We love telling ourselves sweet lies, especially the one that we really believe all lives matter. We’ve told ourselves this lie so frequently we deem police officers cowards when they refuse to shoot to protect lives other than their own, and heroes when they kill primarily to protect themselves.
David French, a National Review Online writer, inadvertently made that point in a recent piece:
“Let’s be very clear. Every single person who puts on a uniform and pledges to protect their community — either in combat overseas or under fire at home — is indicating by their choice that they are willing (not wanting, willing) to lay down their lives. That is their job. When the crisis hits, that is their purpose. It’s what we expect of soldiers in environments that are far more intense. It’s what we expect of cops when the shots ring out. If you have doubts about your ability to do that job, don’t put on the uniform.”
It’s why so many believe the officers who failed to enter the high school in Parkland, Florida were cowardly and dishonored their badges. They should have been willing to “lay down their lives.”
But French and others don’t want cops to sacrifice themselves when confronted with murky situations involving, disproportionately, young black men. In those situations, officers should protect themselves first. Juries have sent that message as well, as they failed to convict a North Charleston police officer who was caught on video shooting a fleeing man in the back (that officer later pleaded guilty to federal charges); an officer who shot an Arizona man who was literally on his knees begging for his life; and the Minnesota officer who killed Philando Castile.
Their argument is a simple one: that some lives matter so much, police officers should be willing to “lay down their lives” to save them, but that others are so disposable an officer should not wait an extra second to determine the person really is an imminent threat. That logic seems to rest on determining just which lives deserve the benefit of doubt before being snuffed out. There were innocent civilians inside that school who needed saving, which is why we wanted the cops to act. But the man whose “crime” is speeding or acting erratically in public is also innocent; he certainly doesn’t deserve the death penalty. Why isn’t saving his life worth the risk, too?
Like the jury that found Betty Shelby not guilty, French believed the former Oklahoma police officer’s actions were reasonable when she shot and killed Terence Crutcher. Shelby was accompanied by other well-armed colleagues as she approached Crutcher, who had just spent a considerable amount of time holding his hands high above his head as he walked back to his stalled vehicle. Because he didn’t stop when Shelby demanded and finally dropped his hands to maybe reach towards the driver’s side window of his SUV, Shelby was right to shoot Crutcher, French and other police defenders have argued.
Fast forward to Parkland. Police officers knew someone was shooting up a high school. They likely didn’t know how many people were inside, if it was a lone gunman, or 10. They didn’t know if the halls had been littered with homemade explosives. Still, there’s a persuasive case to be made that those officers had a responsibility to go in despite the obvious risk. Such a response was supposed to have been one of the major changes in police training since the 1999 Columbine massacre, when police officers didn’t immediately enter the school.
But an equally compelling case can be made that the Parkland officers were making a decision more reasonable than the one Shelby made, if, as has been argued repeatedly the past few years, police officers have the right, and the responsibility, to make sure they make it home alive at the end of their shift every night.
French argued that Shelby’s killing of Crutcher was reasonable because of the infinitesimally small possibility Crutcher could have managed to reach into his SUV, retrieve a weapon and immediately turn around and shoot the small contingent of officers on the scene, even though they had their weapons drawn and Crutcher boxed in. That risk was supposedly so great, Shelby had every right to shoot an unarmed man instead of waiting a beat, or even holstering her weapon and diving for his legs to tackle him or telling a colleague to do so.
Yes, it would have taken a bit of courage to do that, but not nearly the courage needed to enter a high school where death was literally in the air. Facing a high probability of harm, officers must ignore their fear, steady their nerves and do their jobs well to save lives in a middle- to upper-class community. Facing a low probability of harm, officers should give into their fear and kill unarmed men.
Some gun rights advocates don’t seem to understand, or care, that in a country saturated with guns, police officers are right to assume everyone is packing. But that reasonable assumption is at crosscurrents with bias — implicit and otherwise — in a way that leads police officers to more quickly presume black men and women are threats, even when they aren’t.