By John L. Orr
Black Lives Matter. Hands up-Don’t Shoot. For the past several years, these slogans appeared almost daily in the media but there is one more sound bite seldom if ever mentioned out loud: Shoot/Don’t Shoot.
This “movement” has existed for over 50 years and applies to local, state, and federal law enforcement officers and governs when, and if, a police officer can open fire on another human being.
Even with the multitude of questionable police killings of unarmed citizens in the recent decade, the media skirted the shoot/don’t shoot philosophies of the involved agencies. Also known as use-of-force policies, few reporters bothered to address readily available public record of these edicts as part of their research. Not even a sound bite from a police Public Information Officer (PIO).
“The office was in fear for his life…” appears occasionally but how does that explain, or justify, video footage showing the now-dead, unarmed man running away from the officer. The 2022 police chase of Jayland Walker, 25, in Ohio, resulted in over 80 rounds fired at the clearly unarmed man and 40+ rounds ended his life. Use of force by 13 officers against one fleeing unarmed man would have clearly been exposed as “excessive” had any media consulted Akron’s own policy.
Using only a few keystrokes, an enterprising reporter could have provided the public with what is generally known in the media as a “scoop.”
Media outlets frequently consult with lawyers but the key factor in use-of-force justification is never explored. Even when body-cam footage clearly shows a suspect advancing against an officer with a gun or knife, the media and police do not exploit policy justifying the gunfire. Citizens now routinely protest against the police killing even armed suspects. Police Chiefs and PIOs pass up the opportunity to quell protests when they do not immediately communicate use-of-force policies after a shooting. “The case in under investigation…” hints at liability and a cover-up. More information is always better.
The “fleeing felon”clause: This gift should be called the Santa Clause, and its broadness routinely results in suspect and innocent civilian injury and deaths. In the 1970s-1990s, simple purse snatching could result in a justified shooting as a fleeing felon. The taser-in-the-back incident mentioned earlier was a classic example of this mentality. The involved officer was later indicated for manslaughter.
In a recent body-cam recorded incident in the Midwest, an armed suspect pointed his gun at a pursuing officer in a crowded neighborhood of apartments and a kids’ play area. The foot pursuit continues and again the suspect points his gun at the officer. The policeman wisely withholds fire because the background is not clear-people are everywhere. Use-of-force policies are succinct: “Do not open fire if downrange is not clear…wait.”
The fleeing bad guy does not open fire either and he suddenly veers off into an alley. The officer radios a description and reiterates gun presence in the suspect’s hand. The suspect is then picked up on another officer’s body-cam ad he emerges running from the alley. The cop shouts, “freeze” but the man jumps a nearby fence. On the other side is a path leading into a heavily populated business district in the background. The officer cannot allow the suspect to take a weapon into a crowd and risk a hostage situation or worse-he shoots the man.
The fleeing felon had dumped his gun in the alley and emerged unarmed. The officer did not know this and focused on the deadly potential in the business district to force his correct decision to fire. The grand jury deemed the man’s death justifiable homicide. A Catch-22 situation for the officer, but the existence of the Santa Clause exonerated him.
News coverage of police shootings of both armed and unarmed citizens necessitates an examination of the involved agency’s use of force policy. If the public does not understand what guidelines an officer followed to allow him to shoot, protests will ensue. In the heat of the moment a field reporter interviews witnesses who are notoriously inaccurate and biased but these on-the-spot interviews regularly taint reporting. An evaluation of shoot/don’t shoot policies can enlighten and benefit the overall situation.
John Orr has spent 24 years in law enforcement and the fire service in Glendale, California. He has published over 30 articles and currently has a novel, Points of Origin, and a memoir, Points of Truth, available on Amazon.