Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze had a provocative post yesterday about the Atatiana Jefferson killing by a Fort Worth cop. The column has a very sound premise but ultimately misses the mark.
The premise is: “If a cop comes to my house and I meet him with a gun in my hand, I stand a really good chance of getting shot dead.” This, Jim says, is due to “the dismal algorithm of guns. Things will go wrong.”
This is true. Too many guns, in the hands of too many people, leads to tragic deaths.
Jim’s analysis goes astray, though, when he game-films the events that led to the Jefferson’s death. Based on the body cam video and subsequent information released by Fort Worth police, Jim seems to conclude that the officer’s actions were understandable, given his premise.
I disagree. I believe this tragedy shows that a pervasive culture of fear, coupled with too-easy access to guns, means the need for proper, continuous training of both cops and gun-owning civilians is apparent.
I believe the officer should be convicted of murder. I also think that any competent prosecutor can poke holes in Jim’s suggestion that the actions of this cop reflect the messy collision of what you’re trained to do and what most cops/people would do in this situation.
From Jim’s column: “A welfare check gets dispatched wrongly as an ‘open building.’ To the cop, that means break-in, which means bad guy inside, probably armed.”
That’s an assumption that most cops won’t make. First, cops realize pretty quickly that a dispatch description of a scenario often differs substantially from what they’ll find once they arrive, for many reasons. Second, “open building” means the range of possible scenarios is increased to include everything from locked door blew open to armed men inside –- the latter being extremely unlikely, but possible.
“Does the cop announce himself at the door? Of course not. Why would the cop do that?”
This is insane. OF COURSE he should announce himself at the door. Or at the SECOND open door he comes across. The failure to announce his presence as a police officer is the No. 1 mistake mentioned by baffled officers I’ve talked to and those writing about this case in online cop forums. You always announce your presence, whether an officer or a homeowner with a gun. (She made many mistakes, too, but most people with guns in their home are not properly trained on how and when to use them, thus my point earlier about training.) The officer had backup on the scene. They could have easily blocked off alley escape routes and announced themselves from a safe distance through the closed screen door. And, to quote one of the officers on a forum, even if that means the thief gets away, “who gives a shit?”
“Should cops go around fearing that every bad guy they encounter has a gun? Of course they should. Because we have flooded our society with guns.”
Sure. But we haven’t yet encountered a bad guy. And there is no reason yet to assume we will.
“What does that mean? I think you and I can answer that for ourselves by putting ourselves in the position. We are approaching an open house where we have reason to believe there may be an armed intruder (because in this country intruders must be presumed to be armed). Do we announce ourselves to the intruder? No. We already have our guns in our hands. The safeties are off. The rounds are chambered. What happens when we suddenly see the muzzle of a gun looking back at us?”
First, I’ve already suggested there was no reason to assume an intruder was inside, much less an armed one.
Second, I’ve pointed out that, yes, you should always announce yourself. This is true for cops or homeowners with guns. The idea that this is a less tactical response is based in television fantasy.
One of the top self-defense teachers in the country, Chris Baker, points out in his video blog on proper self-defense storage of a homeowner’s shotgun why making noise is important in a potential life-or-death situation. He’s talking about homeowners, but it applies to the officer as well:
If there’s someone in my house who’s not supposed to be there, I want them to know that I’m there. I want to give them a every possible opportunity to leave my house before we have some kind of confrontation.
So, not only am I going to make some noise racking the shotgun, but I’m also going to issue some sort of verbal challenge, like “Who’s there?” And I’m going to have a flashlight in my hand or mounted to the shotgun. Now, if the guy still wants to stick around after that, that’s why I have a shotgun. But statistically, it’s far more likely that whatever noise I’m responding to is actually a member of my family or a roommate or a pet or something like that. And in those cases, making a little noise racking the shotgun is actually giving them one more opportunity to identify themselves.
Jim’s last sentence there is also crucial. Again: “What happens when we suddenly see the muzzle of a gun looking back at us?”
Maybe I’m out over my skis. But I had a hunch before I watched the video for the first time yesterday morning, and the video certainly supported it. To me, it’s very likely the officer did not fire that shot on purpose. It was a negligent discharge. And, viewing the video and reading other cops’ takes on this incident also suggests there is reason to doubt he saw her gun.
Before I address that, let me say that, again, once the officer saw her in the window, he never announced that he was an officer. “Police!” That one word would have changed the way other officers viewed this shooting. Instead, this is how it went down:
“Put your hands up, show me your [BANG]!” Less than two seconds.
One sheriff’s department trainer in the forums points out that when he gets police academy grads (the Fort Worth officer was 18 months out of academy), his department has work to do in these scenarios. “The academies teach various things,” he wrote, “and when we got academy grads in for their pre-FTO orientation, we had to run some scenarios to train them in our department ways. The challenge they often used was ‘showmeyourhandsshowmeyourhandsdropitdropitdropitputyourhandsup!’ Uncontrolled adrenaline, indecipherable by even a reasonable person, and directing the subject to make a move right when you need to slow things down.”
Very much like this tragedy.
Why do I think it was likely a negligent discharge? One, no follow-up shot. Officers are usually trained that one pistol shot will not stop an attacker. Three shots are standard –- two to the torso, followed by one to the head or groin. Two, his gun appears to be striker-fired; I think it’s a Glock 17. Unlike with double-action pistols (think a long, slow revolver-style pull while the hammer goes back and then strikes), negligent discharges with the relatively light triggers of striker-fired guns are not unusual. (“Glock leg” is a term used to describe those who’ve accidentally shot themselves while holstering their weapons.) Add adrenaline, and negligent fire is more common than you’d think, even with officers. Three –- and this gets to why I don’t think he saw a gun pointing at him — the officer never says “Gun!” or “Drop the gun!” He says, “Show me your hands! Raise your …” If he has seen the gun after the first command, he wouldn’t say, “Raise your hands!” Unless he was so confused and scared that he didn’t even know what he was saying, which just makes it more likely he accidentally fired.
All of which leads me back to Jim’s first point, which is the sort of tragedy you have when there are too many guns. Absolutely true. But I think the lesson from this tragedy is not “We’d all do this in the same real-world scenario.” That lets this cop off the hook, and it ignores the lessons we should take as gun owners in our homes. I could write an entire post on that, but the bottom line is the lack of de-escalation training and the emphasis on fear for both police officers and gun-owning homeowners is something that can be addressed.