Greg Prickett: Show Me Your Hands! (so I can shoot you)

Ed. Note: Greg Prickett is former police officer and supervisor who went to law school, hung out a shingle, and now practices criminal defense and family law in Fort Worth, Texas. While he was a police officer, he was a police firearms instructor, and routinely taught armed tactics to other officers.

On Saturday, March 17, 2018 in Sacramento, Stephan Alonzo Clark was in his grandparents’ back yard. Police, who were looking for a man suspected of breaking car windows, came into the backyard, confronted him, and fired 20 rounds, killing him.

Clark was not armed and only had a cellphone. The Sacramento Police have a policy of releasing their video within 30 days of an officer-involved shooting. Having reviewed the videos[i] , they illustrate a common problem in the way we currently train police officers.

(This video is from the Washington Post, and they have synchronized the audio from all the body cameras and the helicopter.)

This is telling in several ways. First, it shows the problems with current police training, and it points out the errors of the officers. At no time in their contact with Clark did either officer identify themselves as police officers. The first command you is “Show me your hands!” Clark then moves from the side of the house into the backyard, and both officers follow.

It should be noted that it was pitch-black outside, and the officers were wearing dark police uniforms. It would be impossible for Clark to know positively that these were police officers, even with the police-type commands that were being used. The officers stopped at the back corner of the house, and an officer yelled, “Show me your hands—gun!” There was a second pause, and then a command of “Show me your hands, gun, gun, gun!” followed by 20 shots, of which 15 were fired after Clark had already collapsed to the ground.

There is no doubt in my mind that the officers are going to be cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, and there is also no question in my mind that this shooting wasn’t necessary for the following reasons:

  • First, the officers never identified themselves as police officers, as noted above. Someone just barking out commands in the dark doesn’t cut it.
  • Second, it appears that Clark complied with the commands to show his hands, one of which was holding a cellphone. It’s a poor command under these circumstances, just as telling a suspect to take their hands out of their pockets. If they are holding something, the officer has to evaluate it in a second, and the officers are conditioned to expect empty hands, which is unrealistic.
  • Officers are trained to err on the side of their own safety, the so-called “First Rule of Law Enforcement,” which is to make sure that the officer goes home alive at the end of his shift.
  • The call was for property damage, or at most, car burglary. It’s a property crime; there is no reason to believe that the public would be in any danger if the suspect was not immediately taken into custody.
  • So when Clark, complying with the commands to show his hands, turned, the one officer immediately yells gun three times and fires, without any other commands.

The way the investigation will go is that both officers will state that they thought the cellphone was a gun and were in fear of their lives. And the investigation will be closed as a justified shooting.

Sergeant Lou Hayes, Jr., a former Fault Lines contributor, believes that we are training our officers to fear citizens. He points out that the officer’s mindset is one of fear, and that:

He is afraid of people who keep their hands in their pockets; he is wary of people who get too close or videotape him or want to shake hands. Everyone is a potential assailant.

Police officers don’t accept this and push back, but Hayes is right. In a PoliceOne interview in 2016, Hayes said:

We’re basically keeping our cops from being able to think through these problems and understand the context. In doing so, we’re creating scared cops that think every old lady is going to attack them, and every young kid is going to have a gun in his pants and the ninjas are going to pop out of the ceiling on building searches and there’s a suspect in the trunk of every car that you stop. It’s almost become to the point where it never stops — to the point where it’s paralyzing our people from making good decisions.

That, in my opinion, is what happened in Sacramento. The officers were afraid of the suspect and assumed the worse. There commands were poorly chosen, and because they were trained to assume the worse, when Clark showed his hands in compliance with their order, the officers mistook the cellphone for a gun. That was enough to trigger their deadly force response.

A much better option would have been to order him to put his hand up, and not to move. From there, you can hold him at gunpoint until more officers arrive, you can have him go to his knees and then prone him out, you have the ability to slow down the encounter and to make better choices. A command to show his hands should not come until he has been put into a position where his hands and their contents can’t harm the officers.

But until we convince the police that this needs to change, it won’t, and we’ll continue to have incidents like this.

[i] The full videos are available on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyGVJ4ffvkQ, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSK4wnBEu90, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wadv4CCnA38

33 thoughts on “Greg Prickett: Show Me Your Hands! (so I can shoot you)

    1. PseudonymousKid

      Cowards have a habit of staying alive when heroes die. You can’t knock someone for exercising the survival instinct. That’s the most understandable thing about it. No one wants to die, usually. Fear is the enemy, not a lack of bravery. These officers conquered their overblown fears. They were brave and Clark died.

      Painting it in your terms leads to itchy trigger fingers and gunslingers wanting to play the hero. We don’t need heroes, just cops who don’t kill innocent people.

        1. PseudonymousKid

          Double negative, so sure. I was operating in Kirk’s universe, so “garbage in, garbage out” is what you get. Also, I have a strange affinity for cowards, so don’t shoot me.

          1. SHG Post author

            Kirk’s response was to a cop who killed a kid for no reason. It was angry and simplistic, but he had a point. Imagine how much more useful it would have been to add nuance to that point rather than to make it cowboys and indians.

        2. Kirk Taylor

          It’s tax season, so I don’t have time for a well thought out, nuanced response…so you got my visceral instant reaction thay i have to each one of these. It made me feel better, which I know is why you created this blog.

      1. PF Thought

        PseudonymousKid,

        “You can’t knock someone for exercising the survival instinct. That’s the most understandable thing about it. Fear is the enemy, not a lack of bravery. These officers conquered their overblown fears. They were brave and Clark died.”

        We can’t knock them for it, but we can question their response and hold them accountable when necessary. Fear isn’t the enemy, the enemy is the unknown (and it seems they are trained to stay hyper-vigilant) for said unknowns. Especially when you consider the majority of officers never fire their weapons. They didn’t conquer their overblown fears, they surrendered to them (hence the overblown response). Or, they were fearful and Clark died? This talk of bravery and heroism is simply out of context in this specific situation. In general, it is an act of bravery to sign up for the job, though that doesn’t confer bravery in all situations that follow.

        I admit, them being in the moment is different than us watching a video and commenting on it later. Though it should also be understood that officers are expected to be competently trained, and repeatedly practice preparing for situations where they may need to make split decisions to fire their weapons. They wield the legal ability to take a persons life, ipso facto, legally preserving their own. Thus when things in the field do not go as planned, (we are all human, faults are a feature), they are still bound by said legal authority to explain and justify their actions. So the responsible thing to do is assess the situation, find out what went wrong and where needed, hold those accountable with consequences proportionate to the situation. This isn’t an indictment of these officers, it is a duty of the populace, the police force and the justice system. Otherwise, saying “I thought I saw a gun and feared for my life” is an indisputable defense in court; thus grand juries, investigations and releasing videos simply make a mockery of the whole process. And that is without adding in any racial elements.

        PF-T

        1. SHG Post author

          You’re not a lawyer, but still…

          an indisputable defense in court

          Never say that again, please. Your feelz are yours, but the law is not.

        2. Jack

          All I want is for police to be held to the same standards to everyone else..
          If a homeowner walked into his backyard at night, saw a stranger standing there, and did what these police officers did, he would be in jail. Why should supposedly highly trained police officers be held to a lower standard than the general public when it comes to shooting unarmed people?

    2. Karl Kolchak

      Yep–and the flip side of this incident is the “coward” in Florida who refused to confront the Parkland shooter.

  1. Richard Kopf

    Greg,

    You indicate that Stephan Alonzo Clark was in his grandparents’ backyard at the time of his death. Do you know whether Clark was the person pictured by the helicopter thermo-image camera to be jumping a fence or fences?

    All the best.

    RGK

    1. Greg Prickett

      Yes, he was, and he very well may have been the one breaking car windows. Clark does have an extensive criminal history, which I didn’t include in the column because it wasn’t relevant to the actual shooting. I also omitted the fact that to gain entry to the grandparents house, family members always went to the back yard–the front doorbell didn’t work, the grandfather was in a wheelchair and the grandmother also had mobility problems–so family members would tap on the back window so that the grandparents could use the remote to open the garage door.

  2. Skink

    Hayes is on to something. I’ve litigated police shooting cases and reviewed shooting investigations. Until a few years ago, most of the questionable shootings could be reduced to a single error in failing to follow training: the shooter’s finger was on the trigger, not the frame. this was easy to diagnose because only one shot was fired. Other cops may have fired a bunch of rounds after the first, but the weapon that fired the first threw only one round because it wasn’t meant.

    Training is different now. It’s become simplified and universal. It’s hard to teach someone to digest a situation; it’s easy to teach a bunch of “coulds.” They are taught that everything is never as it appears; that anything could happen; and yes, to assume everyone is a bad guy. Processing the situation through training has given way to rote assumption. Cops follow this shitty training, and that’s dangerous.

    1. SHG Post author

      Both Greg and Lou (and #MeToo) have written many posts about police training, both in general and in relation to particular situations. This was a post about a particular situation by an ex-cop training officer turned lawyer. Is there a reason why you think it wise to copslain in a few words things that are a bit more complicated?

      1. Casual Lurker

        “Is there a reason why you think it wise to copslain in a few words things that are a bit more complicated?”

        “Copslain”?

        Is the “p” on your keyboard intermittent? Or it that another one of your Freudian slips?

  3. Noxx

    “From there, you can hold him at gunpoint until more officers arrive, you can have him go to his knees and then prone him out, you have the ability to slow down the encounter and to make better choices”

    Dan shaver was on his knees in a well lit hallway, it wasn’t enough.

    1. Greg Prickett

      The officers in that case mishandled it too, as I have commented elsewhere*. They should have handled it just like a felony car stop and have him walk backwards toward them. I’ve never seen officers taught to have suspects crawl to you.

      The same principle applies. Slow down the encounter, think out your options, and issue clear commands that will actually accomplish the goal of keeping everyone safe. And everyone includes the suspect.

      *Ed. Note: Link to Greg’s post on Daniel Shaver at his blog, Lex Ferenda, added.

      1. SHG Post author

        As an aside, the “clear commands” (a two-fold thing, both clear from a lone commanding cop and clear if there are multiple cops yelling contrary commands) is a pervasive problem. Whatever happened to “police, put your hands in the air?”

  4. Nemo

    Following policy and training is easy, because no thought is required. Problem solving, especially when people are involved, demands thought. Thinking is hard.

    Incidents like this are examples of crisis management applied in the field, and the policies are built around that and defend it. Anyone here ever worked somewhere that the boss ran things by crisis management? This is similar, but the ones creating crises in order to apply crisis management thinking have guns, and the willingness to use them to kill. Policy drives this behavior.

    You can change out the officers, but that won’t mean squat unless you change the policies, too. Anything else is a matter of palliative care. Feelgoodism.

    1. Greg Prickett

      Which is the point that both Lou, Scott, and I are trying to make. We have to train officers to think, to make choices to slow the incident down if possible (it’s not always possible to do that), and to do everything to protect everyone.

      It’s a training issue, because you have to change the way that police approach contacts, and you have to get them to think, rather than just react.

      1. Nemo

        Of course, but to effect a change requires public support, and that means ways to explain to the public what’s going on. The police ‘own’ “training”, from the PR sense, so fighting on that front’s an uphill battle.

        However the management techniques officers apply to situations we want to avoid in the future is open territory. Or at least in this case, management by crisis applies, and it’s the opposite of the sort of training you outline. Moreover, many people are familiar with how bad it makes things at work.

        Maybe this isn’t the best suggestion, but when it comes to police, “training” is a word that doesn’t have much credibility with segments of society. Using illustrations to describe the outcome of bad training at least forces the discussion to what the training does, regardless of the black box operation it is.

        Police PR techniques have at least this much in common with SJW stuff: Control the language, control the platform, and you control the narrative. Speak in their language, and they’re already ahead of you at the start.

        Sorry for (apparently) not being clear on this point in my middle paragraph.

  5. Jake

    From a policy perspective, is there any remedy for the problems created by Graham v Connor beside training? I’m thinking new laws here. Something I can call my congressman with.

    1. SHG Post author

      Wrong post for this. This is a post about what went wrong on the street, not a dive down the policy rabbit hole.

Comments are closed.