Police Keep On Policing Different People Differently
Antwon Rose was 17-years-old when police shot and killed him. He was riding in a car suspected to have been involved in an earlier shooting, and when police pulled the car and its driver over, Rose tried to flee. Is it tempting to wonder what he might have answered if asked, “Why did you run?” Of course, but thinking of such things is a waste of time. There is no undoing what is done.
Michael Rosfeld, who had literally been sworn in just hours before killing Rose, shot the teenager three times. Rose was guilty of running. Running is not enough to justify a shooting though, so Rosfeld has waffled as to whether or not he thought Rose had a gun; Rose, of course, did not actually have a gun but suspecting a gun is more than enough for most police, prosecuting attorneys, and juries. Witnesses reported that Rose was simply running from the police, an entirely understandable human response given the very reasonable fear that some communities necessarily have of armed officers, but Rosfeld denied Rose his humanity.
Rosfeld has been charged with criminal homicide, a wide-ranging crime that allows a jury to consider the possibilities of murder, voluntary manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter. This is progress, as charges so rarely accompany killings, although it remains to be seen whether a jury will actually convict. American juries, on the rare occasions that killings actually reach them, have tended to give police incredible leeway when it comes to executing those that they are ostensibly there to police.
Rosfeld’s defenders will, inevitably, point to the perceived gun as the justification for Rose’s killing. They will insist that officers merely need to believe that there is a threat – regardless if such a threat actually exists – to make Rosfeld’s decision to shoot at a fleeing teenager tolerable. They will insist that any attempt to account for the fact that Rose was actually unarmed is Monday morning quarterbacking. They will insist that police are doing a thankless, dangerous job. They will insist that those questioning police tactics do not understand the realities of policing. They will insist that officers are engaged in one of the most dangerous jobs in American society. And, finally, they will insist that although there are occasional examples of police overreach, this is not one of them, and that attempts to litigate this one shift attention from all of the more serious examples.
Will the execution of Jason Erik Washington count as one of those more serious examples? Probably not. Washington was killed by Portland State University officers Shawn McKenzie and James Dewey. Washington’s gun – that he had a permit to concealed carry, which itself is supposed to be some sort of protection against the state (although it rarely is for some credentialed carriers) – fell from its holster after he intervened in a dispute at a local bar; one patron had called another patron a racial slur and Washington was seeking to defuse the situation. Officers arrived on the scene, spotted Washington trying to retrieve the fallen weapon, and shot at Washington ten times, hitting him multiple times. He died on the scene. Bystanders reported that Washington was simply trying to break up a fight between other people; the police managed to avoid hitting either of them.
Washington was a Navy veteran, a father of three, a grandfather of one, and permitted to have the gun that he had. None of it apparently mattered to the police who killed him.
It is tempting to believe that some people are getting policed very differently than other people. Rose and Washington are both dead, both having been shot multiple times by officers who thought they perceived significant danger. They join a long list of minorities gunned down by police who perceived their existence as threatening. John Crawford had a BB gun in an Ohio Walmart, which is not actually illegal; Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun in a park, which is not actually illegal; Stephon Clark did not have anything at all, which is not actually illegal.
But what happens when officers encounter actual danger? We can ask Shane Ryan Sealy, an Alabama man who decided to troll public protests against Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown, trolling that first included cantankerous screaming, and then included pointing a pistol at various protestors who tried to interact with him. We can ask Sealy because he is still alive. After attempting to flee, he encountered police officers who arrested him and charged him with misdemeanor menacing and reckless endangerment.
Sealy is still alive. Despite being armed and presumably dangerous, given his quick willingness to threaten the lives of those around him, Sealy was not shot multiple times, he was not shot once, nor was he even shot at. He was apprehended and charged with misdemeanors and, unlike Rose and Washington (and Castile and Crawford and Rice and Clark), is still alive.
Those who defend the police will dispute this comparison too. They will insist that these are different situations with different officers; they will insist that each of these incidents needs to be understood independently of one another; they will insist that the perceived threat posted by both Rose (fleeing) and Washington (reaching for a weapon) both trump Sealy’s actual threats, and they will insist that these perceptions are what really matters.
To their credit, they will be right about that.