The recent shooting by the BART police in Oakland California raises many difficult questions which profoundly effect police and community relations.
I was called by the San Francisco Chronicle a few days after the event, as news reporters scrambled to turn out as much information as possible. Several videos were captured of a police officer shooting a subject to death. Because the BART police were refusing to speak about the incident the news media turned to the “experts”, and asked a variety of sources to weigh in on the video which captured a BART police officer shooting a 22 year old man in the back.
Whenever someone from the news calls, there is a moment of pause that always comes over me. I see my role and reputation as a police expert mostly established by the relationships I have within the tight-nit police community. I think to be viewed as an expert, and one worthy of the claim, you have to be anointed through your hard work and accepted by the police as credible. To understand policing, you have to be on the inside, train with them, and contribute in some way to the advancement of your proclaimed area of expertise.
Like nearly all expert sources I automatically find myself on the mental defensive, cautious to not forsake my coveted relationship with the profession and the men and women who do this difficult job by forming quick opinions. I may be weak, but I am one who naturally assumes that police officers, by and large, nearly always try to do the right thing, and with few grievous exceptions, I am comfortable with this paradigm.
The news reporter sent me via email, two cell-phone video captures of the BART police handling what I understood to be a complaint involving a weaponless fight, a few transit passengers who had a scuffle on one of the BART platforms. As the video opens, the officers are on the scene, approaching several young males who sit in tandem alongside a wall.
There is no apparent violence, though the scene is tense and uncertain. Tons of people crowd the platform, several shouting negative expressions to the police as they conduct their investigation. Though the video is very poor quality, I have no trouble making out what is going on. It’s a routine back and forth banter between police and suspects as they investigate a complaint earlier received. I watch as one of the officers reaches out and grabs one of the young men. He places him in a straight-arm bar and forces him into a prone position. Two officers kneel on him as and attempt to handcuff him. As I watch, I have no problem with any of this. Have no idea what is said, but naturally I assume that probable case has been established for an arrest.
But suddenly, the officer who faces the camera does the unthinkable. After a minor struggle with the suspect, he reaches to his hip and draws his service weapon. He stands, points the barrel at the subject who is laying face down…and shoots!
Right through the back, through the vital life sustaining organs, straight through the core of American community/police relations that are already held in a fragile balance.
The following morning my quote came out in the San Francisco chronicle, a quote that has created controversy among my colleagues and friends in law enforcement.
“I hate to say this, but it looks like an execution to me. We have to get inside the officer’s head and figure out what he was thinking.”
This quote rounded out the article, it was in stark contrast to the other quotes offered from other experts who were also interviewed for an opinion.
As I read their quotes I became introspective about my own words. It wasn’t long before my phone started ringing from several friends, on both east and west coasts, who I have worked with for many years.
“Roy, what were you thinking, saying that it was an execution! How can you be that cavalier in forming that opinion when no investigation has yet been conducted?”
The consensus among them was that this was an accident, it had to have been. No one could assume that a cop could cold commit such a grievous act intentionally. As I listened to the myriad of excuses put forth it occurred to me, no wonder that America doesn’t trust us . Like misguided parents always finding excuses for their children’s behavior, we are viewed with the same contempt by proffering these quick excuses without the benefit of any supporting information. The truth is, that it DID look like an execution. When I think of an execution, I think of an armed gunman standing over or behind a subject who is facing away and told not to look back. The subject is bound or restrained. The gunman takes aim, and shoots. That’s what I saw on the video of the BART police.
I also wanted to make excuses for the officer. I spoke the reporter for over forty minutes. I presented to him a case for accidental discharges, how maybe the officer had experienced one of the three causes for AD’s. Maybe a loud noise in the environment caused the startle effect; maybe he lost his balance and involuntarily squeezed the trigger. Maybe he suffered from a symmetrical clutch/reflex response as his left hand grabbed at the subject. But when I watched it again, no, the officer unholstered, stood up, took a shooting stance…and fired.
It’s true that I didn’t know all of the details, and I constantly reiterated that. Maybe the subject was in fact laying on a grenade and was very nearly pulling the pin? I had no reason to think that, but a situation such as this could quickly turn a bad shoot into a good shoot.
Then there was that other possibility. That this officer thought that he was pulling a Taser and intentionally deployed the unintentional weapon. Most of the other experts came up with this scenario as well. It was palatable, made sense and made everyone feel better to assume that this was no cold-blooded murder. But still, there was a 22 year-old man who found out that being shot accidentally carries the same penalties as being shot intentionally. He was dead, and he died at the hands of a law enforcement officer. I was in no mood to make excuses for “us”. We did the wrong thing. Accidentally or intentionally, we did the wrong thing and through my statement I took ownership of that publically.
I want to submit that I also believed that the officer didn’t intend to shoot. I always assumed that, and though it did look like an execution to me, my quote was merely encapsulating the mood and feelings of most reasonable Americans.
Regardless of the officer’s intent, all police experts should be offended and disturbed by this event because someone, somewhere, failed.
Absent the possibility that the officer intentionally and in cold-blood murdered this subject, then we still have to be disturbed by the other possibilities. Was this officer not properly trained? Did the agency fail in providing the necessary training in weapon handing, weapon selection, or weapon confusion?
For years my battle as an expert within the industry has rested squarely on training. What I have noticed over the yeas is a disintegration of the culture, a moving away from the very thing that made American police the envy of every other nation. Training. I have heard a million excuses from everyone who plays a part in the great chain of training; the provider, the consumer, the manager. Excuses about money, time, energy levels, you name it. What’s happened is that American police have tried to move so far away from the problems of the 1960’s, that most have moved away from a full understanding of what cops actually do for a living, or more correctly, are supposed to be doing. Law enforcement isn’t so much about social work, it’s about enforcing laws, professionally, courteously and correctly. To do this, police officers use special tools and tactics, both of which require significant continuous training. But you mention to a cop that he has to go to the firing range on Tuesday, or the DT facility on Wednesday and you are sure to be met with a crescendo of whining. A million excuses why that’s not a good idea. Sadly, the culture is not even so much developed in-service. The profession now regularly hires people who come into the business resistant to training. Every academy instructor knows this problem and has a million stories of students who whine and gripe at the entry level basic training. Sadly, academy administrators will often commiserate with whiny students and lower the bar, all the more fueling this culture of police contempt.
Try to imagine a baseball player who doesn’t like to swing a bat, or a football player who doesn’t like to catch a ball. If that weren’t bad enough, try to imagine a coach who encouraged players to shy away from training. It would be madness, and yet that is exactly what the police profession does.
I don’t know why the officer of the BART police department shot and killed an unarmed, reasonably compliant young man as he lay face down on a busy platform during the first day of 2009. I don’t know if he did it on purpose, and I will continue to believe it was accidental until I am presented with evidence to the contrary. But my contempt for this situation lies in my belief that “we” killed this man without cause. We are all culpable in his tragic death by allowing ourselves to become passé and resistant to the training that we should be embracing for the express purpose of keeping people safe…and alive.
About the Author:
Roy Bedard is President of RRB Systems Intenational, a police training corporation located in Tallahassee, Florida. He is a member of the Tallahassee Police Department and a trainer at the Pat Thomas law Enforcement Academy.
He can be reached at 850.98.7729 or firstname.lastname@example.org