Before anyone gets too worked up, the officer in the video, South Carolina Highway Patrol Officer Sean Groubert, 31, has been fired from his position and is being prosecuted for his actions.
As the video has already gone viral, chances are pretty good you’ve seen it. But in case you live under a rock:
That the stop was for a seatbelt violation, silly as that may be, really isn’t a material aspect of what followed. As any cop will happily explain, when you make a vehicle stop, you never know what’s happening in the head of the driver. It’s the unknown they fear most.
The incident began calmly enough.
“Can I see your license please?” Groubert asked.
But something quickly changed. As Jones turned around and reached into his vehicle, Groubert could be heard shouting, “Get out of the car! Get out of the car!”
The officer then fired multiple times.
What “quickly changed” seems obvious. After being asked for his license, Jones immediately acted to comply. Groubert anticipated that Jones would have his license on him. What Groubert didn’t anticipate was that Jones’ license was in the car, so that his compliance with Groubert’s request would require Jones to go into the car.
The unknown is scary. Jones complied promptly. Jones did as the officer directed. Except it didn’t conform to Groubert’s expectations, even though it’s what he asked for. See how that works? What would Jones pull from the car? A gun? A knife? A bazooka? How could Groubert know?
This is the ignorance problem. In tandem with the First Rule of Policing, ignorance is a cop’s best friend and worst nightmare. Had Jones not immediately sought to comply by reaching back into his vehicle, but rather stated in a stentorian voice that his license was inside the car, and he was going to reach into the car to retrieve it, the calculus would have changed. But not necessarily to anyone’s advantage.
The next level of the ignorance problem is that once Groubert was advised, in advance, what Jones was about to do, it creates a new dilemma. After all, Jones can say he’s reaching back into his car for his license, but is he lying? Is he trying to lull Groubert into a false sense of security so he can pull out a gun and blow Groubert away?
Because Groubert had no advance notice that Jones was going to go back into his vehicle, he felt no qualms about giving in to his ignorance, which justified his fear of a potential, unanticipated threat. Ignorance both feeds the threat and justifies the reaction. Had Jones explained his next action first, Groubert might hesitate to start firing, and if Jones did pull out a weapon, he would be dead. That, of course, violates the First Rule of Policing.
What makes this scenario remarkable is that there is a perfectly plausible justification for Groubert’s actions in firing first and asking later. Indeed, it happens all the time, though rarely with such a good video available. But it begs the question, what happened here that is different than what happens in so many police shootings where the victim had no weapon, no drugs, no whatever it is that is used to justify the officer’s “reasonable fear” of harm?
This isn’t to suggest at all that Groubert’s shooting Jones was, in fact, a righteous shoot. Clearly, Jones did nothing to justify getting shot, having complied immediately with Groubert’s request. Sure, he could have told the officer what he was about to do before doing so, but that’s neither a duty imposed on citizens nor how real people tend to think in these situations. Knowing that they pose no threat, they don’t assume that an explanation is needed.
But the law doesn’t inquire as to what the good guy thinks is happening when a cop begins firing. It’s only concerned with what the cop thinks is happening, and the reasonableness of fear based on ignorance is firmly grounded in our jurisprudence. Caselaw is replete with judges approving of police violence because of ignorance, when the police have absolutely no reason to believe that a person is a threat, but no assurance they’re not, which makes them a threat.
And that’s the key in the minds of police, and the judges who are charged with approving their conduct. Making it home for dinner is the First Rule of Policing. Not the second, after not shooting, killing, people for no good reason. Better dead than red, as they used to say. Anyone can pose a threat, even in the complete absence of any reason to believe they do.
That Groubert has been fired from his post and faces prosecution presents an interesting dilemma. Sure, he has no business whatsoever being entrusted with a weapon and the authority to use it. But he didn’t shoot maliciously, but due to irrational fear of the unknown.
Does this mean the rule, that a cop doesn’t have to wait for the muzzle flash to defend himself, is now abrogated? There are a lot of dead bodies littered across this country because of irrational police fear, and very few of them resulted in apologies, no less prosecutions. Was Groubert really that different?