What Cops Can Do, and What They Should Do

June 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“There is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do.”

In one simple sentence, Atlanta’s Mayor Bottoms has zeroed in on a central problem in police violence and the public response to that violence. “Can” is about what is legally justifiable. “Should” is about what is right.

Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and others — all these killings were legally justified. The same is true of less well-publicized cases, lethal and especially non-lethal. The grand jury did not indict, or if the case went to trial, the jury did not convict. And it’s not because prosecutors and juries are racists; it’s not because they are biased towards the police; it’s not even because the police lie. Those reasons apply in some cases. But often, the justice system fails to achieve what to most people would seem like justice because the violence is consistent with the law. It is legally justifiable.

But that doesn’t mean that the shooting, the beating, or other abuse was right. Nor does it mean it was unavoidable.

In the Atlanta killing that occasioned the mayor’s statement, the victim, drunk and uncooperative, had thrown a punch, taken the taser of one officer, and tried to run away. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation,* “During the chase, Mr. Brooks turned and pointed the Taser at the officer . . . The officer fired his weapon, striking Brooks.” (This last sentence is copspeak for “The officer shot him.”) It’s possible that the victim’s actions will provide sufficient legal justification for the killing. But the cop certainly did not have to shoot.

Some police violence seems justified, and not just legally, given the pressures of the immediate situation. But that situation itself may have been the outcome of actions on the part of the police. The most obvious recent example is the killing of Breonna Taylor. In the police version, someone shot at them. They returned fire. Surely that’s legitimate. But that shooting was the end point of a series of actions that could have been avoided — the no-knock warrant, the battering ram breaking down the door, and even farther back in the causal chain, the militarization of the police.

Six years ago, when the St. Louis police shot and killed a man, probably mentally disturbed, who was armed with only a steak knife, I posted (here) this 2011 video of police in London responding to a truly deranged man wildly swinging a machete.

In the US, the police would have shot and killed the man, and they would have been legally justified. But the London police who first arrive on the scene do not carry guns, and they handle the situation in a way that results in no death or injury.

* The GBI’s original version was much more favorable to the cops and was probably based on what the cops told them. When video of the incident turned up, the GBI changed its story.

No comments: