“If only he did as the cops commanded” is a ready retort to the guy shot to death when he inadvertantly flinched, or completely ignored, police orders. Sometimes there is a good reason for it, conflicting commands, multiple cops screaming simultaneously, so that it’s impossible to know what to do, how to stay alive.
But the underlying premise is that if only they followed orders, they wouldn’t be dead. The critical piece of this scenario is that their death at the hands of cops is their own fault. They should have complied. They should have listened. They’re dead because they didn’t.
Elijah James Smith complied. He was ordered to raise his hands. He raised his hands. He was shot to death for it.
It’s not that Smith was a poor innocent, though others are.
West Valley City police officers pursued 20-year-old Elijah James Smith on April 8, as he matched the description of a suspect accused of stealing from a nearby cell phone store, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. Police said Smith hopped the fence to the backyard of a home in an effort to flee, but the homeowner asked him to leave. That’s when he barged into another neighborhood home and hid in its garage.
When officers arrived at the second home, a 13-year-old boy answered the door and told them a man had enterered into his house. Two other children, aged 9 and 10, were also inside the home at the time of the incident.
Burglary isn’t a good crime. It’s even worse when there are people in the house, children in this case. But what burglary is not is a capital offense. It’s not the sort of crime for which you execute a person.
Police soon went down to the garage where they found Smith standing next to the car.
“Put your hands up now. Let me see your hands,” officers shout repeatedly from the stairs that led to the garage. Smith initially only raised his left hand but left his right hand tucked in his pocket, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Another officer is heard ordering the man to take out his other hand, after which Smith raised his right elbow as he removed his right hand.
Smith was ordered to “get your hand out of your pocket.” Officers shouted for him to raise “his other hand.” He raised his other hand.
Three shots are fired, one of them striking Smith. At the same time one officer fired their weapon, another officer discharged their stun gun, which didn’t reach the suspect. Smith would later die from his injuries.
The rationalization was that he raised his hand too “rapidly.” He wasn’t ordered to raise it slowly. If he raised it too slowly, that would be the excuse to shoot. Is there a speed with which one raises one’s hand and gets to live? So he was shot and killed. For doing as he was told.
After the shooting, authorities said they found a “modified” screwdriver on the floor next to the Smith. Investigators think it was the object tucked in his right-side pocket when he was reluctant to remove his hand.
Reminiscent of the myth surrounding Troy Canty threatening Bernie Goetz, the best they could come up with was a screwdriver, amorphously described as “modified” as if a chainsaw had been added at the end of its shaft. Even that wasn’t on Smith, but connected at best by speculation using the magic of law enforcement chaos theory.
What this serves to highlight is that Smith had no priors, which would invariably be trotted out to prove that his life was less than worthwhile, and so no one should lose sleep over his death.*
This doesn’t prove that every cop is a killer, or that every person who complies with an officer’s direction will end up dead. But what it does show is that the common excuse for the needless death of an unarmed person, even one engaged in criminal conduct, that he brought it on himself by his failure to comply, doesn’t fly. There is no guarantee that complying with police commands will save your life.
In anticipation of the next level of excuse for this needless killing, almost certainly another example of the Reasonably Scare Cop Rule, the simplistic retort will be that if he didn’t commit a crime, if he wasn’t in somebody else’s home, he wouldn’t have been killed.
The commission of a crime is, for the most part, a bad thing. That’s why they call it a crime. You don’t get a medal for it. But you don’t deserve to die for it either. It’s not a simplistic justification for killing people. We do not engage in extra-judicial killing because someone did something against the law. We do not brush off needless killing because the person killed was engaged in illegal conduct.
This was a 20-year-old kid. What he was doing in the garage will never quite be known, as he’s dead and can’t explain himself. But whatever it was, it was not so horrible that he deserved to die for it.
- I’ve been corrected:
The Seattle Tribune reports: “Smith’s prior criminal record consists
only of a few misdemeanor convictions, including intoxication,
criminal trespass, false information to a peace officer and possession
of alcohol by a minor, according to Utah court records.”
H/T Nick Lidakis