I have a deep respect for law enforcement officials who perform their duty properly. They have a difficult and often-thankless task. They put their lives on the line for people like you and me in every American community. But there have been too many troubling cases where police officers were too trigger-happy, and, as a result, innocent citizens have been killed.
We need to consider this issue, like every other issue, with some clear-headed honesty. Let’s cut the cruft from around it and get down to the meat. To hear some left-wing media outlets and politicos tell it, you would think we’re in the middle of a massive race war between white cops and young black men. The facts do not back up this assertion…at all. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem with our style of policing. We do.
Let’s get into it.
Deadly Force…and Mistakes
Law enforcement authorities have the responsibility to uphold the right to life, which is one of the fundamental human rights that governments must defend. Law enforcement officers, like anybody else, may use deadly force when it is necessary to protect their own lives or the lives of others. This is part of the right to defend the human rights.
And there will be unfortunate cases where people, acting responsibly and in good faith, make mistakes.
For example, a suspect in a criminal investigation who refuses lawful orders, then reaches into their pocket and pulls out…something. Maybe it’s a phone. Maybe it’s a cigar. Maybe it’s a gun. A law enforcement officer in that scenario must act in a millisecond to protect themselves and others. And if they do so, and they act as if they are being threatened by a man with a gun, they very likely acted justly…even if it turns out it was only a phone.
In all cases of police use of force, we have to judge the situation fairly and dispassionately given the complete circumstance. We have to put ourselves in the officers’ shoes and try to see what they would have seen and think about how they would have understood the situation.
Law enforcement officers, of course, must not use deadly force except as a last resort, and must use it only to protect life. When there is doubt, and when there is time, they should err on the side of not shooting. But there is not always time to deeply consider the nuances of human visual acuity when somebody is ignoring your lawful instructions and reaching into their pocket on a dark street corner.
Wait For the Facts
Sadly, the race-baiters and opportunists have used some of these cases — where the facts were, initially, unclear — to advance their political narratives.
Think of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the 2014 police-involved shooting of a man named Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. One witness claimed that Brown — a black man — had his hands up and was shot by the white police officer in cold blood. Thus was born the “hands up, don’t shoot” chant, and much new fuel was thrown onto the fire of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
But, of course, the witness lied…and the opportunists didn’t wait to make sure they had the facts straight before running with the story.
This was not a case of a racist white cop murdering a young black man in cold blood. Those cases do occasionally occur, and should be prosecuted by our legal system ruthlessly…but they are vanishingly rare. In this case, it turns out that Brown attacked Wilson and tried to steal his gun. The shooting was clearly, undeniably an act of self-defense…and race apparently had nothing to do with it.
So, if nothing else, let’s at least wait until we know what happened before we judge what happened.
There are, however, real cases of unjustifiable use of force…and often we never hear about them in the national press.
I live in Loudoun County, Virginia. Back in 2013, a man named John Geer, who lived in neighboring Fairfax County, Virginia, was having a big fight with his partner. She called the police, who arrived soon after. Geer showed them a holstered pistol and made a veiled threat to officers…so he wasn’t entirely innocent and probably did deserve to go to jail that day.
After about forty-five minutes of talk with a hostage negotiator, Geer — with the holstered gun now sitting harmlessly on the ground — came out of the townhouse with his hands up. One of the police officers on scene, Adam Torres, fired a shot. Geer was hit, and died soon after.
This was an obvious case of police murder. Torres really did kill an unarmed man with his hands up. And it wasn’t a split-second, “he might have a gun,” sort of thing. He was just…standing there…waiting peacefully to be taken into custody. None of the other officers on-scene fired a shot, and none of them supported Torres’s claim that Geer had made a threatening move.
You probably never heard about this case unless you lived in the Washington, D.C., metro area…because the officer was Latino and the victim was white. It didn’t fit some hyper-partisan national political narrative about race. But it was no less terrible than any other unjustified police shooting. It was significantly more terrible than some of the cases that did get major (inaccurate) national coverage.
The police department closed ranks and tried to protect Torres, but the facts (finally) came out years later, and Torres did eventually get charged with murder. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in a plea deal. And the coverup by the Fairfax County Police Department seriously undermined its credibility with the people it is sworn to protect.
Most of the problems relating to policing have to be addressed by state and local governments. That’s federalism.
But the federal government does have a legitimate interest in defending the human rights of all Americans, and the human rights include the right to life, the right to liberty (and equal treatment under the law), and the right to defense. The federal government has to ensure that the state governments are republican in nature and defend the human rights of the people of each state. There may be some federal influence to be had around the edges.
The main thing I would like to see is that all law enforcement officers should swear a binding oath to be honest and transparent with the people of their community. And I want state and local governments to immediately fire any officer who fails to uphold these principles. The shooting of John Geer, described above, was terrible…but so was the attempt by otherwise innocent officers to close ranks and protect their “brother.”
Too many law enforcement officers seem to be more loyal to their peers — even when they break the law — than to the people they are sworn to protect. This is unacceptable, and it needs to stop immediately. It undermines public trust in law enforcement and inflames emotion, sometimes in very counterproductive ways.
We also need to stop demonizing cops just because some of them are bad. There are bad authors too, but that’s not a reason to hate books. Most police officers do their job and do it reasonably well. They deserve praise, not derision. Let’s deal with the bad apples — decisively — without painting everybody else with that same brush.