Processing Fear, Killing Roberson

There are a few issues of fact in dispute surrounding the unquestionably bad killing of Jemel Roberson by a Midlothian cop. Was Roberson’s attire, an orange vest and cap bearing the word “security” seen by the cop and sufficient to alert him to the fact that Roberson was the good guy? Did the cop command Roberson to drop the gun and get on the ground before or while he was pumping bullets into his body? Didn’t the bystanders screaming that Roberson was the security guard give the cop pause before killing?

Then there’s the obvious: This cop saw a black guy with a gun and killed him because he was a black guy with a gun. The problem for cops is that this happens with regularity, enough so that any black man who takes the risk of doing the right thing, getting involved, risks his life. It’s not that a black guy might not want to be the good guy, might not want to help, but that getting killed, maimed or arrested for trying to do the right thing is too high a price to pay. And the risk is too great for any reasonable person.

At National Review, David French notes both of these sides of the problem.

We ask a lot of cops. We truly do. In some ways, we ask more of them than we should — they are all too often the state’s immediate point of contact with mentally distressed individuals. But it is not asking too much to ask them to shoot the right person, or not shoot at all.

There’s no easy fix here. There’s no simple training tip that can remove the fog and fear of a firefight. And that urgency is absolutely enhanced when a police officer sees a gun pointed at another person. At the same time, a citizen’s right of self-defense shouldn’t face material limits simply because police officers may make mistakes. So-called commonsense gun control doesn’t have much bearing on cases like this. But as we ponder these situations, I come back time and again to two words — awareness and restraint.

French leaves out one key factor from his analysis in this particular case, that Roberson was a black man. It would be nice if this didn’t matter, if the consideration of what happened here kept all things equal, but that’s not real. Many cops harbor a fear that black men are more inclined to be violent criminals, and seeing one with a gun defaults immediately to threat of death. And so, in the processing of the scenario, it’s kill or be killed because, in part, Roberson was black.

Police must be aware of the possible presence of the good guy with the gun. They must continue to train themselves in the unique skill of assessing a tactical situation under duress. Armed citizens — to the extent they are able — must also be aware that police will approach, and they will not immediately know who is a threat.

Then there’s restraint. What is the additional risk of pausing just a bit to take in more information? There is risk either way. Pause a moment, and a bad guy may gain an advantage. Shoot immediately, and you may shoot the wrong man.

In earlier iterations of this problem, complicated by the fact that law-abiding people possess a fundamental right to carry a gun, I’ve argued that the tipping point for police officers has shifted further away from an actual threat to the potential of actual threat. What was once justified by the “glint of steel” has since become justified by the furtive reach toward a waistband that might have held a gun. This, I’ve argued, is the product of an increased sense of fear, a hypersensitivity to the possibility of a threat, and the acceptability within police culture of shooting prematurely rather than taking any risk at all.

But that doesn’t apply here. Roberson had his gun out and visible, so the cop knew this black man had a gun. It wasn’t pointed at the cop, so it didn’t present an immediate threat, but it could easily have shifted direction as far as the cop’s mind was concerned, assuming he thought that hard about it.

While restraint has been the focus of much criticism, French’s point about awareness seems to be the issue at hand. Contrary to what some might think, no cop wants to shoot or kill an innocent person, particularly a good guy like Jemel Roberson. If the cop was aware of the fact that he was about to kill the good guy, he wouldn’t have done it, for both his and the good guy’s sake. But awareness, as raised here, requires the ability to process information quickly, accurately and detached from the blindness of emotion. Fear clouds one’s ability to grasp facts and then process what one sees quickly enough to prevent schooled reaction to kick in.

Processing speed matters. The ability to take in what’s happening, to make sense of it in a rational and accurate way, and to react to it with thought rather than the mindless emotion of fear and self-preservation. Making this harder is the additional factor of the race of the guy with the gun, factoring in fear of a black man with a gun which means presumed death to too many cops and ends any attempt to process further what is before his eyes.

Bear in mind, Jemel Roberson, a mere security guard, managed to do his job of stopping a shooting by drunk guys in a bar without anyone being harmed, or harming anyone. He held his captive at gunpoint, but he did not shoot. He did his job well, and without excuse.

French makes the point that we ask “a lot” of cops, and that’s true. But that’s the job. Maybe the problem isn’t what we ask of cops, but whether the people we hire to do the job are capable of what we ask of them. Are they smart enough to process what they see correctly before pulling the trigger? Are they calm enough to see it through detached eyes that enable them to see without the fog of fear clouding their vision? Are they open enough not to assume that a black man with a gun is presumed to be a threat and must be stopped?

No doubt some are, but not enough as it only took that one cop to kill Jemel Roberson, no matter how many others on the scene managed not to kill anyone that night, especially the good guy.

8 thoughts on “Processing Fear, Killing Roberson

  1. Random Wine Geek

    “Maybe the problem isn’t what we ask of cops, but whether the people we hire to do the job are capable of what we ask of them. Are they smart enough to process what they see correctly before pulling the trigger? Are they calm enough to see it through detached eyes that enable them to see without the fog of fear clouding their vision? Are they open enough not to assume that a black man with a gun is presumed to be a threat and must be stopped?”

    How can we tell if they have the capacity when instead of being trained to develop those skills so many are being trained by the Dave Grossmans of the world to view the streets as a place full of violent threats can only be overcome with superior violence?

    1. SHG Post author

      Some are being trained to fear. Some aren’t. Some are even being trained to de-escalate these days. Still, it’s unclear that any training can change cop culture and the First Rule of Policing.

      1. Hunting Guy

        I haven’t done a deep dive into your archives but I recall some discussion about ex-military not being so trigger happy. Maybe someone needs to see if military training could be adapted to police operations. That might be an answer.

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s correct, though some people disagree vehemently with my view of the impact of military background and rules of engagement. But the efficacy of military restraint is that they don’t have the same culture of fear and threat, or tolerance for wimps who shoot prematurely, so I don’t know that it’s the training as much as the culture that gives rise to restraint.

          1. Hunting Guy

            Looks like it’s the chicken or egg question. Training follows culture, but culture is based on training.

            Speaking as an outsider, it looks like some police forces need to be totally cleaned out and restarted from scratch.

            But I don’t see that happening.

            1. SHG Post author

              Training has been the “go to” argument for every police problem, and yet training and culture seem to exist independently along parallel lines. Maybe they’re connect. Maybe they have nothing to do with one another. Beats me.

          2. JRP

            Many if not most military units have a culture that has no tolerance for premature action but that doesnt mean the “judged by twelve rather than carried by six” mantra isn’t alive and well in every gun toting circle.

            I believe in training, but in extreme stress people fall back to their lowest not highest level of training. The increasing militarization of police encourages them to use the tools they devote the most of thier limited training hours to and go to guns.

            In my opinion the fix isnt completly ditching the tactical training (because there are times police need it) but changing the percentage away from tactical. That will change the mindset which over time can change culture.

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