Scared cops.

An incident earlier this month serves as an example of a phenomenon that is not being given enough attention during the continuing debate over police shootings. The phenomenon is scared cops. There are good cops, bad cops, racist cops, and scared cops, sometimes in various combinations of those characteristics. It appears that Deputy Sheriff Jake Shaw of Clark County, Ohio was an otherwise good cop who feared being shot.

The incident in Ohio allows us to look at the problem free of racial connotations because both Shaw and the man he shot, local newspaper photographer Andy Grimm, are white. In fact, the two men considered each other friends, and Grimm could be heard on Shaw’s body camera audio telling Shaw “I don’t want you to lose your job for this” while Grimm was lying on the ground writhing in pain. Fortunately, Grimm survived.

Grimm got out of his car to set up his camera to photograph an electrical storm near to where Shaw had made a traffic stop. Grimm was under a street lamp in plain view of Shaw, and waved in the direction of Shaw, believing that Shaw would recognize him. As Grimm was setting up his tripod, Shaw fired two shots at Grimm, striking him once in the abdomen.

Shaw himself can be heard on the audio explaining what happened: “Andy, I thought it was a friggin’ gun, dude. Stay strong with me. I love you, brother.” Whatever else the investigation of the shooting discloses, it will confirm that Shaw was frightened of being shot when he shot Grimm.

Fear is an equal-opportunity emotion. In July, Justine Damond, an émigré from Australia living in Minneapolis, was shot by a Somali-American policeman, Mohamed Noor, under circumstances still far from clear. The officer was black and the victim was white.  There is no doubt in my mind that fear in the mind of the officer who shot her will be part of the chain of causation. Her tragic death was a consequence of what the proliferation of handguns has done to policing – and life – in the United States and, again, it will not be the last of its kind.

The rise to national prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 drew our attention to the very real problem of young black men dying at the hands of police officers acting based on racial stereotypes, if not overt racism. As it happens it was a shooting that occurred in North Miami, Florida on the first day of the Republican National Convention in 2016 that first persuaded me that there is another, more pervasive problem than racist cops: Scared cops.

A North Miami officer shot a mental health therapist attempting to calm an autistic patient. The officer fired three shots at the patient, one of which struck the therapist and none of which hit the patient. The officer was over 50 yards away and mistook a silver toy truck in the hands of the patient for a handgun. The victim survived and the officer subsequently was charged with attempted manslaughter. Were his actions grossly negligent? Probably. Were they motivated by fear? Undoubtedly.

Fear in combination with racial stereotyping, conscious or unconscious, is particularly deadly.  Better screening and training of officers, and more effective disciplinary action against those officers unfit to be given the power over life and death, will help. But cops are human beings, and it is human nature to be afraid in situations that we perceive as dangerous. Racial stereotyping was not a factor in the shooting of an unarmed 40-year-old white woman dressed in her pajamas. Apprehension of harm to the officer or his partner was.

The widespread availability of handguns has exponentially increased the number of potentially dangerous situations to which officers are exposed. Incidents like those in Clark County, Ohio, Minneapolis and North Miami will continue for as long as every criminal, terrorist, gang banger, and troubled individual who wants a handgun can get one. Officers know that they have only a split second to act if a person has a gun and intends to use it to shoot them. Tragic mistakes are inevitable.

Will some officers falsely claim fear for their lives to persuade jurors that their actions were justified? Of course. Another facet of human nature is that, faced with prison or other serious consequences, there are people who will lie to evade the consequences of their actions, police officers included. That doesn’t obscure the fact that there is real fear out there and that it affects the judgment and behavior of police officers.

Want to get an idea of the fear that always lies just beneath the surface? Listen to the terror in the voice of the partner of New York City police officer Miosotis Familia as he reported over the radio that she had been ambushed and shot to death while sitting next to him in a patrol car in July.

Yes, police officers fear things besides guns, as demonstrated by the shooting last week of the troubled president of a gay and transgender student group who allegedly was threatening campus police officers with a small knife outside a dormitory at Georgia Tech. But guns are different.

A friend of mine from Edinburgh retired from the Police Service of Scotland. He attributes the difference between policing in the United States and policing in the United Kingdom to one thing: Handguns. “Guns change everything.” Yes, they do and, when it comes to the landscape of policing in America, not for the better.

What can we do? Some empathy may help. Don’t accept racism or other bad behavior from cops but don’t jump to conclusions, either. Try to understand what it’s like to decide between shooting or being shot in less than a heartbeat. Unless we somehow can find a way to end the ready access to handguns by people who should not have them, the only other thing that we can do is get used to officers shooting people who didn’t need to be shot.

September 23, 2017

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