The Slippery Slope of Risk

When Sean Groubert made the split second decision to pump bullets into Levar Jones for being too enthusiastic in his compliance with commands, he was fired, prosecuted and (sort of) universally condemned.  He was able to put together a sufficient excuse for his fear of the unknown, but it flopped.  For those who saw Groubert’s conduct as well beyond the limits, consider how differently this might have played out in Alabama.

On March 6th, Michael Davidson, age 20, was traveling on I-85 on his way to to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, NC.  Davidson is an Airman First Class in the U.S. Air Force and was reporting for duty.   Near Opelika, Alabama, he got into a minor collision with an 18-wheeler.

Davidson exited his vehicle to go talk to the semi-truck driver.   About halfway there, he reportedly heard a noise from behind him — “hollering.”  A police officer was now on the scene and was shouting at Davidson.

Police reportedly told to raise his hands in the air, and for reasons unclear, Officer Phillip Hancock of the Opelika Police Department opened fire.  Davidson was shot in the stomach.

Officer Hancock had no clue what had happened, whether there was any wrong committed by anyone there.  He had no reason to believe Davidson was perp, victim, or just a guy in a car who had been in an accident.  He had no reason to suspect that Davidson was armed and dangerous, or peaceable and friendly.  But anyone who follows such incidents knows what happened.

Opelika Police Chief John McEachern held a press conference and delivered a prepared statement about the incident.

“As the officer was exiting his vehicle, he observed the driver of the silver SUV (Davidson) was exiting also,” McEachern said.  “The officer then gave verbal commands to the driver. It was at this point that the officer perceived what he believed to be a threat.  Officer Hancock then pulled his service weapon and fired two shots at the suspect. One of the shots fired struck Airman Michael Davidson.”

The chief noted a variation on excuse number 3.

“Police officers are authorized to use deadly force in order to protect the police officers or others from what is reasonably an immediate threat of death or serious physical injury,” McEachern said during a news conference Friday. “Based on the facts and circumstances I’m aware of, Officer Hancock acted accordingly, within departmental guidelines, and we fully support him.”

To date, no one has ever been killed by a billfold in a person’s hand.  But that’s not what McEachern is talking about, of course.  What he’s attempting to argue is that Officer Hancock, despite having no reason in the world to suspect Airman Davidson was inclined to do harm to anyone, saw something in his hand, and in utter ignorance, shot Davidson rather than risk the possibility of risk.

Therein lies the slippery slope of risk.  Excuse number 3 used to apply to an officer who observed a gun in a person’s hand, and when the gun was positioned such that it could shoot at the officer or some other person, the excuse applied.  This posed “what is reasonably [perceived as] an immediate threat of death or serious physical injury.”  A gun. Pointed at someone. This constituted a risk.

Here, the officer knew nothing. He had no reason to suspect any threat of harm to anyone under any circumstances. But when he saw an object in Davidson’s hand, it posed a risk of a risk.  It doesn’t matter that it was a wallet. It could have been a Wii controller. It was an object, a thing coupled with the absence of certainty of safety.

When Sean Groubert acted upon his fear of a risk of a risk, he was fired and prosecuted. When Phillip Hancock did so, he received the full support of his Chief.  And the grand jury agreed.

Officer Phillip Hancock received a “no bill” from a grand jury, and will not be criminally prosecuted for shooting Michael Davidson. The shooting was called “reasonable and legally justified.”

Opelika Police Chief John H. McEachern III has publicly refused to release the dashcam video of the shooting, something he claims is his legal prerogative. Likewise, the chief has also refused to release the findings in the Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI) report.

Much as the Groubert shooting might be seen as distinguishing a threat from risk of risk of a threat, Hancock does just the opposite.  Neither officer had any factual basis to reasonably believe that there was a threat.  Both officers had the combination of lack of knowledge and fear of a potential threat based on the unknown.  One ended up prosecuted. The other may well get a medal for heroism.

Neither officers Groubert nor Hancock were in a situation in which there was a threat, real or perceived. Both were sliding down the slippery slope of ignorance and fear that gave rise to a risk of a risk of a threat. And both shot anyway.

7 thoughts on “The Slippery Slope of Risk

  1. Patrick Maupin

    I don’t know what the chief is worried about. According to one of your posts a few days ago, a lot of people could probably watch the video and come to the (preconceived) conclusion that nothing bad happened.

    In any event, I expect the good chief will learn something about his actual legal prerogatives upon commencement of the inevitable civil suit.

    1. SHG Post author

      Perhaps you missed the nuance of the post about Groubert, that as long as one can rhetorically rationalize the possibility of a risk of a potential threat, how can one blame an officer for protecting himself?

      1. Patrick Maupin

        The civil trial may not come out any better, but there’s a small chance the judge will let the public see the video.

  2. Leonard

    Our society has been conditioned to give police a free pass on incidents like these. Where else in our society to we allow fear or potential threat be used to the degree that our police forces use to justify their “trigger happiness”. Police unions and departments regulary train their officers how to write reports or make comments to the media that elevate the level of threat or fear of their lives. Since when should we allow the police to place their safety above our own. We have a perfect storm where police are militarized, effect polices that create an “us vs them” mentality, a judiciary that gives far too much deference to police creating an environment where there is no accountabilty. In no other westernized nation, would you see this type of behavior from their police forces. The reason this keeps happening because we allow it.

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