Here is a story that once again demonstrates that the most important public service you can perform is to record the police at every opportunity. I was first alerted to this story by Ace, who has a portion of the video at his site. A longer version of the video is available at the New York Times, who apparently were the original recipients of the video. Normally I would embed the video here but I can’t figure out how to do it with the weird NYT proprietary video feed so I will just encourage you to go watch the NYT video if you have questions about anything I say here. I will warn you that it is not for the faint of heart and that you will clearly see a man being shot to death.
Here’s a basic synopsis of what you will see on the video: A black man (who we later learn is Walter L. Scott), in clear headlong flight from a police officer is shot multiple times in the back and falls to the ground, clearly dead or dying. As the officer and his partner afterwards mill about the scene, the officer clearly moves something that looks for all the world to be a taser and drops it right next to the dead man. Why is that relevant? Because the officer’s defense in this case is that he was justified in shooting Mr. Scott because Mr. Scott took his stun gun.
Obviously, this is a terrible set of facts – one so terrible that the officer in question has actually been charged with murder, a nearly unprecedented event for a cop in an officer-involved shooting. And, to date, I have not seen anyone offering a defense of the officer, who definitely appears to have shot a man in the back and then planted evidence on him afterwards.
But let’s engage in a hypothetical here. Let’s suppose that some private citizen had not happened to catch this incident on video (at a sufficiently safe distance that the police do not seem to notice him until the incident is over). What then?
Well, then we would be left with the typical scenario we have in this situation – which is that a pretty significant chunk of conservatives would, without thinking, believe the officer’s story, assume that witnesses to the contrary were lying, and scoff at the idea that cops would plant evidence on an unarmed person that they just shot (in full view of their partner, who offered no obvious objection to what was occurring in front of him).
Moreover, even when the cop’s stated excuse obviously did not justify the shooting, people would still tend to buy it in the absence of this officer (apparently) planting his stun gun. In this case, the officer says: “Well, you see, he took my stun gun, so I had to shoot him several times in the back as he ran away,” and a not insignificant number of people would respond: “Seems legit.” Nevermind that cops take the position that the use of a taser is not lethal force and therefore by definition even if the guy was actually brandishing a taser at the officer, shooting him would not have been legally justified. Nevermind that the fact that Mr. Scott was shot in the back multiple times is a pretty clear indicator, even in the absence of video, that he wasn’t doing anything threatening to the officer even if he actually had taken his taser.
How do I know this? I know it from the reaction of many to the Eric Garner case, in which many otherwise serious people contended that the act of turning away from the cops justified the application of a potentially fatal carotid arm bar, not to mention the callous indifference of the cops as Eric Garner slowly died on the sidewalk while they all milled around conspicuously not performing CPR on a dying man. All because Garner “resisted arrest.”
Let us grant for a moment that Eric Garner technically “resisted arrest,” as did Walter Scott (I don’t know why he ran away from the cop in the first place but it seems in retrospect that his instinct was pretty sound). We have to get through our heads that not every instance of “resisting arrest” is created alike and that doing so does not grant the cops a license to play judge, jury, and executioner and kill you on the spot.
And let’s lose this ridiculous notion that cops are entitled to some extraordinary level of deference in terms of their justifications for killing citizens. This is dead, completely, 180 degrees wrong. If a free society is to survive, then those who we trust with the force of law – including lethal force – must be held to a higher standard of scrutiny than private citizens. Holding them to a lower standard – including the incredible deference shown by some to their implausible justifications for deaths caused to private citizens – is an invitation to tyranny.
UPDATE: I must take issue in particular with some portions of Jazz Shaw’s commentary on this story. In addition to the standard “cops are entitled to the benefit of the doubt” narrative that I strongly oppose (for reasons set forth above), I think Jazz undersells the extent of the problem:
In the majority of cases, such as the Michael Brown shooting, the cameras will probably indicate that good officers acted correctly. But in the rare case of a bad cop going outside the boundaries of the law – as we appear to have here – then those situations can be resolved as well.
The problem, as we saw with the Eric Garner case, is that even when there is video of clearly inappropriate behavior by cops there is still a pretty sizeable contingent of people who are willing to latch on to any justification, no matter how thin, to excuse the behavior of cops. This is, as I have stated, exactly backwards.
Second, the issue with respect to race is, I think mischaracterized by Jazz:
Unfortunately, this incident will be run up the flagpole to build on the narrative that there are armies of racist, evil cops out there. It’s equally sad that essentially all of the media coverage – including the article linked above – still has to begin with “a white officer” and “a black suspect” since this would be an equally tragic story regardless of the race of the actors involved.
This is a bit of a strawman, I think. No serious person (a subset of people that doesn’t include Al Sharpton, et al) suggests that police forces across America are an extension of the Klan or anything of the sort. The suggestion, instead, is that often times police react in subconscious ways towards black males in particular and are quicker to resort to escalating uses of force. The suggestion further is that the race of the victim often plays an important role in the way people (white people) perceive the behavior of the police when evaluating whether it is justified. And there is good evidence, as I have set forth before, that these are valid concerns.
More to the point, these issues play an important role in understanding the disconnect in terms of why white people often can’t understand the way black people react to the police. Most white people – particularly middle class suburban ones – have been taught that, when encountering the police, you should follow orders, the police are there to help, and if there is some misunderstanding you can clear it up after you hire a lawyer later. The experience of the black community has been flatly inconsistent with these hopes and expectations for decades. Understanding that for many people, encountering a police officer is not encountering someone who is there to help but rather someone who is there to cause trouble and possibly plant evidence on you later to justify the trouble he caused you, informs why you see things like Eric Garner “resisting arrest” and Walter Scott “resisting arrest.”
That’s what makes it so troubling to me when I hear white people saying, essentially, “Why didn’t you just do what the cops told you, dummy, then you’d still be alive today.” I don’t want to live in a country where that’s the price of staying alive for anyone – black or white. And I’m not saying that Jazz is saying that specifically, just that I hear it too often and it is irksome and should be squashed as an impulse.