When confronted with choices, people often make the wrong one, particularly under unusual circumstances and great stress. When that happens, we have a name for these people: defendants. It’s not that they’re necessarily bad people, or malevolent, but that they made a choice that gave rise to a cop deciding to arrest them.
Upon reflection, when things are calmer and they have had an opportunity to think through their choices more clearly, they would have made a different choice. Sometimes, they realize they were impetuous. Sometimes, they realize they went with the gut, which failed them. Sometimes, they just didn’t think at all. But the situation demanded something, whether commission or omission, and they responded in a way that gave rise to their arrest.
Sometimes, the wrong was no greater than to ask a question when a cop was commanding them to shut up. Sometimes, it was to assert a bit of human dignity when a cop demanded subjugation. The cop’s view was that the person needed to blindly obey and he would have been fine. The person’s view was that, as a normal person, he meant nothing more than to assert what he deemed ordinary interaction. In retrospect, he might have chosen differently. But he didn’t.
Try telling a cop that it was just a mistake. He won’t be particularly interested, both because he’s heard it a thousand times before, and because it’s not his business to decide. “Tell it to the judge,” the cop replies. The judge isn’t interested either. “I made a mistake” is not a defense, but a mitigation factor at sentence. He made a choice, and it was the wrong one.
Police Officer Peter Liang had an accident, according to Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. It cost Akai Gurley his life. He made a choice to unholster his gun, to put his finger on the trigger and to engage in conduct that caused the gun to fire. Liang had no reason to shoot, and may not have desired a shot being fired, but it happened anyway. He did not have an accident, though he made a mistake.
An unnamed Burlington, Iowa police officer was called to a domestic dispute the day after Autumn Steele was arrested on a misdemeanor for a domestic incident.
The officer was dispatched to supervise Steele so she could gather some of her belongings. Unfortunately, the situation took a horrific turn when the couple’s German Shepherd reportedly approached the officer. Apparently, the officer felt threatened by the dog because he pulled his gun and began shooting at the animal. An eyewitness revealed the officer fell into the snow while he was shooting and one of the bullets hit Steele in the chest.
Steele died from being shot. Dogs and cops have a toxic relationship, as has been chronicled in the puppycide incidents, and cops have an unfortunate inclination to kill dogs rather than risk finding out that they’re cuddly pets. In the scheme of the First Rule of Policing, the killing of pets isn’t worthy of a moment’s hesitation.
Eurie Stamps was a 68-year-old grandfather, who sat in his home minding his own business, when the Framingham SWAT Team knocked down his door. He fell to the floor and put his hands in the air.
Duncan describes moving toward the man – who turned out to be Stamps – with his M4 in the “low-ready” position, a round in the chamber and the rifle in semi-automatic, or single-shot, mode. “I see a man laying on his stomach, somewhere in the hallway,” Duncan tells Forster in the interview on Jan. 6, the day after the shooting.
My options are, focus on him like this and say, ‘Don’t move, don’t move.’ But what happens if there’s a gun or something hidden anywhere and he just reaches quick? What happens?
“Well, I’m still in a position where I gotta make a decision. Do I fire, do I not fire? In my mind as quickly as it was going, I made a decision, I’m gonna take that out of this equation.
“I decided I’m going to go beside of him, get his hands behind his back, not to handcuff him, but just tighten up on his hands and kneel down on him so he can’t reach for anything at all.
Police Officer Paul Duncan had to make a split-second decision, in his own mind. Not because Stamps did anything to force a decision. He was just lying on the ground, fully submissive. Rather, because Duncan wasn’t certain that Stamps had no weapon, he felt the need to make a choice.
Duncan told investigators that as he moved to pull Stamps’s arms behind him, he fell backwards, somehow causing his gun to discharge. Stamps, a grandfather of 12, was shot dead in his own home, while fully complying with police orders during a raid to serve a warrant for nonviolent, consensual drug crimes for which he had never been implicated.
Stamps, like Akai Gurley and Autumn Steele, was dead.
A mistake is an unintentional act. In none of these instances, did the police officer intend to kill. But a police officer is trained in the use of weapons, in the manner in which he performs his job. The point of this training is that he be capable of using them when he intends to, and not killing anyone when he doesn’t.
People aren’t trained in how to behave in interactions with police. Good guys suffer from the good guy curve, which conflicts with police expectations. A person who has done nothing wrong has no reason to expect that he must temper his conduct to meet the expectations a police officer might have. Lacking an appreciation of this, a cop will prepare for the worst because of the First Rule of Policing.
Accidents happen. But these aren’t accidents. These are mistakes, closer to recklessness than negligence. Police are given the benefit of forgiveness for their mistakes. Others are held to account for accidents as if they were mistakes. Some are prosecuted for them. Others just end up on the wrong end of an officer’s gun and die.
At a time when the argument is made that we, those who have never had to endure the hardship of wearing a badge, can’t appreciate how cops stare evil in the face and risk their lives for us every day, unintentional killings at the hand of cops are rationalized as accidents in order to relieve the tension. Because accidents happen. Even to cops. Even to us. But then, these killings aren’t accidents.