way it was reported by the Springfield News-Leader. This is what they report about Shuck.
Shuck’s 2013 meritorious service award from the police department stemmed from a July 16, 2012 incident. The man he disarmed had a shotgun in his mouth. Shuck holds a Class A peace officer license with the state Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission.
And this is what they report about “[t]he panhandler, Eric David Butts”:
Police have said that Butts was wanted on warrants and is a convicted burglar but have not offered any information about why the officer shot him. Police have also not given the officer’s specific account of the shooting.
Butts’ family members have stressed that Butts is mentally disabled. His neighbors along Monroe Terrace in Springfield have complained about him being disruptive and threatening and say he has often been the subject of complaints to police.
Court records indicate that Butts has been on mental health medications since he was 3. He told an investigator that he was abused by his mother and in various group and foster homes. Court records say he said his mother lost custody of him after she tried to drown him, hang him and left him on freeways.
The house where Butts lives with his girlfriend, Ashley Cook, in the 1900 block of East Monroe Terrace is in a “special needs trust” in his name, according to the Greene County assessor’s office. A police report from September about a residential burglary there described the interior of the home as filthy with a badly cluttered exterior. Upon the News-Leader’s request, the police department released other reports about Butts’ address that included a stolen lawn mower and accusations that Butts had stolen electricity from a neighbor because his electricity was turned off.
Notice an asymmetry there? This is a story about how Shucks pumped a bullet into Butts, and yet the reportage includes such critical details as his home being “filthy with a badly cluttered exterior”?
Granted, the report was no doubt fed by police, who selectively provided information about Shuck’s good deeds, heroism perhaps, and Butts’ history of keeping a filthy home, but no one forces the media to include the police department’s propaganda in its reporting. It isn’t required to be a shill.
But at least they would present a fair and accurate picture of the problem of a police officer shooting a fleeing panhandler, right?
Steve Ijames, a former assistant police chief in Springfield who now is a consultant on police force issues, said a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case that defines reasonable use of force by police applies in cases like Butts’. That case says that the reasonableness of use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with 20/20 hindsight.
“The standard for police is not that they be perfect or that they be correct but that they be reasonable,” Ijames said. “… In the split second that the event is occurring, it’s not reasonable to expect an officer to be clairvoyant.”
But this was an unarmed man running away from a cop. What possible spin, what conceivable detail, implicates the excuse that ” it’s not reasonable to expect an officer to be clairvoyant.” What level of clairvoyance is needed to distinguish a person who poses no threat whatsoever from someone who does?
The report doesn’t completely ignore anything remotely relating to reality, however:
Springfield’s policy on police use of force says that police may use lethal force only when an officer “reasonably believes that the action is in the defense of human life.” Firing a gun at someone is generally considered lethal force.
See that? Firing a gun at someone is generally considered lethal force. Generally. Except when they have a filthy house? Or maybe when they run away? Or perhaps when the officer isn’t in the mood to run after them? Generally.
While concern over the Freedom of the Press is often warranted in the face of efforts to silence reporting that puts the government in a bad light, the flip side of the issue is that the media doesn’t exist to do the police department’s bidding. The shooting of Butts for no good reason is one problem, certainly serious and worthy of note, even if it’s unfortunately commonplace and not particularly sexy as such incidents go.
But the News-Leader’s reporting of the shooting is an utter disgrace. The only bright spot in the story is that they failed to mention that the grass outside his home was unmowed, and that Shuck has yet to be nominated for Officer of the Year by the paper.