Guest article by Jason Angel, police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Every time you hear the news that the police just shot somebody, aren’t your next thoughts, “Is the suspect black”, and “Did he have a gun?”
I know that’s my reaction, the media’s reaction, and the reaction of police administrators, prosecutors, and many members of the public. The two most irrelevant facts — skin tone and whether the suspect had a gun — greatly determine what the narrative will be. Even when the suspect is armed, like Alton Sterling and Keith Lamont Scott, the police may still be treated as guilty until proven innocent by the court of public opinion.
I am a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma and have been a shooter on two occasions. I have also seen an officer in my department face a possible life sentence for shooting an “unarmed” black man, so this issue hits close. Though both of my shootings were ruled “justified,” it scares me and the officers I work with that the choice to defend ourselves may come at the cost of our freedom when uninformed people in power face the political pressure.
Since the racial aspect is irrelevant, I will let other sources cover that. My goal is to help you determine how to react the next time social media blows up with another police shooting. Hopefully, some of the information I pass along will help you sift through the narrative and find what really happened so you can develop an INFORMED opinion.
What Is the Law?
Shooting someone, for all intents and purposes, is a seizure as covered under the 4th Amendment. The Constitution demands that seizures be reasonable, and that requires probable cause: reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, is being, or will be committed, supported by the circumstances at hand.
Two Supreme Court cases in particular directly apply to the use of deadly force by officers:
The first is Tennessee v. Garner from 1985. In this case, a police officer shot a burglar who was running from the scene. The officer knew that the suspect did not have a weapon and he did not feel his life was threatened. Prior to this ruling, officers could use deadly force to prevent a person who committed a felony from fleeing. The court ruled that the use of deadly force was unreasonable unless a fleeing suspect poses an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to officers or the public.
Next is Graham v. Connor from 1989. The officers in question believed a man had committed a crime and they pulled over his vehicle. The man acted erratically due to a medical condition and officers used force to detain him. Their use of force caused several injuries to the suspect. Even worse, the man hadn’t committed a crime in the first place. The court held that police personnel should be judged by what an “objectively reasonable” officer would do in that situation based on what the officer knew at the time.
Therefore, officers cannot be judged in hindsight, but on what facts or perceptions were available at that moment. Objective reasonableness means officers should consider “the severity of the crime at issue,” “whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others,” and “whether [the suspect] is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Even though the suspect in Graham v. Connor had not committed a crime and did not pose a threat, he appeared to have done both, and the officers were determined to have acted reasonably based on what they knew at the time.
When you consider police shootings in the future, think: “What did the officer know or believe, based on the circumstances, at the time he or she pulled the trigger?”
Why Being Unarmed Doesn’t Matter
Every time I hear about an unarmed person getting shot by the police, instead of becoming outraged I ask, “What’s the whole story?”
Think about it this way: if someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night and you shoot him as he comes through the door, you will be justified all day long. But what if the burglar didn’t want to hurt you? What if he only wanted your property or to stay somewhere warm for the night? He put you and your family at risk. You were scared. His recklessness made you feel in danger and you did what you felt you had to do.
Police officers are people too. They do not have magical powers that deflect bullets. They can’t see through clothing or car doors. They lose some vision and hearing capacity under stress and have milliseconds to make life or death decisions.
There are many reasons a police officer may feel he or she needs to use deadly force against someone who does not have a weapon: size disparity between the officer and suspect, number of attacking suspects, a suspect making “furtive” movements (i.e. reaching into a waistband or a vehicle), and an attempt to obtain the officer’s firearm to name a few.
Michael Brown of Ferguson fame was not armed, but he had attacked Officer Darren Wilson and attempted to take his gun before he was shot. The “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” narrative took months to unravel as the truth slowly came to light. If you stop at the “unarmed” part — I’m looking at you, CNN — you are missing the more important parts of the story.
Betty Shelby of the Tulsa Police Department fatally shot a man who outweighed her by over 100 pounds and who made several movements into his pockets and vehicle when told numerous times to show his hands. Terrence Crutcher was under the influence of PCP, which prevents the user from feeling pain and often makes the user violent. TASERs and sedation drugs carried by ambulance personnel are also rarely effective. Based on his actions and her police training, Officer Shelby believed Terrence Crutcher was reaching for a gun. Again, the “Hands Up” people came around claiming one thing, but the facts showed another, and she was eventually acquitted of her manslaughter charges.
But there are consequences for pushing a lie. A few weeks after Officer Shelby was charged with manslaughter, a female Chicago police officer was beaten unconscious by a man on PCP. Had other officers not been there she could have easily been killed. She told investigators she did not shoot her attacker because she was afraid to go to prison for shooting an “unarmed” man.
Officers are often forced into action without knowing all the facts. In the case of Officer Shelby, she reacted to all the signs that Terrence Crutcher was reaching for a gun. Many people don’t like that she did not wait to see a gun, but as an expert witness testified at her trial, by the time an officer recognizes that the suspect is holding a gun, the suspect can get 2-4 shots off. That means if the officer is right that there is a gun, and waits to see it, he or she is dead before he or she can return fire.
Whose Side of the Story Have I Heard?
When you first hear about a police shooting, you are likely getting some of the minutest details about the incident. Police are conducting a full investigation and many of the details are not available to the media, so news outlets typically overemphasize the limited info they have, like race and presence of a weapon. Some of the details of the shooting are not even available to investigating officers.
When officers fire their weapon on duty, they immediately become the suspects of a potential crime and will likely invoke their right to remain silent. Invoking this right may seem like the officer is trying to hide something, but police psychologists have found that people remember more details of critical incident after a full sleep cycle. Also, with the increasing attacks on law enforcement, officers don’t want their words taken out of context, so they generally wait to make their statement.
I know from personal experience, your shooting will play over and over through your head for days, and every time you replay it new details emerge or stand out. When you watch whatever video may be available, or listen to audio from your microphone — if you have one — you will be amazed at some of the things that went on that you did not know about.
The public does not usually hear the full story, but if the case goes to trial, the story they do get is at least six months after the fact. The officer may have been dragged too deeply through the mud at that point that no matter how righteous the shooting is, the officer’s career may be over.
Put Yourself in the Officer’s Shoes:
Since an officer, by law, is to be judged based on what he or she knows at the time, we need to look at the officer’s perspective after a shooting. A lot of people falsely believe that what they see on the body camera or in-car camera is the perspective of the officer. Those cameras look one direction, see a broad picture, do not blink, and can be replayed in slow motion, enhanced or edited. They don’t get nervous or face tunnel vision. They don’t experience auditory exclusion, a condition of hearing loss during high-stress situations. Video can be helpful, but it does not tell even close to the full story.
Ray Tensing is a former University of Cincinnati police officer who shot an “unarmed” black man on a traffic stop. When Officer Tensing tried to get the suspect, Sam Dubose, out of the car, Mr. Dubose restarted his car and Officer Tensing reached into the vehicle to try and grab the suspect’s keys. Officer Tensing told investigators he thought his arm had gotten caught in the steering wheel and the suspect had pulled the car forward, dragging him. Officer Tensing fired a shot that killed the suspect as he was trying not to fall under the moving vehicle.
Prosecutors watched Officer Tensing’s body camera footage and claimed that he was a liar, because he was not stuck in the steering wheel and was not, in their opinion, “dragged” by the car. What really happened? Sam Dubose had the officer’s arm pinned to the steering wheel and estimates vary as to how far Officer Tensing was “involuntarily moved” by the suspect’s vehicle. Was it three feet, or fifteen? Should it matter? The officer was unable to remove himself from the path of a moving vehicle. Was three feet too little? How about ten? Maybe thirty? When should an officer be allowed to feel that his life is in danger? Once his foot’s under a tire?
Officer Tensing got tried for murder, which thankfully resulted in a mistrial, and then manslaughter, then mistrial again. When experiencing constant danger like this, how do you aggressively fight crime with your mind 100% in the game? You can’t. Every decision has to be balanced with the risk of going to prison for the rest of your life, even when your own life is at stake.
What Are the Police Trained to Do?
Members of the media, activists, and scared prosecutors seem to know just what the officers should have done in a shooting, though few have ever taken part in police training themselves. Often they express wishful thinking like officers waiting until a suspect’s gun is pointed at them before pulling the trigger, shooting someone in the leg, shooting the gun out of their hand, or using a TASER or some advanced martial arts technique.
Police defensive tactics derive from real world experience and simulated exercises in controlled environments. Police officers don’t use TASERs on people they think may have a gun because officers get killed trying to subdue armed individuals using only a TASER. Both of my shootings occurred after I tried using the TASER on the subject. In both cases the TASER was ineffective and I ended up having to shoot the suspect to save my life.
Shooting accuracy greatly decreases under stress, so officers are trained to shoot “center mass,” the largest target on the body. During my first shooting, I missed the suspect altogether. The second one, most shots hit the suspect in the leg though I was aiming center mass. Both instances were nothing like the range. I had just sprinted after the suspects, who both were suspects in shootings. My heart rate was probably through the roof. The first suspect was on a declined elevation and the second was running with a gun in his hand. I will never aim for a limb when my life is on the line, because I won’t hit it.
Officers are trained in some very basic grappling techniques, but even officers who pay for Jiu Jitsu classes are not going to fight someone with a knife, baseball bat, or other dangerous and potentially deadly object. We’re not Batman and this isn’t the movies. We carry guns so we win the fight. A loss or tie is unacceptable.
It is pretty cowardly of district attorneys with prosecutorial immunity to suggest that officers put themselves in peril by using tactics that they have been trained not to use.
Bottom Line: Wait for the Facts
When you look at what the law is and what the facts are, not in hindsight or slow motion but as the officer is living out the situation, I hope you can see that it is not as easy to understand a police shooting as it is to put out a simple soundbite like “white cop shoots unarmed black suspect.”
Police officers face challenges that the vast majority of the public cannot understand or relate to. It doesn’t mean officers can’t or don’t make mistakes, but it should stand as a reminder that if you are not trained like an officer or have not been in an officer’s shoes, it is probably best to take a step back from the conversation and gather all the facts you can. Ask an officer friend and he or she may have an opinion that can shed some light. In the end, the truth usually comes out.
Like Winston Churchill said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”