When I first wrote about the killing of 21-year-old aspiring rapper, Willie McCoy, there was no video yet to show what happened. Now, there is.
Radley Balko called this a “straight up execution.” Others pointed at this killing as an example of how black people have no Second Amendment rights, and so police are “permitted to murder us with guns simply b/c they imagine we possess one.” Except Willie McCoy had a gun. It was sitting in his lap. He was sitting in his car, in the drive-thru lane, car running, in drive, with him passed out at the wheel.
This was not a normal situation. It becomes no more normal by omitting the surrounding circumstances and relating only the killing.
David French at NRO tries not to ignore the surrounding circumstances in his analysis of the killing of Willie Mccoy.
When the police arrive, they find McCoy fast asleep — so asleep and unresponsive that he seems closer to unconsciousness. In spite of the fact that they know that he has a gun (in the moment they think the magazine is halfway out of the gun and believe he has at most one shot, a potential round in the chamber), the officers cluster right by him, clearly in his sight line should he wake up. Then they discuss their plans. They consider opening the door and snatching the gun, or smashing the window open.
French describes McCoy’s state as “fast asleep.” The basis for this is unclear, as most people don’t suddenly fall fast asleep in the drive-thru lane. Maybe so. Maybe McCoy was passed out for another reason. But what would be the expectation of a cop arriving at the scene, that McCoy was just really, really tired, or that there was something else, some other reason, for his being unconscious?
When McCoy does start to move, the officers’ response is dramatic. From the video, they seem reasonably relaxed when McCoy scratches his left shoulder, but then McCoy leans forward and appears to move his arm. There’s no indication he’s clearly awake, yet all at once, the officers start screaming, “Show me your hands!” so loudly that it’s necessary for captions to explain that the yells weren’t in fact gunshots. Within roughly three seconds, the officers start firing.
At the moment McCoy’s left hand reached for a gun that was on his lap, what else would they scream? Or should they have screamed at all, choosing instead to inquire in calm tones, “Sir, can you tell us why there is a gun in your lap in the drive-thru lane, where you’re fast asleep?”
Of course a man should not fall asleep in a Taco Bell drive-thru. It’s even more unnerving when he does so with a gun in plain view in his lap. But it’s odd for officers to simultaneously declare that they felt in mortal danger while also placing themselves directly in the suspect’s potential line of fire, considering drastic action as he continued to sleep, and then responding to his substantial movements with a cavalcade of startling shouts that he had three seconds to properly process (from an unconscious sleep) before he was shredded by bullets. Why did officers place themselves in such a vulnerable position? Why did they ponder such dramatic measures to wake a sleeping, armed man?
Unlike others, French doesn’t simply gloss over the bizarre scenario cops found when they responded to the call. Instead, he raises the question of the police justification for the killing, that they were in fear for their lives, when it was their decision to put themselves in a position where, when McCoy roused with the gun in his lap, there would be no other reasonable possibility but to be in a life-threatening position.
The department claims the officers fired in “fear for their own safety.” Well, yes, their fear in the moment, was palpable, a fact which the law asks juries to consider in such cases. But we should also ask whether the officers’ actions were reasonable before they opened fire. Did their own decisions unnecessarily contribute to the moment of crisis?
The law is unhelpful here, as the “Reasonably Scared Cop Rule” makes no accommodation for whether the cops created, or even contributed, to the situation that resulted in their claim of fear. Even if the police did everything wrong, everything possible to create the scenario that gave rise to their claim of fear, to the potential threat to their life, there is no qualification to their right to kill. If, at the moment, no matter what else happened, their fear satisfies the rule, they get to kill. It’s not just that cops’ lives matter to cops, but they matter to the law as well.
When we evaluate police shootings, we wrongly tend to limit our analysis to the very instant of the shooting itself. The question of a cop’s reasonable fear at that instant is allowed to trump all other concerns, and becomes the deciding factor at trial. I would argue, however, that officers act unreasonably when they don’t give a citizen a reasonable chance to live — and giving a citizen a reasonable chance to live involves properly handling the situation so no weapon need be fired.
There was, as French notes, almost no way this scenario was going to play out that didn’t end in Willie McCoy dead. It is fair to argue that this situation was so bizarre, so unanticipated, that there was no ready police protocol to deal with it, and so the officers on the scene were left to come up with their own way to address the situation. It’s impossible for police to have a handy solution to every crazy scenario humans can create.
But even without training on how to deal with the passed out guy with a gun in his lap and the car in drive in the Taco Bell drive-thru lane, should there not be training as to how to take a protective posture when faced with such an oddball fact pattern?
Unlike others, I can’t see this as a “straight out execution” scenario, but as a bizarre outlier scenario where the police were left to their own devices and came up with an approach that was nearly certain to end in Willie McCoy’s death. It’s easy to say (and like David French, I will) that there has to be a way out of even the oddest situations that leaves no room for anything but a killing.
But what that would be isn’t sufficiently clear to me that I would conclude this was an unforgivable outcome. Just that they should have done far better than this, and come up with a way that would have given Willie McCoy a chance to eat dinner another day.