If there’s one subject that get’s a lot of mail, it’s gun violence. And when the gun violence involves the police killing an unarmed civilian, peoples’ views range from the angry to the downright illogical. These thoughts are inspired by shootings here in California over the past several years that resulted in unarmed people dying. In considering this topic, I think we should also deal with the cases of people holding knives who are described as seriously mentally ill by their grieving relatives.
One of the conclusions that a thoughtful person will draw when confronted with an officer-involved shooting is that things can be complicated. Worse yet, the situations start out being complicated and quickly get even more complicated. To the officer, there is an awful lot of information coming in rapidly, and it does not always come together with logical clarity. In a dangerous, stressful situation, you can’t always have all the information you would like to have. The television viewer, confronted with an account of such a shooting, doesn’t know what was going on in the mind of the officer from second to second, nor does the viewer have a close feel for how the terrain looked either to the cop or to the deceased.
Here’s one example. It happened in Santa Ana last year. The police officer was called to the scene in response to a complaint about a man behaving differently. The officer is described as female and a 13 year veteran of the force. When she gave the suspect a command to get down on the ground, he responded not by obeying, but by answering tauntingly, “What are you gonna do about it, bitch?” According to witness accounts and a murky cell phone video taken from a distance, she then shot him in the chest.
People who were not on the scene reacted by calling the officer a murderer, or words to that effect. “Why did she have to kill him?” was a common theme. Here is the argumentative view of the shooting.
What we don’t know from the video or from accounts of the incident was whether the dead man was moving towards the officer in a threatening manner, which would have suggested something like insane contempt for the law and a potentially deadly effect on the officer if not quickly contained. Or was it something different, perhaps an officer who had dealt with a lot of contempt from suspects over the course of a long career and just snapped? In either case, the result was the death of an unarmed man at the hand of an armed police officer.
Mother Jones Magazine did a piece a few years ago asking why there have been so many shootings of unarmed people by the police in recent years. The examples cited in the article actually didn’t add up to that many killings, but the ones that were presented were tragic, to say the least.
In one northern California incident, a teenage boy was walking to his friend’s place to return an air rifle. Someone saw the young man with the faux weapon and called the police. The rest of the story is sobering, as the police, seeing a man of adult size carrying what looked like an assault weapon, called out to him. As he turned toward them (an understandable response on his part, one might think), the police, thinking he was bringing his rifle to bear on them, opened fire and shot him. From the beginning of the interaction to the shooting was a matter of only a few seconds. It was only when the police approached the boy that they discovered what they had done.
The comments section in this internet piece were of interest largely for what was lacking, namely any nuanced perspective. There were lots of comments about the new American police state, accompanied by words like fascism. On the other side, there were comments attacking people for being liberals, and therefore always deluded. It would appear that in internet discussions of guns and police behavior, the non sequitur rules.
What’s interesting about these articles, taken as a whole, is the nearly total lack of data as to the numbers. How many such shootings are there in which police shoot armed criminals, vs. how many shootings are of mentally ill women holding knives? Numerical data are obviously not the whole story, but they can at least give us an idea as to whether we are approaching the new fascism or just looking at the predictable results of our society arming itself to the teeth and then sending police officers out to deal with the problem.
One person by the name of Jim Fisher actually compiled such data for the year 2011. He points out the curiosity that the FBI, in spite of all the other crime data it collects and publishes, does not collect and publish the numbers of police involved shootings. Fisher therefore checked internet accounts for a whole year, keeping track of all the reported shootings that involved the wounding or death of a suspect. His data bear directly on my initial question as to why the police cannot control and detain a mentally ill person who is brandishing a weapon that is less lethal than a firearm.
Here is what Fisher found: In the year 2011, “police officers in the United States shot 1,146 people, killing 607.” Further down the column, he points out that “The police shot, in 2011, about 50 women, most of whom were armed with knives and had histories of emotional distress. Overall, about a quarter of those shot were either mentally ill and/or suicidal. Many of these were ‘suicide-by-cop’ cases.”
In short, the infamous case in which Long Beach police shot a mentally ill woman carrying a toy pistol was neither unique nor terribly common. Still, the yearly killing of half a hundred people who suffer from mental illness seems like something we could do without, provided there is some method for prevention.
Fisher continues: “Most police shooting victims were armed with handguns. The next most common weapon involved vehicles (used as weapons), followed by knives (and other sharp objects), shotguns, and rifles. Very few of these people carried assault weapons, and a small percentage were unarmed. About 50 subjects were armed with BB-guns, pellet guns or replica firearms.”
Thus the northern Californian teenager who was shot dead for carrying an air rifle was not unique either. In our day and age, it is sometimes worth your life to be seen with a faux weapon by the police.
What’s most interesting in all these statistics is a short section at the bottom of the page which compares New York City in the years 1971 and 2011. Back in 1971, NYC police killed 93 suspects. In 2010, NYC police killed 8 people. Obviously something has happened to change the statistics so dramatically, and it’s obviously not the case that there are fewer guns in the hands of the populace. Whether it’s more police, better tactics, or simply a policy that demands more restraint, things are different.
It’s also interesting that the places with the highest per capita shooting rates are the smaller cities such as Fresno, Tucson, and our own Long Beach and Garden Grove.
I am going to finish with a few thoughts that are, of necessity, taken out of context. To begin with, the sidearm is an inadequate technology for keeping the peace. It doesn’t always do what it is supposed to do (ie: the police officer takes a shot and misses, then misses again). It is not well designed for subduing a suspect without badly harming him. Anyone who has seen a gunshot injury up close understands that pistols are not the optimal method for preserving either life or liberty.
This is a long range question, but one that is worthy of continued inquiry. The invention of the Taser was supposed to help. Perhaps it has, and we will eventually have reams of data on its effectiveness. We do know that on some occassions, the Taser ends up killing a person due to its ability to create a cardiac arrest, so additional studies and data collection are indicated. That’s where Jim Fisher’s remarks about FBI statistics are relevant.
Second, I think it’s become obvious that police philosophy involves, more and more, the concept that the police should not wait for somebody to take a shot at them. Rather, any believable indication that someone might be reaching for a weapon results in the police opening fire. A lot of the news stories involve an immediate decision based on limited information, resulting in the death of an unarmed person.
In the case of the northern California boy, the mere fact that he was believed to be carrying an assault rifle, followed by the mere fact that he responded to their shout, resulted in his death by police gunfire. There were lots of possible explanations for a young man turning towards the police when called upon, and they don’t all involve murderous intent on his part. I think it’s painfully obvious that if the young man had known that the police were observing him and fearful of him, he could have reacted in a way that was less dangerous to himself.
You can write lots of scenarios that turn out in a happy way, but the police, forced to make a decision in the length of time of a second or two, opted for their own safety.
Lastly, I think it’s necessary to distinguish between television fiction and reality. We’ve all become used to the modern television cliche of police surrounding a house and carefully negotiating a surrender from an armed suspect. Such things may happen, but the deadly incidents we are talking about here seem to involve the actions of isolated police acting on their own.
There is another issue which involves the police philosophy of shooting at the center of mass, another way of saying shoot to kill. A lot of people without firearms training, but who were raised on Wyatt Earp and other dramatized sharpshooters, believe that it is possible to shoot to wound. Often, television news crews will point a microphone at grieving relatives, who will say these things. The answer is not to pretend that we can train police officers to shoot the gun out of the suspect’s hand, but to understand that gunfire is always going to remain a limited technology when it comes to keeping the peace.One political reform that would reduce at least some of the unnecessary gunfire would be to end the war on drugs as currently practiced. We used to have a philosophy that your home is your castle, and the authorities don’t have unlimited power to break into your home as they see fit. We’ve lost a lot of that liberty due to a series of Supreme Court decisions going back many decades.
A more rational kind of Tea Party movement would protest the use of police power against drugs and minorities as violations of the original spirit of the Constitution.
City Watch LA