But For Video: Extreme Compliance Edition

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?


20 thoughts on “But For Video: Extreme Compliance Edition

  1. Eddie Harrington

    One can’t help but compare the actions of this cop with those in the Walmart video. Call me crazy, but I actually find what Groubert guy did to be more reasonable under the circumstances than the conduct of the cops in the Walmart video. As you point out, once Jones went back into his car Groubert had no clue what was going to happen next, especially given Jones had his back to him and Jones could have been reaching for god knows what. The Walmart cops, OTOH, had a full view of events and the “shooter” and far more time to respond appropriately but, instead, chose to open fire when there was absolutely no threat to anyone. Yet they go scott free and don’t even face any department punishment while Groubert gets thrown off the force and faces a lengthy prison sentence. Call me perplexed.

    1. ExCop-LawStudent

      I don’t think anyone believes that Groubert was justified. I don’t see anything that would cause him to be in fear for his life, and more importantly, that is the view of most officers. The responses at PoliceOne are uniformly critical of Groubert and state that it was a bad decision on his part.

      Walmart is an entirely different case altogether, with different facts.

  2. Alex Stalker

    If you’re unwilling to risk your life to avoid shooting innocent civilians, Law Enforcement Officer is not the correct job for you. If only all police departments saw it that way.

    1. SHG Post author

      In a sense, you’ve fallen into the trap of the argument. He was never risking his life. The only “risk” was of the unknown. It’s not as if he stared down a gun, but bootstrapped ignorance into a fear justifying excuse. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

      1. Alex Stalker

        You are correct. I should have worded it better. I suppose in this case it would be taking the risk of risking his life.

      2. Fubar

        The only “risk” was of the unknown.

        [ Certainly for the last shot, and arguably for the last two shots, the only unknown was what a wounded man stumbling backward with finger extended empty hands over his head might do to attack Groubert with some weapon that he obviously wasn’t holding in his hands.

        And if Groubert was so troubled by not knowing what Jones was reaching for in his car, why did Groubert first charge toward Jones then run across Jone’s (theoretical) line of fire instead of first taking defensive cover behind his patrol car? That would be a much safer position from which to level a gun and shout “drop it or I’ll shoot.” Maybe Groubert also didn’t know he was not vying for a posthumous hero award that week.

        I think a decent prosecutor could make an attempted murder charge stick, not just ADW. At least for the last shot. Which is probably why I should stick to limericks. ]

        1. SHG Post author

          You know the fire ’till empty plus the adrenalin excuse cover all shots after the first. It’s all about the initiation of fire.

        2. ExCop-LawStudent

          Reaction time works both ways, both on a delay in initiating fire and a delay in ceasing to fire.

          I don’t see that as near as much of an issue as the decision to start shooting in the first place.

  3. Tom G

    No one will ever convince me of the importance of trivial traffic stops as seat belts, window tint, and license plate frames. I cannot fathom the risk and allure of issuing a 150 dollar ticket with the hopes of everything goes OK vs hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay outs, a ruined life, and a broken oath. Civil greed, or simply tragic?

    1. SHG Post author

      Given the backside risk, it seems absurd that they would bother to make such trivial stops. But the bosses say stop, because they need the money, and the cops do the stopping, because they need the pension.

    2. Jack

      What backside risk? The police have nearly 40 million civilian interactions per year, over 17 million of which are from traffic stops (BJS). Considering there are just over 100 officers killed per year with less than 50 of those officers being murdered, there is a 0.00013% chance of an officer being murdered during a given traffic stop and a nearly 100% chance of his department getting several hundred dollars from the encounter, why exactly wouldn’t they do it?

      Plus, if they kill, beat, maim, violate rights, etc. then get caught doing it and lose in court, it isn’t like the officer or their department is going to have to pay for it. Where is the downside?

      Interestingly, during an average officer’s entire lifetime, he has about double the odds of being murdered on duty than he does of being stuck by lightning (assuming average LEO career length).

      1. SHG Post author

        Don’t start introducing facts into perceived risk. You’ll make all the cops cry about how no one appreciates what a hard and dangerous job they have.

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  5. DHMCarver

    I think the racial element should not be overlooked here. A white cop in South Carolina pulls over a black man for removing his seatbelt as he pulls into a gas station — this is already a suspect stop. And then, to add to the fear of the unknown (or is it really fear of the presumed), said big black man reaches into his car, which means, Danger, Will Robinson. As you wrote regarding the Wal-Mart shooting, “We can’t keep killing people because of this fear of black men.”

    1. DHMCarver

      (I realize that in this instance, the man was not killed — presumably because his vehicle protected him from a lethal shot.)

    2. SHG Post author

      It can very hard to impute racial motive into every police action involving a white officer and a black victim. It’s also very hard to ignore.

  6. George B.

    So if a citizen promptly complies with police orders, he gets shot.

    If he does not jump to it immediately, he’s not obeying a lawful order/resisting arrest.

    What is wrong with this scenario?

    1. SHG Post author

      You thought you could win? There’s always the “don’t do anything wrong” advice, but that doesn’t work either.

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