Debate Forum: 09/02

Forum Center: Reactions to police using lethal force on unarmed citizens at odds

By Alex Culpepper

Before Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Ferguson, Mo., police in early August, there was Amadou Diallo from the Bronx section of New York City. Diallo was shot at 41 times by New York police while in front of his apartment. Nineteen of those bullets hit him, and he died. Police claimed he matched a description of a wanted person, was acting suspiciously and reached for what they believed to be a gun. Diallo was reaching for a wallet. Diallo also was an immigrant from Africa. The four police officers were white, and they were acquitted of all charges. Protests erupted, and racial tensions thrived as more than 1,000 people were arrested. Most of the cases were eventually dismissed, but the story got serious media attention, not unlike what just happened in Missouri with Michael Brown.

After Michael Brown was shot six times by officer Darren Wilson, people suspected it was because he was black and unarmed and Wilson is white. The sentiment was that this incident smelled of racism, police error and cover up, and part of the fuel for that is because Wilson has yet to be seen or heard from since, and police have been slow to release details. So, protesters filled the streets in Ferguson and clashes with police were the order of the day. Wilson’s supporters have been out there, too, and that’s because perceptions about what happened are different, depending on whom you talk to.

On one side, people call for justice in what they believe to be police brutality and another example of a reckless militarized type of police work. They say this is a clear violation of rights and shooting an unarmed citizen six times should never be an acceptable police reaction. Reports even say Brown had “surrendered” and waved his hands, as if to show he was unarmed. They further argue the incident with Brown gives African Americans added reason to mistrust the police and the strained relationship from these types of incidents contributes to events like the shooting in Ferguson.

But assistance has flowed in for Wilson, who his supporters believe was clearly justified in what he did, because they claim he had been initially assaulted by Brown and had to defend himself from Brown’s second attack. One claim is Brown attempted to take Wilson’s gun. Supporters believe the police have a duty and a right to protect themselves in any situation, even if that means pulling a gun on an unarmed person. They also make the claim Wilson is being unfairly portrayed, and judgments really should be reserved for when the investigation is over.

The Ferguson shooting is at least a race issue, a police issue and a media issue. It’s also an issue with local significance because of the scrutiny and rallies following the Aug. 5 shooting of John Crawford III at the Beavercreek Walmart. The two cases are not exactly the same, but the reactions are. Reactions are also the same regarding the Eric Garner incident in New York and the Ezell Ford and Dante Parker incidents in California. All three of them were unarmed and killed by police in the past six weeks.

And the reactions are outrage at perceived excessive violence by police, but also support for law enforcement making decisions in tense situations.

Reach DCP forum moderator Alex Culpepper at AlexCulpepper@DaytonCityPaper.com

 

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Who is to blame for an incident like this?

 

Debate Left: The Ferguson wasteland

By Ben Tomkins

 

The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance … just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance … as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants. And I’ll never forget the grim look on his face when he heisted himself and took leave of this place, through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.

And all that the Lorax left here in this mess was a small pile of rocks, with one word…

 

Nobody seems to care about the Michael Brown shooting any more. For weeks it was splattered all over the news and in the mouths of everyone in the country, and now it seems like a distant, sad, depressing memory. I know I don’t want to think about it any more, and not because it isn’t a tragedy worth unraveling.

I’m sickened by the speed at which we granted ourselves license to morph our opinions into facts to satiate our sick lust for vindication of our private outrages.

The most factual information anyone has had, other than a specific number of bullets and like pieces of evidence, is exactly what was stated at the initial press conference. Sometime between 12:01 and 12:04 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 19, Michael Brown was shot six times by a white member of the Ferguson, Mo. police department. The following morning at 10 a.m., St. Louis County Police Chief Joe Belmar held a press conference, during which he told the press the best information he had about the situation:

A police officer had an encounter with two individuals. As he was exiting his vehicle, one of those individuals allegedly pushed the officer back into the car where he physically assaulted him. Apparently there was a struggle involving the officer’s weapon, and at least one shot was fired inside the car. The officer got out, and then shot the individual more than once at a range of about 35 feet.

Belmar then said Chief Tom Jackson called him from the scene and requested the St. Louis County Crimes Against Persons division become involved so an independent body could process the scene, and Belmar reiterated there are a lot of unknowns still to be processed.

This is all we knew then, and it’s about all we know now. Eyewitness accounts tend to support this description with some minor dissent. However, it is with awful hindsight that, at the precise moment when Belmar said, “When the investigation is complete, the facts and circumstances will be turned over to the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney,” that the first echoes of chanting could be heard outside the building.

Almost immediately, speculation and outrage began running rampant. Judgments were being levied and re-levied every time a new headline ran across the computer screen. It was bad enough people were already deciding guilt or innocence from a nebulous collection of possible facts, but after the first night of rioting, America was already acting as though justice could be determined by adding up the total number of injustices.

Rather than point out the stereotypes, I find it more effective to dispel them. As you read each one, be acutely aware of how these jar you, and what that might mean about our – myself included – ability to remain objective.

 

1. Just because a white police officer shot a black man who was 35 feet away from his car doesn’t mean it’s unjustified.

2. A black man robbing or appearing to rob a convenience store doesn’t mean he’s a criminal.

3. Police officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protestors doesn’t mean it wasn’t merited.

4. Black hooligans looting a liquor store isn’t a statement about black culture in Ferguson.

5. A picture of white police officers in full military gear pointing automatic weapons at a single black man doesn’t mean there’s not a good reason.

6. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Trayvon Martin’s lawyer arriving on the scene doesn’t mean black people are pulling the race card.

(On the contrary, Al Sharpton expressed some of the most sobering thoughts to the entire nation shortly after arriving:

“The only thing that they expressed is that they want justice and fairness in the process of losing their son. This is not a cause for them; This is their child. This is not some prop for politics. No one has the right to drag their child’s name through the mud because you’re angry. … Don’t be so angry that you distort the image of what his father and mother told us he was.”)

7. The police releasing a video of Michael Brown appearing to commit a crime right before releasing the officer’s name doesn’t mean they did it intentionally to deflect responsibility from the officer.

8. The victim’s father wearing a shirt that says “No Justice, No Peace” doesn’t mean he’s calling for more protests.

The list goes on and on. Every single one of those statements, and a million more that were casually reported in the feeding frenzy of the media coverage, cannot simply be taken on faith. There may be truth to some of them, there may be none, but the lesson is that the more outrageous a claim appears to be, the more carefully we must control our response.

…unless…

We as a nation nurture the tiny remaining seed of objectivity, nobody in Ferguson will ever see justice done.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colo. He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of the issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at
BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

Debate Right: Enough blame to go around

By Rob Scott

With most things, common sense should always prevail. During the past six weeks, there has been a media-induced rash of police shootings, with the media claiming there are racial undertones involved. Obviously, the media does not cover all police shootings, or police who get shot on a daily basis doing their job.

However, the media has decided to narrow in on the specific shootings involving white police officers shooting African Americans. I will be the first one to acknowledge there still is racism in our country, but it has progressively gotten better with every generation. The prevalence of racism continues to wane, but truly will never be completely eradicated. Understandably, racism is not just against African Americans, but other races are subjected to the injustice as well.

Taking the Ferguson, Mo. case or even the local Beavercreek, Ohio case, the police very well could have been justified in using deadly force – or may not have. In Ferguson, the recent media reports have revealed several different versions of the events that day.

Locally, the Beavercreek Walmart incident started when John Crawford III decided to pick up a BB gun that looked identical to an AR-15. He was then seen walking through the store with it and allegedly pointing it at shoppers. This caused folks to call the Beavercreek authorities, who arrived on the scene and took control of the situation. They located Crawford in the store and told him to drop the weapon. There are some disputed media reports on the incident, and all the video evidence has yet to be released. A special grand jury is being assembled in Greene County on Thursday to present evidence for possible indictment against the officers who shot Crawford.

Taking these two cases together, they both involved white police officers shooting an African American. This has been the prime focus. What is not being discussed at length was why the police were called in the first place and what provoked the officers to use deadly force.

The use of deadly force is often granted to police officers when a person in question is believed to be an immediate danger to people around them. In 2013, 111 federal, state and other law officers were killed in the line of duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Of those, 33 were shot to death during a confrontation.

For example, an armed man flaunting a firearm in a shopping mall without regard to the safety of those around him, and refusing or being unwilling to negotiate, would warrant the use of deadly force, as a means to protect others.

The use of deadly force is also authorized when a person poses a significant threat to a law enforcement officer, usually when the officer is at risk of serious bodily injury or death. The U.S. Supreme Court determined in 1985 in Tennessee v. Garner an objective reasonableness standard should apply to a free citizen’s claim that law enforcement officials used excessive force in the course of making an arrest, investigatory stop or other “seizure” of his person.

The court stated, “Deadly force … may not be used unless necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or others.” This case abolished the fleeing felon rule, where a fleeing felon who posed no immediate threat to society could be shot if they refused to halt.

The Federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Hassiah v. Walton in 1982 that Ohio law does not authorize the use of gunfire by police officers to stop a fleeing felon. The court said, “Police employment of gunfire to effect the capture of a citizen who is fleeing from the law can, of course, be justified in some circumstances. It is justifiable to prevent the escape of a person known to have committed or be in the process of committing a felony involving violence. It is justifiable, also, on self-defense grounds if the fleeing person by his or her actions endangers the life or limbs of the pursuing officer.”

Police officers are extensively trained on these deadly force principles for preparation if they are ever in a situation requiring deadly force. Also included is officer’s obligation toward the safety of others.

Ultimately, it comes down to the situation and the subjective reasoning of the officer. If an officer feels they are in legitimate danger or thinks others are under a legitimate threat, then the officer likely uses deadly force.

The officers should not shoot first without going through the logical cognitive argument, nor should they abuse their position as law enforcement. If an officer does not have a valid reason for deadly force, then the consequence is possible murder charges.

Regardless, common sense from citizens needs to be taken into account. If someone is attacking a police officer or walking around with a gun carelessly, then there are risks of misinterpretation. The events are definitely tragic in Ferguson and Beavercreek, but the media hype of them is even more devastating.

 

Rob Scott is a general practice attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is a Kettering City Councilman, founder of the Dayton Tea Party, member of the Dayton Masonic Lodge and Kettering Rotary. He can be contacted at rob@oldhamdeitering.com or gemcitylaw.com.

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