In my first post in this series, I discussed John Correia’s collection of videos of police-involved shootings. My second post tried to extract some lessons about how to avoid getting shot by the cops. In this post, I’d like to look at some policing issues raised by these videos.
But before I get into that, I should repeat my warning:
Trigger Warning (Seriously)
Although these videos are not particularly gory, they are brutal. If you choose to follow the links, you will see real video of real people getting shot. Some of them just die right there, others collapse and try to get back up, and some just lie on the ground screaming until the clip ends. Some of them are bad guys, some of them are innocent, and a lot of them have mental health problems. Watching these videos, you may see things that are hard to forget. They can leave a mark.
Correia describes himself as being pro-police, and his co-host, Mike Willever, is a retired law enforcement officer. They’re not badgelickers — I have seen them call out cops for bad shootings, and they do put a strong emphasis on de-escalation — but they don’t approach these videos with an eye toward changing police policy.
As I wrote earlier, many of these police shootings, even the ones that really piss me off, are actually justified in the moment. That is, at the time the officer pulled the trigger, they had reason to believe it would stop a threat of death or great bodily harm.
But when evaluating police policies, we need to look at how the situation got to the point where the cop pulled the trigger, and we need to do a more complete analysis of social benefits and costs. Someone dying is always a large social cost, which means that if cops kill someone it needs to be offset by a great benefit — such as saving someone else’s life — in order to be considered good policy.
Consider this video of an apparently mentally disturbed woman named Linh Saeteurn running through the streets with a gun. She’s been pointing it at people and has used it to commit some robberies, but she hasn’t actually fired it. As the clip ends, one cop is chasing her, and another cop pulls up, gets out of his car, and immediately shoots her five times in two seconds. The cops keep pointing their guns at her and yelling at her not to touch the gun. A bystander in a car yells at the cops, “You didn’t have to do that!”
From the cops’ point of view, they pretty much did have to do that. With that gun in her hand and a demonstrated willingness to point it at people, Saeteurn presented a threat of death or great bodily harm to everyone in sight. During the analysis portion of the video, John freezes the video just before the officer opens fire, and you can see Saeteurn pointing the gun straight into the camera, and therefore straight at the officer’s chest.
But here’s the thing: That wasn’t a real gun.
And this is where it gets complicated. The officer did what he was trained to do, he followed the rules for using lethal force, and he acted decisively. Correia and his co-host commend him for good shooting, and they are critical of the first cop who chased Saeteurn rather than immediately shooting her to end the threat. Commenters on the video are mocking the bystander.
At no point do Correia, his co-host, or the commenters address the fact that incident was a failure. Saeteurn didn’t have a gun and wasn’t actually hurting anyone. The first cop endangered no one by chasing her instead of shooting her. The second cop, on the other hand, nearly killed this unarmed woman. And by opening fire with bystanders nearby and a building full of windows as a backstop, he was arguably more of a danger to the community than she was. Oh, and the bystander was right after all: The cops didn’t have to shoot her.
Make no mistake, I’m not saying the cops did anything ethically wrong here. Saeteurn started all this, and at the moment the cop started shooting, he had no way to know the gun was a fake. Police had received multiple reports of a woman with a gun, and when they saw her, she had a very realistic looking gun-like object in her hand. For all the cops could tell, she was a threat to the lives of everyone nearby. If I had been that cop, I probably would have shot her too.
And yet…that’s not a very good outcome for an encounter with an unarmed woman. Think of it like a skilled heart surgeon performing a bypass graft: Even if the surgeon does everything right, sometimes the patient dies anyway. That’s not the fault of the surgeon, and they are not morally culpable for the death, but they don’t get to put that operation in the win column.
The shooting of this woman wasn’t a win either. It may have been justified, or at least excusable, but it was definitely not the best possible outcome. I have no idea how the cops could have done better, just as I have no idea how to improve the chances of a successful coronary artery bypass graft, but I do know this: Heart surgeons are trying to get better. And they can do that because they recognize the failures for what they are.
One interesting open question from that last video is why didn’t the first officer open fire? Was he reluctant to fire because he was afraid of the controversy, as Correia surmises? Or did he somehow sense that she wasn’t as dangerous as she seemed? Was there some clue, perhaps at a subliminal level? Did he realize that she hadn’t actually fired the gun and guess there was a reason for that? Was he willing to take on the risk to avoid shooting her?
That possibility is a lot more vividly illustrated in this video from Atlanta where cops respond to a disturbed individual with a gun. Originally called for a domestic disturbance, the cops quickly discover a mentally confused guy named Dearian Bell, and he turns out to have a gun. I knew this wasn’t going to be a typical police shooting when the lead cop’s reaction was to very casually ask “Bro you got your hand on a gun. What’s up?”
The cops go on to treat Bell very nonchalantly, not even drawing their weapons at first, and speaking calmly with him and his wife. He gets out of the car, prompting the cops to draw their guns, but they hold fire. Ultimately, they let him wander around the neighborhood with the gun for 7 or 8 minutes before one of the cops makes the decision to shoot Bell, which proves to be fatal.
By the rules for using lethal force in self-defense, there’s nothing wrong with that shooting. In fact, Correia and Willever are flabbergasted that the officers didn’t shoot him a lot sooner. Correia argues
I think it’s not just the wife who’s at risk here. It’s everyone in the community. Because if this guy does have ammo for that gun — and again then there’s all the other inhabitants of the community and there’s all these officers who have responded to this clearly insane domestic at this point. And listen, I get it. You want to give somebody every possible benefit of the doubt. You don’t want to shoot somebody. We want to use a firearm as a tool of last resort. But I think these officers were at incredible risk of great bodily harm for an incredibly long amount of time.
Correia’s not exactly wrong. The officers did risk their lives by not immediately shooting Bell. But taking risks is part of their job — people who become cops are risk-takers by nature — and perhaps these cops were willing to risk their own lives to avoid having to kill a mentally disturbed man. After all, any one of them who felt Bell was a serious threat could have shot him at any time. His wife didn’t seem the least bit scared of him either. And as for the community, I’m guessing that if you asked them, most of the members of that mostly black community would be alright with the cops taking their time trying to avoid killing a mentally disturbed black man.
Heck, we can leave race out of it entirely: The people of that community were Dearian Bell’s neighbors. If one of your neighbors — a guy you saw regularly, who maybe showed up on Sundays at church with his wife — went a little crazy and started waving a gun around, would you want the police to shoot him immediately? Or would you want the police to do what the cops did here and try to talk him down?
Also, Bell’s wife informed police that he had just stolen it from someone and that it wasn’t loaded. One of the cops can be heard saying that it didn’t have a magazine. That doesn’t rule out a round in the chamber, but combined with the wife’s statement and the fact that Bell never fired a shot, it seems pretty likely the gun was unloaded and harmless.I have not found news coverage that confirms the state of the gun. It’s entirely possible that these cops were called to a familiar scene with some familiar people and correctly figured out that the guy with the gun was disturbed but harmless, and did not need to be shot instantly.
Willever addresses this and dismiss it harshly:
I don’t care if you’ve been to this house a hundred times. I don’t care if you know these two by first and last name, or their kids are on your soccer team, or how familiar you are with them. A suspect with a gun, in a domestic dispute, does not get this kind of latitude to wander around and make threats and hold a firearm. I don’t care if the wife says the gun’s unloaded. Everything about this is just an absolute trash show.
I understand Willever’s point — imagine the outrage if Bell had shot his wife or an innocent bystander while half a dozen cops just stood around. But it’s a tradeoff, a balancing of risk, and I’m not convinced that an instant kill is the right balance.
There is some precedent. It’s not quite the same, but hostage negotiators let things like this happen all the time. If the cops show up while some guy is robbing a liquor store and he takes the clerk and customers as hostages, the cops will let him wave that gun around as much as he wants, not just for a few minutes but for hour after hour, as long as he isn’t shooting. The thinking is that he’s not actually harming anyone, so there’s no need to rush things and trigger a tragedy. Better to take things calmly, without adding emotional energy, and de-escalate the situation until he surrenders. It works nearly every time, and is much safer for everyone involved than starting a gunfight.I say “nearly every time” because I assume there have been some failures, but I don’t actually know of any specific examples where hostages got killed during negotiations.
To be sure, there are important differences between the scenario in this video and a hostage situation. In the latter, police typically do not have clear shots at the gunman, and there are hostages at risk if shooting starts. Furthermore, police usually have a solid perimeter around hostage situations to keep the danger contained. Nevertheless, maybe avoiding escalation, even against a drawn gun, is an approach more worthy of consideration.
After all, it kind of worked. For as long as the police held their fire, so did Dearian Bell. No innocent people were harmed. And this shooting took place a few months after the murder of George Floyd, yet there were few protests, perhaps in part because Dearian Bell’s mother told the press that she wasn’t angry at the cop who killed her son. It’s hard to believe police shooting a black man in the late summer of 2020 would have produced such a reaction if they hadn’t held their fire for so long.
Again, I’m not claiming to have all the answers, but it looks like delaying the shooting of Dearian Bell did no harm, and maybe it wasn’t necessary to shoot him at all.
The most frustrating video I’ve seen so far at ASP is this video of two officers responding to a report of a fight at a wedding reception in Winter Park, Florida. They quickly find a guy named Daniel Knight, who is clearly a hothead. He’s outside the venue, being calmed down by his sister. The cops intervene, the situation escalates, Knight punches out one of the cops and turns on the other, who promptly shoots him to death.
There’s no question that Knight was a violent drunk who was mostly responsible for what happened to him. He picked a fight with the cops, and he lost. And yet…cops once again shot and killed an unarmed man.
(Correia says he had a BB gun, but I can’t find corroboration in the sources Correia provides, nor in any news story I found. According to reports, the cop who fired says he had to shoot because Knight had knocked him to the ground and he was afraid of what would happen if Knight knocked him out. He didn’t mention a weapon. And reviewing the video at 1/4 speed, the last thing I see before the officer fires is both of Knight’s empty hands passing in front of the camera.)
I can’t stop thinking about this from the family’s point of view: Their brother had gotten drunk and was getting out of hand, so they removed him from the reception and took him outside where they could calm him down. They were in the process of de-escalating the situation.
And then the cops showed up, giving orders and throwing their weight around like a bunch of total dicks. Knight’s sister tried to protect him, but the cops insisted on separating them, even pulling the sister away. That’s right. When facing a belligerent drunk, these cops got the brilliant idea to manhandle his sister.
I don’t know about you, but if a stranger walked up and started grabbing someone I love, I’m pretty sure I’d want to punch him until he stopped. Of course, I wouldn’t actually punch a cop, because I have impulse control. Daniel Knight had poor impulse control, and that got him killed.
As is so often the case, I can’t really fault the cop for firing when he did. His partner was down, and he was going down, and there were no other cops to help him. If he got knocked out, Knight would have been able to do whatever he wanted to them, and he would have access to both their guns. I probably would have shot too. It was arguably justified in the moment.
However, it seems like officers could have tried harder to avoid being in that moment. Correia and Willever have several suggestions for better ways the cops could have approached this situation. For one thing, they could have brought in more people. With six or eight officers, they would have less to worry about from the crowd, and they probably could have overcome Knight before the situation got bad enough to require a lethal response. Furthermore, the officers made no attempt to de-escalate the situation. They came in heavy and never slowed down.
That’s not to say that Knight was innocent. He brought this on himself. He had a serious criminal history, and he reacted badly to the cops. He was drunk and belligerent. He could have stopped this at any time by cooperating. Trying to fight his way out of this was foolish.
But he was a drunk dude at a wedding, and the cops are professional law enforcement. They should be held to a higher standard, they should have tried to de-escalate, and they shouldn’t be allowed to count this as a win.
Wrapping up, I want to go back to the previous video where the cops waited a few minutes before shooting Dearian Bell. I was struck by one of the things Mike Willever said:
I can’t explain what’s happening here. I don’t recognize this as American law enforcement in any way, shape, or form.
Me neither, really. But maybe somehow it should be.