The incident brings to mind the case of Daniel Shaver, the man killed by Mesa, Ariz., police in January 2016. In the terrifying, heartbreaking body-camera footage — among the worst I’ve ever seen — Shaver pleads for his life while crawling on the ground, struggling to comply with the confusing, often contradictory orders the police are barking at him. As Shaver crawls along, as instructed, his shorts begin to come down. He reaches down to pull them up. That act — that struggle to preserve some small bit of dignity — cost Shaver his life.
There, too, the police had good reason to suspect Shaver was dangerous. Someone had seen him point a gun out of a window. But like Finch, Shaver wasn’t a threat. Shaver worked in pest control. The gun was a pellet gun.
In a long and harrowing thread yesterday, Twitter user “Ziggy” described the fear and confusion one feels when clearly frightened police are shouting out conflicting commands. Ziggy was shopping for some hair conditioner while listening to headphones. Apparently, the shopkeeper had called in a report about shoplifting. At some point between the dispatcher and the responding officers, shoplifting turned into armed robbery.
“All I wanted to do was follow instructions. Last thing I wanted was some mild mistake to end my life,” Ziggy writes in one tweet. “What if I missed an instruction because of the K-Pop blaring in my ears? What if I reached for my ears and this rookie flinched?” he asks in another.
Ziggy survived the incident. Shaver and Finch didn’t. Neither did Ismael Lopez. He was shot and killed in his own home last July when Southaven, Miss., police served a domestic violence warrant at the wrong house. The police say he came to the door with a gun, which again, he’d have been legally permitted to do. An attorney for the family has since said that Lopez was shot in the back of the head, casting doubt on the police narrative. Whatever happened, Lopez was innocent.
Even taking the police narrative as fact in all of these stories, the outcomes emphasize the need for police officers — particularly those who respond to volatile situations — to be trained in de-escalation, to be screened for hotheads and to be trained to tame their own fear and anxiety. Because sometimes a rifle really is just a pellet gun. Sometimes a hostage situation is a prank. Sometimes a dispatcher gets it wrong. And sometimes a man “reaching for his waistband” is just trying to pull up his pants.
But these stories also show that what the police claim to have seen isn’t what happened. Here at The Watch, we’ve catalogued a litany of cases in which police claimed to have seen unarmed men reaching for their waistbands. No doubt some of them were, so that they could pull up their pants. Even if all of these suspects really did reach for their waistbands, the fact that so many were unarmed would seem to demand that police be trained to understand that reaching for one’s waistband does not necessarily mean one is reaching for a gun and that such an act, in and of itself, doesn’t merit lethal force. It would seem to demand that the courts emphasize this point as well.
Of course, there’s also the real possibility that in many of these cases, the shooting officer constructed a memory to justify the shooting. Sometimes this can be unintentional. We tend to remember our own actions in the best possible light, even to the point of creating false memories. But we’ve also seen cases where police actively conspired to create a false narrative after the fact.
It’s when police officers mistakenly harm their fellow officers that we really see the problems with law enforcement narratives. Last September, St. Louis police reportedly beat and arrested a fellow police officer who had gone undercover during a series of protests. The police claimed that their fellow officer, who was black, was resisting arrest. That seems implausible. By the time the officer is getting arrested, there would be little reason for him to resist to maintain his cover. He undoubtedly knew how the police operate. He undoubtedly knew that resisting would bring a beating and an arrest. That both happened anyway strongly suggests that the police account of the incident was false.
Last summer, also in St. Louis, a black off-duty police officer was shot by his fellow officers during a response to a reported car theft. Again, given that he is a cop himself, it seems unlikely that the officer would have done anything to provoke his colleagues. The officer’s attorney later said that because he was off-duty, the shooting officers simply treated his client “like an ordinary black guy.”
The city of Albuquerque recently paid more than $6 million to a police officer who was shot eight times by a fellow officer while working undercover during a drug sting. The shooting officer claimed that the undercover officer put him in fear of his life. This again seems unlikely. It’s hard to see why an undercover officer would do anything that might provoke a fellow officer to shoot him. He knows the department policy on lethal force. He’d foolishly be putting his life at risk.
Albuquerque has a long history of questionable police shootings. Its officers are taught at the state academy, which was recently put under the command of a law enforcement official who teaches a much more aggressive style of policing, thinks we live in “a more dangerous world” (we don’t) and says things such as “Evil has come to the state of New Mexico, evil has come to the Southwest, evil has come to the United States.”
The common denominator in these stories is that the police perceived a threat and used potentially lethal force against someone who we can safely say was innocent — someone who either had no gun, was wrongly suspected due to police error, or was himself a police officer. The police saw danger where there was none. We have scared the police into seeing threats that don’t exist, then given them near carte blanche to use lethal force whenever a threat is perceived. The threat needn’t be real. Only perceived. (This week, an officer from the same Wichita Police Department that killed Finch attempted to shoot at a dog inside a home. He mistakenly shot a 9-year-old girl instead. And just a couple of weeks ago, police in Texas opened fire on a woman suspected of stealing a car after mistaking a lead pipe for a gun. One bullet pierced a nearby home and killed a 6-year-old boy.)
We don’t live in a more dangerous world, and evil hasn’t come to the United States (or, I guess, it hasn’t come in any greater quantities than it always has). By early counts, last year was the second-safest year for police officers since 1959. Crime remains at near-historic lows. Yet there’s an ongoing belief in law enforcement that the police are constantly under attack. You see it in the exaggeration and hyping up of the threat of ambushes and targeted killings (both of which do occur, but are vanishingly infrequent when compared with the number of cops on the street). And you see it in the menacing movement within law enforcement that sees the world in apocalyptic hues and that urges police to shoot more people more often — to dispense with hesitation and critical thinking and rely more on primordial instinct and muscle memory.
This perception of a constant and growing danger isn’t just inconsistent with the data; it’s also dangerous. It puts lives at unnecessary risk. It increases the chances that a police officer will see an innocent gesture as a furtive one. It makes cops less likely to hesitate when an innocent homeowner confronts them after they mistakenly show up at the wrong residence. And it makes them more likely to see a desperate attempt to preserve some dignity as a last-ditch lunge for a gun.