AN OFF-DUTY police officer in St. Louis was shot last week by another officer in what has been described as a “friendly fire” incident. The injury to the officer thankfully was not life-threatening, and he was treated at a hospital and released. But greater scrutiny is needed because the troubling question has emerged of whether race was a factor. In short: Had this officer not been black, would he have been perceived as a threat by the white officer who shot him?
The answer is one that police departments everywhere — not just in St. Louis — must confront as they grapple with the charged issues of how best to police and protect minority communities.
Authorities have not identified the officers, and there has been just a bare-bones account of last Wednesday’s events. The off-duty black officer, 38 years old and an 11-year veteran of the force, was at home when he heard shots and sirens from the chase of a stolen car by members of an anti-crime task force. He grabbed his service weapon and went to help, but two on-duty officers ordered him to the ground until they recognized him and told him to stand up and walk toward them. As he was doing so, another on-duty officer, a white 36-year-old officer with eight years on the force, arrived on the scene and, “fearing for his safety,” shot the officer, hitting him in the arm.
To recap: An off-duty police officer runs to help fellow officers, complies with all orders and still ends up getting shot. What exactly was the threat that was posed that required the use of deadly force? If the officer had been white, would there have been such a quick decision to pull the trigger? An attorney for the wounded officer said the officer was treated as “an ordinary black guy on the street” and that “perception that a black man is automatically to be feared” is a real problem. The law gives great latitude (as was recently demonstrated in the acquittal of the officer who killed Minnesota motorist Philando Castile) to police for the use of force when there is a fear of danger. But has the bar been set too low? Is being scared sufficient justification or a coverup?
It has been nearly three years since the shooting of an unarmed teen, Michael Brown, in nearby Ferguson sparked a national debate about police treatment of African Americans. The issues haven’t changed, only the names of the victims.
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