“Legal Experts” And The “Heebie Jeebies” Of Killer Cops

A confession: I admire Shaun King.  Here’s a guy who has amassed a huge following, gotten himself a gig at the New York Daily News, and doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. That’s not easy. Granted, he doesn’t realize that he doesn’t have a clue, since people without a clue think whatever nonsense enters their head is real, but still. He pulled it off. I didn’t. You didn’t. He did. Give him some credit.

King has been busy with a 25-part series to solve police brutality in America. Some of it is pretty good, if superficial. But then, superficial is all his audience can grasp, and in fairness, some of the solutions he proffers really don’t demand much in-depth discussion. But his latest installment goes from the usual feelz stuff to law. King’s no lawyer, but he nonetheless thinks he’s smart enough to teach law to others.

I’m about to get wonky on you. Please stick with me.

Wonky. How can you not love this guy?

Today I want to transition us into why brutal police feel so amazingly safe being brutal.

They have every reason to believe they will not suffer serious consequences for their brutality. First and foremost, police brutality, as we know it, is very much protected by two Supreme Court decisions. If these decisions are not overturned, corrected, or amended, police brutality will perpetually exist in this country.

He then goes on to quote from Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor.  Before you spit coffee on your keyboard, understand that lots of academics credit Garner with being the foundation for Graham, so you constantly see legal journalists refer to Garner as if it matters. While it adds nothing, it does no harm to mention it, so let it be.

There are, of course, some extremely insightful posts about Graham, where the Supreme Court fashioned the “reasonably scared cop rule.” Jeff Gamso wrote about it. Law prof and former cop Seth Stoughton explained it to Leon Neyfakh. I’ve even mentioned it once or twice.  But no, King couldn’t be bothered to learn what the law means, but decided to lawsplain on his own.

Without meaning to sound comical, the Graham v. Connor decision allows officers to shoot and kill with lethal force when they have any random version of the “heebie jeebies.”

The problem is, as we see with painful regularity, American police, particularly when they are around people of color, regularly get the heebie jeebies and feel that they must reasonably act on such feelings in ways that seem to only do with black folk.

And with that grasp of the law, he calls for action:

When these decisions were made in 1985 and 1989, the justices could not have foreseen where we are right now with an average of over 100 people per month killed by American police — all using their case laws to justify their actions.

We must specifically redefine what reasonable means.

These laws, we now see, are in need of a course correction. They are too vague, and infringe on the basic constitutional and human rights of decent Americans. We must change them.

Must “we”?  Well, that clears it all up. But before one points out that Shaun’s understanding of how law works rivals Donald Trump’s, consider what the “legal experts” have to say about it.

Different scenarios, same result and, experts say, likely the same outcome once the investigations are completed — police were legally justified to open fire because they had reason to believe the suspects could harm them or others.

Who doesn’t love it when ABC calls someone an expert? Would ABC lie? If they ascribe expertise to the guy they were able to get on the phone when they needed an interview, then an expert he must be, and whatever he has to say must be true. After all, he’s an expert.

“From a legal standpoint, it doesn’t technically matter if he’s armed or not,” said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It matters if a reasonable cop has a reason to believe he is.”

Moskos? If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because he’s shown up in some odd places. He was a street cop in Baltimore, so it’s understandable that he’s never done anything wrong himself, or ever personally observed any other Baltimore cop do wrong. It’s not like Baltimore has cop problems. It’s just the First Rule of Policing, as taught at the John Jay School of Coppery and Shoe Repair.

Now, Moskos is, of course, correct that “it doesn’t technically matter if he’s armed or not.” It isn’t the actually being armed that matters, but the objectively reasonable cop believing he’s threatened with harm. But what Moskos was talking about was the killing of Donnell Thompson, found passed out on a lawn in Compton by cops in a Bearcat with a gun turret on top.

The claim was that there was an armed carjacking, and Thompson might have been the carjacker. That they arrested the carjacker before they arrived to kill Thompson wouldn’t matter under the law, because the killer wasn’t personally aware of that detail. All he knew, protected in his bullet-proof gun turret, was that there was a random guy passed out on the ground who might or might not be dangerous.

…police were legally justified to open fire because they had reason to believe the suspects could harm them or others.

While Shaun King teaches that random “heebie jeebies” at the sight of black guys is the law, Moskos teaches that “reason to believe” is the law. But because Moskos isn’t a lawyer, ABC bolsters their expertise:

Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who has studied police misconduct, said officers are given great legal deference when they use lethal force.

“The law looks at things through the eyes of officers as it occurs, not what you know after the fact,” she said.

While one might really, really wish Shaun King would do better than his heebie jeebie rule of law, it’s better than the apologist mush that ABC gave us.  And this is why we can’t have nice things and why cops get to kill with relative impunity.  And why public understanding of Graham v. Connor never seems to improve.

11 thoughts on ““Legal Experts” And The “Heebie Jeebies” Of Killer Cops

  1. David Meyer Lindenberg

    Without meaning to sound comical, the Graham v. Connor decision allows officers to shoot and kill with lethal force when they have any random version of the “heebie jeebies.”

    How gauche. When I shoot and kill, I never use lethal force. That costs extra.

  2. Mike

    At the risk of stating the obvious, your admiration of Shaun King was tongue in cheek?

    He’s a one trick pony not unlike the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson, although he might have a bigger audience.

    1. SHG Post author

      Hey, I’ve known Al since he had a pompadour, wore a blue jogging suit and big-ass gold medallion around his neck. He was one cool dude.

    2. DaveL

      He’s a one trick pony

      I’m very familiar with that particular trick of ponies. The problem with it is that somebody is always having to clean it up for them.

  3. Mario Machado

    “Before you spit coffee on your keyboard.”

    Too late. And it was tamarind juice, not coffee.

  4. david woycechowsky

    Yeah, Moskos is not the most open minded professor I have ever read. Recently he has become more frank about admitting that he is partisan and unamenable to dialogue (except with policemen).

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