Ah, that rascally New York Times, trying desperately to make sense out of this crazy world of ours. In an article entitled “Key Factor in Police Shootings: ‘Reasonable Fear’” they offer a very thoughtful, deeply conscientious explanation of the rules of engagement between the police and the rest of us.
Each time police officers draw their weapons, they step out of everyday law enforcement and into a rigidly defined world where written rules, hours of training and Supreme Court decisions dictate not merely when a gun can be fired, but where it is aimed, how many rounds should be squeezed off and when the shooting should stop.
The Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot an unarmed African-American teenager two weeks ago, setting off protest and riots, was bound by 12 pages of police department regulations, known as General Order 410.00, that govern officers’ use of force. Whether he followed them will play a central role in deliberations by a St. Louis County grand jury over whether the officer, Darren Wilson, should be charged with a crime in the shooting.
You might get the impression that the use of force, the killing of another human being, is subject to strict regulation. And indeed, that’s the paradigm, but for a few notable details.
The police, the courts and experts say some leeway is necessary in situations where officers under crushing stress must make split-second decisions with life-or-death consequences.
Some leeway? Of course, because “crushing stress” and “split-second” “life-or-death decisions,” yada, yada, yada. And then come the explanatory quotes from the credible sources, backed by years of experience on the mean streets, coupled by the attributed cred of a scholarly title.
“It’s a difficult job for coppers out there,” Timothy Maher, a former officer and a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said in an interview. “In the heat of the moment, things are happening so quickly. If they were role-playing, they could say, ‘Time out.’ But in real life, it’s, ‘Wow — in my training, this guy stopped, but here, he didn’t.’ ”
Yes, it is a difficult job for “coppers out there.” And it’s not too sweet for the guys they kill, either. But the Times didn’t see any reason to get a quote from them. Maybe because they’re dead. Oops. But hey, it’s all about the “reasonable fear” of the police. There’s no room for the reasonable expectation of a regular guy to live another day.
There is a tension in America, between the police and their enforcement of the First Rule, and the public, and their desire not to be killed by a perfectly reasonable, split second, life-or-death, but completely mistaken, decision by a cop.
The Times is doing the unforgiveable: it’s making people stupider. It reminds me of a plea allocution, where the judge explains in a calm, clear voice, the fabulous plethora of rights afforded him under the Constitution, and asks him if he understands, then waives, those rights. Every time I hear an allocution, I’m reminded how it sounds as if there is no way in the world anyone could ever get convicted at trial given the amazing wealth of rights. I always cringe at the lie.
Harping on the rules restricting use of force, particularly deadly force, is another glorious lie. Yes, the Times is absolutely correct that there are pages of policies (though police policies are not law), and books (physical bound pieces of paper with letters on them that requires shelf space) filled with legal decisions discussing the circumstances under which a police officer can take the life of another.
But they all end up in the same place, falling back on the moldy rhetoric of “crushing stress” and “split-second” “life-or-death decisions,” yada, yada, yada. Because the thousand rules which are supposed to constrain police all come with a caveat, “unless you can come up with a story, no matter how far-fetched, about why you were afraid or felt threatened, in which case you can blow the motherfucker’s head off.”
Of course, the Times isn’t allowed to use such words, but they could have included the concept in their article. They didn’t. This is the closest they came:
“Objectively reasonable” is a standard set by the Supreme Court in 1989 when it said that a police officer’s use of excessive force must be seen in the context of what reasonable officers would do in the same situation, given the danger and stress of police work.
It sounds so sanitary, so reasonable, when you put it that way. And after all, isn’t it true that the police job involves “crushing stress” and “split-second” “life-or-death decisions,” yada, yada, yada.
On the other hand, knowing that it’s “a difficult job for coppers out there,” one might suspect they are trained to perform that job in a manner that would exact the lowest possible toll in human life, that they are vetted for their ability to think clearly to overcome the “crushing stress” and “split-second” “life-or-death decisions,” yada, yada, yada. If you do, then you don’t appreciate how hard it is to be a cop. And really, isn’t that what America is all about?