When The Same Explanation Justifies Execution And Exoneration
Magdiel Sanchez carried a metal pipe to communicate with others, and to ward off wild dogs. An officer in Oklahoma City shot and killed Sanchez last week. Sanchez had refused to respond to the officer’s verbal directives to drop a metal pipe that he was carrying. The metal pipe itself, which was not a gun, was perceived as a threat by both the shooter and a second officer that were responding to a hit-and-run. Sanchez was not involved in that hit-and-run. Sanchez was simply nearby.
When Sanchez refused to drop the metal pipe, he was shot dead by Chris Barnes, and tasered by Matthew Lindsey. Neither officer was wearing a body camera. The current explanation as to why Sanchez refused to drop the metal pipe – perhaps he would have been safer if he was carrying a gun? – was that he could not hear any of the officers’ verbal commands.
He could not hear them because he was deaf.
This, we are told – as we have been told repeatedly – is no excuse when it comes to interacting with police, although it is now at least occasionally acknowledged that following police directives can still end badly. The expectation that police have is that those they are interacting with will do exactly as they are told, in all circumstances, unfailingly. We are then told that should this precise behavior not occur, the police are justified to do anything – including shooting at, and potentially killing – those whose compliance is in any imaginable way wanting, whether or not their behavior is in any way actually threatening. Oklahoma’s capital punishment system does not explicitly list “individuals refusing to heed verbal commands that they could not actually hear” as a justification for death, but, fortunately for police, the work that they do is not governed by the same set of rules that governs the delivery of the death penalty. In fact, their work is understood to be very different than the work done by a (shoddy) justice system, even if the end result can be, in both cases, a state-sponsored execution.
This is a nightmarish story.
It also, somehow, inexplicably, gets much, much worse. Because as unlucky as it was for Magdiel Sanchez to be deaf, Barnes, the officer who shot who executed Sanchez, apparently has hearing difficulties of his own. So too does Matthew Lindsey, the officer who tasered Sanchez. But in their case, their alleged hearing difficulties are being offered up as a defense of their actions.
If we revisit the original story, the two officers approaching Sanchez were repeatedly and loudly warned that Sanchez could not hear them. People were screaming these warnings because they feared for what was about to happen. In other words, these were people who recognized the threat long before the two officers ostensibly tasked with recognizing threats, mostly because they were too busy not understanding that they, themselves, were the threat.
According to Oklahoma City Police Captain Bo Mathews, there is a perfectly good explanation for the officers ignoring the screamed warnings though:
(Mathews) said witnesses were yelling “he can’t hear you” before the officers fired, but they didn’t hear them.
Ahh. Well. Okay then. We are meant to understand this as an actual, believable excuse. This is genuinely intended to make things okay. Because the officers could not hear the warnings being shouted at them, it makes it okay that Barnes executed a man who literally could not hear the directions being shouted at him. Yes, it would have been potentially even worse if the officers had heard the warnings and ignored them, but not having heard them hardly excuses the death of an innocent man for the crime of being deaf.* Here is more from Mathews:
“You can get tunnel vision or just get locked in on the person with the weapon,” he said, speaking generally about what officers can encounter during chaotic scenes. “I don’t know what the officers were thinking. They very well could not have heard everyone yelling around them.”
“In those situations, very volatile situations, you have a weapon out, you can get what they call tunnel vision, or you can really lock in to just the person that has the weapon that’d be the threat against you,” Mathews said.
Sanchez, of course, was not a threat. He was a deaf man approaching police officers. And he did not have a weapon. He was carrying a metal pipe, which is not illegal. But even if we are to grant that the pipe could have been a weapon – Mathews’ formulation seems to presume that anybody carrying anything amounts of them holding onto a weapon – there remains the fact that Sanchez was 15 feet from both officers when they opened fire, too far to have posed any sort of threat at all. None of this, apparently, mattered, because Sanchez’s job in that moment was to do what the officers were telling him to do. His inability to hear did not matter to either Barnes or Lindsey, despite both being on the scene to investigate an incident Magdiel Sanchez was not involved in. But in the aftermath of this horrifying incident, Mathews implies that not having heard is punishable (in Sanchez’s case) and accidental (in Barnes’s case) in equal measure, and dependent solely upon who is having hearing difficulties.
And the incredible thing is this: Mathews is right. There is an absolutely zero percent chance that Barnes will be found guilty of anything, much less the murder that he committed. Even that presumes wildly that Barnes even ends up going to trial. However, when considering what the American justice system is willing to excuse when it comes to policing – two weeks ago, a St. Louis judge declared innocent a police officer who explicitly said that he was going to “kill this motherfucker, don’t you know” and who then approached the suspect and shot him five times at close range and who then planted a gun on the suspect to justify claiming that the suspect had been reaching for a weapon – there is simply no reason to believe that this unjust incident will not be hand-waved away by the same people who will, with a straight face, insist that Magdiel Sanchez owed officers more than he was capable of giving them and that those officers owed Magdiel Sanchez absolutely nothing at all.
As things stand currently, Barnes has been neither arrested, nor charged. He has been suspended with pay.
*Lets briefly save some time in the comments, from people who are going to post, “He wasn’t executed for being deaf!” because that is technically true. Chris Barnes did not say, “I am going to kill this man for being deaf.” Barnes, however, did say, “I am willing to risk this man’s life because he is not doing what I want him to be doing,” without ever considering the possibility that Sanchez did not know what Barnes wanted him to be doing.