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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Gunshot wounds

So here's the situation: I'm out driving around River City when I see a young man loitering on a street corner. Another young man approaches him and what is obviously an illegal transaction involving the sale of controlled and/or prohibited substances takes place. I call the local police dispatcher and ask for a unit to be sent out to the scene, then get out of my car, draw my legally permitted side arm, and order the drug dealer to put his hands up. Instead, he turns and begins to flee. I warn him to stop or I'll shoot. He continues to beat feet. I shoot him in the back. He dies.

How do we feel about that?

Okay, now, suppose I'm a trained police officer with a badge, in uniform, in my patrol car, on my designated beat, when all this jumps off. Does that change how we feel about it?

If it does, then... why? How is the situation changed if I'm wearing a uniform and have a badge?

Would the situation change again if I was still a cop but out of uniform? If I was off duty? If I was a trained police officer from the city of Chicago, out of my jurisdiction, visiting my sick aunt in Louisville, when I decide to throw down on a drug dealer in my aunt's neighborhood?

And, again, if it does... why?

What is it that, in the eyes of some people, makes it okay for me to kill someone under a specific set of circumstances if I am in uniform under the color of authority, and that makes it reprehensible if I am a private citizen?

The situation hasn't changed. I'm still an adult individual citizen pointing a weapon at another citizen whom I have directly witnessed committing a crime. I have still ordered that other citizen to surrender, and he has still refused to obey my order, and turned to flee. I have warned him that if he does not surrender I will shoot him. And then, when he does not surrender, I still shot him, and he still died.

I shot him. He was in the act of running away from me. He was not threatening me or anyone else. I rolled up on him, pointed a gun at him, ordered him to hold still, and when he refused, and began running away from the guy pointing a gun at him, I shot him, and I killed him.

This is shocking and reprehensible if I am just a private citizen concerned about young men dealing drugs on street corners in my neighborhood, but it is perfectly acceptable, if somewhat regrettable, if I have a badge and a uniform and a police union card in my wallet.

Is it because as a private citizen I have no right to exert any sort of authority over another private citizen, even one I have seen committing a crime? While, on the other hand, as a police officer I have not only the right but the actual duty to enforce the law whenever I see it being violated?

Well, that sounds good. But if that's the case, shouldn't I have tried to arrest the drug dealer's customer along with the drug dealer? Shouldn't I be running in every prostitute I see? Cops routinely choose not to do this; if cops arrested every drug buyer or every hooker they encountered on their daily patrols, the courts would be paralyzed and overwhelmed by the resultant glut of perpetrators.

If cops are allowed... if, in fact, cops are actively encouraged... to turn a blind eye to certain illegal acts, if they are allowed, or even required, to use their judgement in such matters as who they will arrest and who they will not arrest, how much more important is it for us to expect an armed officer of the law to apply that same level of judgement and discrimination to decisions involving who they will shoot, and under what circumstances they will shoot them?

If a cop sees a guy dealing drugs on a street corner, yes, he's seen a crime being committed, and yes, there's a legitimate public service involved in bringing the perpetrator of that crime to justice. But the cop has not witnessed a violent crime. The cop is not in any danger to life or limb, nor is anyone else around him in any reasonable danger from a drug dealer who is running away up the street. Under those circumstances, I am not convinced it is justifiable for a police officer to use lethal force. No overt act of violence. No credible threat to himself or others. Just a drug dealer disobeying an order to surrender, but, geez, if somebody pointed a gun at you, wouldn't you be tempted to run away from them?

There is an argument that can be made that the police officer in question has a right, if not a duty, to enforce not only his own authority, but the authority of all police everywhere. That if he chooses not to shoot, or, worse, if he shoots and some judge rules that he shouldn't have, that in this circumstance he was not justified in taking potentially lethal action, then people, and especially criminals, will cease to respect the police. That if people know they can run away from armed police officers with impunity, armed police officers will have a very difficult time arresting perpetrators.

I understand that argument, and I even respect it to an extent.

I'm simply not certain, or convinced, that the weight of that argument outweighs the sanctity of human life.

I'm not at all sure we should have different rules for different people, as regards the act of taking a human life.

This is an old, old debate. I remember twenty years ago, I was outraged when somebody explained to me that in New York State, if I walked in on a burglar carrying my TV set out my window, I wasn't allowed to shoot him. Absent a threat to my safety or wellbeing, I was considered to have no right to use lethal force on a person who had broken into my home and was in the process of stealing my private property. This struck me as insane, and yet, today I find myself arguing for this essential principle -- after all, isn't the life of a human being, even one in the process of committing a crime, worth more than a TV set or a busted lock?

There's a principle involved here, and it's a slippery, shady one. That principle is, if you go out and commit a crime, especially a violent crime, you have placed yourself outside the normal considerations of society. You no longer have a right to life and liberty and the safety of your own person. By breaking into someone's house, by committing an assault, by stealing, by threatening with violence, by performing an unacceptably antisocial act, you have placed yourself in a position whereby other, more law-abiding members of society may disregard considerations of your safety and employ whatever force is necessary to defend themselves against your depredations and/or make themselves whole from whatever damages you may have inflicted on them.

This sounds great when one takes the point of view of the victim of a violent crime.

And yet... in the particular situation I've outlined above, the criminal in question has not committed a violent crime, He poses no immediate credible threat to the police officer pointing a gun at him, or anyone else. He didn't break in to anyone's house and he isn't running off with anyone's property. All he is doing is running away from an armed human being who is pointing a gun at him.

How is it justifiable to shoot him in the back? How is it acceptable that he's dead? Because a man pointed a gun at him and ordered him to hold still, and he refused?

Because the man with a gun had a badge, too?

I guess I can see that. I guess if you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound, and if you believe that a criminal running away from one kind of crime scene can be gunned down and killed by an armed authority, then pretty much any criminal has to expect the same.

Emotionally, though, it just sits wrong with me, that somebody can be killed simply for disobeying a man with a gun, and that's legal, and it's acceptable, and we're supposed to be okay with it, if the guy with a gun also has a badge. That seems like a pretty crappy way to run things to me.

* * *

Full disclosure: the above musings were triggered by a recent discussion we had at our house, which was triggered by SuperWife's recollections of an incident that occurred several years ago in River City, where a black teenager named James Newby was shot several times in the back, and killed, by a white cop in plainclothes named McKenzie Mattingly.

SuperWife couldn't recollect all the details of the incident, although she did remember that the young black man in question had apparently been caught in the act of dealing drugs by the white cop and had attempted to flee, at which point, the cop had shot him in the back and killed him. SuperWife's contention was that the cop had ordered the man to stop, warning him that he would shoot if the man did not comply.

The crux of our difference of opinion was that SuperWife ardently and vehemently believes that police officers are charged by our society with enforcing the law and keeping order, and if a cop issues an order, the person he is giving that order to had better know that they need to obey that order, or they're at risk of taking a bullet. And I understand where she's coming from. If people start to believe that a cop can only shoot them if they are threatening him in some way, and is legally constrained from shooting them in any other circumstances, then criminals will feel they can ignore an order from an armed policeman to surrender. They will be able to flee with little fear of any consequences, which will make it difficult to capture any criminal who is inclined to make a run for it. SuperWife honestly believes that this will introduce a degree of chaos and lawlessness into our society that is not acceptable to the world our children will have to live in, so as far as she's concerned, if a cop says "stop or I'll shoot", you'd be stop, and if you don't, you get what you get. That may not be pleasant, but she regards it as a necessary cost of doing business in a world that is already dangerous enough.

I can respect that point of view. My feelings are more complex. I started out at a point where I adamantly insisted that cops should be no different from anyone else in our society as regards the rules that govern the use of lethal force -- a cop could shoot at someone who was posing an immediate, obvious threat to the life or safety of another person (obviously, including the cop him or herself) just like any of the rest of us could... but if a cop were to shoot someone who wasn't in any way threatening anyone with any kind of violence, well, that would be reckless homicide, or premeditated murder, just as it would with anyone else, badge or no badge.

Since them I've come off that a bit. Human life is precious, but, yeah, if the courts start thowing cops in jail for murder when they shoot people who disobey lawful commands, that's going to be a problem. Everyone is quickly going to figure out that as long as you don't make any kind of threatening gesture to a cop, they CAN'T shoot you, and cops will start to find it extremely difficult to manage a potentially dangerous situation. So, yeah, a cop should be able to say 'stop or I'll shoot', and, if you don't stop, then they should be able to shoot.

Of course, no police officer should ever issue any such command, or any other kind of order, unless there is a very good reason for it. And, personally, I myself would much rather that the police who patrol our neighborhoods with guns in their hands be men and women of sufficient good judgment that they would not necessarily blast in the back just anyone who ignored a police command to raise their hands. Absent any kind of perception of violent confrontation or any other real threat, I would like to see people on our police force who won't simply gun a non-violent offender down for running away. (Violent offenders are an entirely different matter; if someone is trying to leave the scene of an armed robbery or some kind of violent assault, and they won't stop when they're told to, shoot zem. Shoot zem both.)

Having said all of that, if you check out the link I've already embedded, or this one, or this one, or this one, or this one, you'll find that at no point does the Officer Mattlingly ever claim he ordered Newby to surrender. What he says, over and over again, is that Newby turned and walked towards the hood of his car, that Newby kept 'pulling up his shirt and reaching for his waistband', that Newby kept looking back at him and glaring at him, and that Newby's actions made him afraid for his life.

He never says he was aware that Newby had a gun, or that he'd seen a gun. One witness advises that after Newby was shot, when the police turned Newby over, he saw that Newby had a gun, but he also advises that ""I see the weapon after they rolled the kid over, and the weapon was down in his slacks, nestled inside of them". How someone sees a weapon 'down in his slacks, nestled inside of them' from any kind of distance I couldn't begin to tell you, but, never mind. It seems clear that the police officer who shot Newby never actually saw a gun prior to shooting him. He just felt afraid, and because he felt afraid, he shot a 19 year old man in the back three times, killing him.

Maybe there have to be different rules for cops, especially for defining specifically when they can draw their weapons and when they can fire them. Maybe cops need more leeway. Maybe they have to be able to use lethal force in circumstances when deploying such force would be illegal and unacceptable for a civilian.

Still, I'm thinking, any time a cop ends up shooting someone three times in the back, and they apparently cannot state with any certainty that they ever saw a gun or any other kind of weapon to feel threatened by, I am thinking that, at the very least, this cop does not have the kind of judgment I'd like to see in a person wandering around my community with a badge and a gun. That's 'at least'. At most, I will say that the story told by Officer Mattingly stinks like hell, and I myself have profound doubts that what actually occurred between him and James Newby that night bears more than a superficial resemblance to the account we've been given.

* * *

On a related subject, a sharp young man named Charles who sits next to me in my training class came up with a solution to the whole gun control mess that strikes me as being nothing short of brilliant: okay, you can't wave a magic wand and get rid of every existing gun in the world. And to me, this has always been a powerful argument against limiting people's access to firearms, because, well, you can't make everybody who already has them give them up, so, that being the case, people who don't have them yet should be able to get them if they want them, to defend themselves against all the other people who already have them.

But what Charles says is, to hell with the guns -- just ban manufacturing bullets.

Honestly, I just think that's amazingly intelligent. Yeah, you can have all the guns you want... you just can't get any ammunition for them.

Works for me. Of course, it will be a while before all the crazy white militias run through their ammo stockpiles, I'm sure...

Of course, as SuperWife points out, a lot of people make their own bullets. So it's not a perfect solution. But if nobody legally sells bullets, then there will be little to no demand for new handguns, so stores won't stock them, which will make it much harder for crazy people to get them... and if they do, it will be harder still for them to get ammunition for them. So I think, while it might not be a perfect solution, it's still a pretty good one.


At 11:21 PM , Blogger S.M. Stirling said...

The reason the cops are allowed to do things like shoot people (under some circumstances) is that they're agents of the State.

The State is that institution which claims and (to a substantial degree, anyway) exercises a monopoly of legitimate violence.

The State has, hopefully in a manner constrained by law, the power of the rods and the ax; the power to punish and to kill. It can take your property (taxes), or require you to render other services (the draft or jury duty, for example) and punish you if you don't. If you rebel, it can kill you.

That's why it has soldiers and police and gives them guns and handcuffs. They're its agents, and as long as they're acting under its authority they emobody its power.

Private citizens are allowed to use violence in immediate self-defense, or to defend others from an imminent threat of violence/attack.

At 6:30 AM , Blogger Doc Nebula said...

In a government that derives its power entirely from the governed, as nearly every government is, and ours actually admits it is, I'm not sure I fully buy into the idea that 'the State' is some super entity that dwells on a level above and beyond those who make it up, and that it can, in turn, anoint 'Agents of the State' who have some sort of powers and super-privileges that the rest of us common riff-raff do not... especially as regards the power of life and death.

Heinlein once said (I think it was through the larynx of Prof, in MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS) that to understand your own basic political beliefs, you have to answer the question, when is the state entitled to do anything that an individual citizen of that state is not? I'm not entirely satisfied that 'the State' should ever create for and then reserve to itself any rights, powers, or privileges that individuals within the State do not have.

Having said all that, I note that we probably have VERY different opinions, or at least, emotional inclinations, as regards this, given the underlying natures of the various societies you depict in your various novels, where, certainly, the State does indeed control 'the power of the rods and the axe' (a concept often pictured as a bundle of staves, or fasces, and as such, the semantic root of the term 'fascism'). And it's that way in our world, too (and has become increasingly more so here in the U.S. as technology has continued to give the State broader and more intrusive capacities to monitor and control us private citizenry).

Still, the question I am trying to get to is, does it have to be that way? I understand that it is, but, well, is it necessary to rule others with the rods and the axe? I imagine the answer is yes, but, well, it makes me sad, that's all.

Thanks, as always, for dropping by and making it look like I know some famous people. ;)

At 8:59 PM , Blogger Nate said...

So then, you think any US citizen should be able to own, maintain, and if need be, launch a Pershing II nuclear cruise missile? And not just the gov't?

Well, I (and the 2nd Amendment) happen to agree with you on that score, though that is meat for another argument sandwich entirely.

However, I disagree with you as far as State vs. Citizen power levels. The state must have authorities in excess of the citizen, else how can it govern?

I will say that I agree that no policeman ever has the right to kill anyone, but they will from time to time have to duty to do so.

At 9:03 PM , Blogger Nate said...

Argh, wtf?

The last paragraph of your post was stealth mode on me, missed it entirely.

All I can say now is, the alternative to police having authority and duty to uphold the law, is no law at all, IE anarchy. I for one will not fare well when civilization falls. In fact, I will likely be one of the first ones in the stewpot. Probably the best I can hope for other than that is to be some warband's pet technoslave, fixing their technology and cobbling new stuff together from salvage. Either way, my life is going to suck hardcore when the lights go out for the last time...

Anarchy BAD!! Law and order GOOD!!

At 1:00 PM , Anonymous Andy N said...

I essentially agree with SM Stirling.

The premise that "all law is good" is blatantly false - The State can (and does) enact rules and regulations at whim, all of which become "law", and all of which are subject to penalties as prescribed by "law". I can be pulled over for propelling my vehicle at a rate exceeding a posted speed limit (riding my bicycle at 30 in a 25), and two hours later, a DPW worker can change the speed limit sign on that stretch of road to some other number, either higher or lower because someone in an official capacity decided to change it. What is it that should really define "speed limit"? Ability of the driver, condition of the vehicle, weather conditions, visibility, inherent hazards of the area (city street, country road, highway; flat land, hills, curves, trees...), but such things aren't 'regulatable' and vary from mile to mile. The one thing needed for "safe driving" is common sense, and that is trumped by "regulation".

To my mind, "Law" is that which is immutable: "thou shalt not murder; thou shalt not steal" (etc). The golden rule "As ye would that others should do unto you, do ye also unto them".

Getting back to shooting someone, what if you, as an ordinary citizen, happened to witness that 'officer' shoot a young man in the back 3 times as he is attempting to flee for his life. Would you then pull your legally owned firearm and tell that 'officer' to drop the gun and put his hands in the air - you are arresting him on the charge of murder? What if he turned the gun at you? would it be your right or duty to shoot him?

The answer, however uncomfortable, is still clear: there is a huge difference between the privileges of "the governed" and those of "the officials", and those empty words "we hold these truths to be self evident,that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed", because those "rights" are disappearing. It must also be noted that we have courts of law, not courts of justice, and yes, there is a big difference, because the later can judge the law itself as right or wrong, while the former only your guilt or innocence according to the rule of the day (subject to change).

The American Constitution that followed that Declaration was a novel attempt at giving the People control of the government, but as all earthly governments go, it has evolved (in the interest of self preservation) to extend control of the people, and limit control by the people. It's a matter of who has the power to decide who gets to shoot who, and who can get away with it. When the power of reason fails (or the power of tyrants rises), the power of forcible coercion (confiscation of time, property or life) must be applied.

We may disagree and not have to shoot each other but in disagreeing with the "authority" of the state, they very well might have to shoot us both.


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