Thursday, July 20, 2017


I grew up in a home with firearms. My father was an occasional hunter and gun collector, and a member of the National Rifle Association. And one of the things that he taught me as to always, always, be careful with firearms. My father wanted me to know how to use a gun, and be reasonable comfortable with one, in case I ever had to use one in self-defense. And that meant understanding how to be safe with one, and not being nervous when I had one in hand. My father had a healthy respect for firearms, and though both intent and happenstance, instilled that respect in me.

This was, mostly, for my own safety, and the safety of the people around me. But it was also out of an understanding that getting things wrong had consequences. Shooting someone when you didn't mean to was not something that was taken lightly - people wound up in jail for that sort of thing. When I was a teenager, and taking training to become a security job for the summer, even though we weren't going to be carrying guns, we spent quite a bit of time going over the ins and outs of state firearms law, especially as concerned liability for a shooting - intentional or not.

That liability though, doesn't seem to attach as much to police officers - people who are specifically trained in the use of force, handling firearms and dealing with dangerous situations. And people have been sounding the alarm about this issue for far longer than Black Lives Matter has been on the scene.

While narcotics officers have (or at least are supposed to have) extensive training in how to act during a raid, suspects don’t, and officers have the advantage of surprise. Yet prosecutors readily forgive mistaken police shootings of innocent civilians and unarmed drug suspects while expecting the people on the receiving end of late-night raids to show exemplary composure, judgment, and control in determining whether the attackers in their homes are cops or criminals.
Radley Balko "The Case of Cory Maye" Reason Magazine, October 2006.
The case of  Justine Ruszczyk, in Minneapolis, illustrates this issue.
Fred Bruno, the lawyer for Matthew Harrity, whose partner killed Ms Damond, 40, had said: "It is reasonable to assume an officer in that situation would be concerned about a possible ambush."
Justine Damond shooting: Minneapolis police ambush claim 'ludicrous'
Which is fair. But it's also reasonable to assume that an officer concerned about a possible ambush would take another action than to shoot first, and ask questions later. Especially as, in line with what Mr. Balko pointed out over a decade ago, the general public is held to a higher standard of conduct. I've been in some sketchy neighborhoods in my life. But I highly doubt that I'd be able to get away with shooting an unarmed person out of fear of an ambush without being arrested and charged right off the bat.

The leeway we give law enforcement officers in these sorts of situations is understandable. No one is perfect, and if we treated every shooting as a criminal offense, it's likely that law enforcement would be a much more difficult job than it already is. But it does seem that "The officer feared serious injury or death," is quickly becoming a go-to rationale for shootings; perhaps because it's easier to defend overall than "In having an armed police force who are trained to defend themselves as well as the public, we accept that a certain number of people are going to be killed by officers under circumstances that we don't tolerate from the public at large." And, honestly, that's the bargain we've made.

Black Lives Matter tends to view that bargain through the lens of race; White citizens are okay with the police (or other citizens) shooting and killing Black people, because of (perhaps implicit or unconscious) racialized fears, as a means of maintaining their status of being in control of the nation. But it's likely that it's not so biased as that makes it sound.

In general, the United States is a safer place that it used to be. President Trump can rail against the homicide rate in Chicago (something which the cynic in me suspects he does because Chicago is an example of everything that many of his supporters feel is wrong with the parts of the country that they don't live in), but the place is much safer than when I was living there in the 1990s, and celebrating having made it to age 25 without being assaulted or killed. The violent crime rate has been on a downward trend pretty much ever since. But a lot of people don't realize that. And I suspect that police officers are no more immune to the idea that death awaits around every corner than anyone else is.

And in a nation where access to firearms is often taken as a means of securing safety, it's likely that this feeling of security will be purchased in blood.

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