I hate this kind of story.
Reportedly an as yet unnamed police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri has shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old black kid named Michael Brown. Area residents gathered in the street, there was shouting, police assembled to try to keep order, there was a bit of a riot, and eventually things quieted down without too much damage.
The most important word in that last sentence was “reportedly.”
The early reports on breaking stories like this are often inaccurate. Some eyewitnesses have said Brown was surrendering, others say he was running away. At least one eyewitness has said the officer walked up to Brown while he was lying on the street and shot him in the back a few more times.
Who do we believe? The police? The eyewitnesses? Given what we know about eyewitness testimony, and the fact that their stories conflict, which eyewitness should we believe? We don’t even know if they really were eyewitnesses. That account of a cold-blooded street execution seems like something someone would make up to cause trouble. In a crowded urban area with thousands of people, there’s got to be at least one person crazy enough to want to insert himself into the story by running up to the first reporter on the scene and making up an exciting story. Or they could be completely honest witnesses who saw a cop commit a horrifying crime.
But unless the officer deliberately killed Brown, it’s probably not a murder, in which case it might be some lesser crime having to do with recklessness or depravity or some manner of culpable error. Or it might fall into the category of what I’ve sometimes heard called an “excusable” shooting, meaning that the victim didn’t deserve to die, but that the officer isn’t to blame. That is, he made an honest mistake.
(Shooting someone who was wielding a realistic-looking toy gun is a classic example of an excusable shooting. The resulting death is wrong and unnecessary, but you can understand why the officer believed he was doing the right thing at the time.)
On the other hand, if Michael Brown really was unarmed, which seems likely (but not certain) since the police haven’t reported finding a weapon, then there’s almost no way this can turn out to be a justified shooting. If this were a justified shooting, that would mean we thought the officer did the right thing, and if another officer found himself in the same situation, we would want him to do the same thing. If this were a justified shooting, that would mean the officer was in fear for his life and shot in self defense. Which seems unlikely, given that Michael Brown had no weapon.
The only way I can think of that the officer would be justified in shooting an unarmed person is if that unarmed person attacked the officer at close quarters and tried to take his gun. Then the officer might have no choice but to shoot to defend himself.
Which brings me to this:
An unarmed teenager killed Saturday by Ferguson police, spawning continuing community unrest, had struggled for an officer’s gun in a patrol car first, officials announced this morning.
So the story being told by the police is exactly the one that would justify the shooting. It would exonerate the officer, justify his actions, and make it more difficult for Brown’s family to sue the city. Which is convenient for the cops.
But that doesn’t make it untrue. Maybe the cop who shot Brown is telling a self-defense story not because it’s the only one that clears him but because self-defense is the only reason he would shoot an unarmed kid.
I hate this kind of story.
I should point out that calling a shooting “justified” or “excusable” is not legal terminology, at least not the way I’m using it. I don’t remember where I first heard the terms used that way to classify non-murderous shootings, but it seems to me like a helpful way to think about the right and wrong of lethal force.
I should also point out that by the time you read this, and maybe even before I publish this, some important part of the story could change, and some or all of the possibilities I discussed above could be ruled out by events. That won’t stop people with agendas from picking sides before all the facts are known.
I really hate this kind of story.
Update: Just so I don’t come across as a complete narcissist, I am angry that a cop gunned down an unarmed black kid for no good reason…if that’s what happened. Fuck. I think I should be angry. In fact, I’m pretty sure I should be angry. Heck, I practically want to be angry. But I don’t know if I should be angry. Crap. I hate this kind of story.