Let’s start with the obvious, since we’ve been down this road seven hundred and thirty-five times before. It’s much easier to justify police killing a disturbed man armed with a machete than, say, shooting a mental health professional of color, lying on his back in the street, hands in the air, identifying himself and stating his business next to the autistic adult patient playing with a toy truck he is trying to coax back to their facility. That it’s easier to justify, however, doesn’t make it just.
If you aren’t familiar with the seven-hundred-thirty-sixth fatal shooting of a civilian by police this year, according to the Washington Post’s ongoing research into the problem, here’s the lowdown, An as yet unidentified man wielding a machete threatened a woman in the Champions Center, the sports medicine facility at the Colorado University’ Folsom Field, in Boulder. He did not harm the woman, rather followed her inside, where he threatened other people before police arrived. Two officers confronted him in a stairwell, then shot him when he did not comply with their orders to put down the weapon.
The knee jerk response would be, “What do you expect? He was armed with a machete!” The answer should be Americans, as a democratic people who value individual rights, should expect better.
Surely, we can expect better, when British police in a very similar situation recently disarmed a disturbed man wielding a machete without firing a shot, As Terry Coleman, the public safety consultant interviewed in this CBC news documentary, “Hold Your Fire,” noted, arresting the suspect without injury to either him or police is “doable without firing your firearm.” Coleman also noted the Briton probably wouldn’t have survived “two minutes” in North America. Now, Coleman’s assessment has been proven by Boulder police.
To be fair to the officers in Colorado, their incident did not take place in the open, but a confined space. Yet, UK police also know how to deal with blade wielding suspects in such an environment, as well. In June, the Telegraph posted video of constables using tasers to subdue an ISIS supporter who had just slashed a man’s throat. Again, the suspect was taken into custody alive,
This is because British society believes, rather than merely paying lip service to, the ideal that law enforcement’s duty is to deliver suspects to justice. American police, and a large part of the public who support them seem to have forgotten the same duty is law in this country. Instead, they seem fine with police doing the opposite, delivering justice to the suspect.
Every American is Constitutionally guaranteed the right to a fair trial. Is being shot in a stairwell for not dropping your weapon a fair trial? If so, our standards have slipped severely from those established by the country’s founding fathers.
Better yet, consider how you would be viewed if you hit your daughter for saying “No!” when you ordered her to put down her toy, or your son for telling you he didn’t have to do as you say. You could be criminally charged, be deemed unfit, and lose your parental rights. Yet, a police officer who lashes out with deadly force at the slightest provocation, if any, is rarely relieved of the responsibility for safeguarding civilian lives. And before you tell me a blade-wielding suspect is not a petulant child, consider how many such confrontations turn out to be with mentally disturbed people. Also consider that an abuser’s violence tends to escalate when it is not confronted, much as police killings which, in years past, may have been contained to aggressively violent suspects are now regularly including average, passive citizens with their empty hands in the air.
Our machete wielder in Colorado was identified in reports as a former marine “looking for sinners” and preaching the Ten Commandments. Given recent exposure the condition has received thanks to criticism of Donald Trump’s remarks, it would not be surprising to discover, when the man is identified, that he served in Iraq or Afghanistan and suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Setting aside issues of an evangelical terrorizing innocents in the name of Jehova rather than Allah being termed a religious zealot instead of the more parallel radical Christian terrorist, and not immediately having his name, picture, and sordid life history plastered across the media, thereby implicating an entire faith in a distinct few’s action, the inability to correctly distinguish between right and wrong is a trait shared by immature children and the mentally incapacitated.
Because the incident occurred in a major university’s athletic facility in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s growing anthem movement, ESPN also reported on the killing. CU Athletic Director Rick George issued the following in a statement commending police.
“I want to recognize the Boulder and CU police departments for their prompt and swift response to this incident and neutralizing the suspect. Their quick actions allowed for this situation to be ended without further incident.”
Using the term “neutralizing” rather than killing seems cowardly. It reveals a discomfort with acknowledging a person’s death has occurred at the hands of other people. In fairness, reluctance to state killing for what it is can be viewed as the dignity not to celebrate any loss of life. Yet, merely substituting another word for killing, rather than calling the death unfortunate, hints George is, on a certain level, happy the man is dead, With the issue fighting a battle for the public conscience at the moment, there must exist in George’s mind an uneasy sense shooting the suspect may have been convenient but unnecessary.
University Chancellor Phil DeStefano echoed George’s sentiment without directly referring to the use of lethal force.
“I want to express my deep appreciation to emergency personnel both from the campus and the community who brought this situation to a quick resolution, The willingness of our first responders to place themselves in dangerous situations for the safety of our community is a testament to the selflessness of their training.”
The two statements do share critical terminology, though. The phrases “prompt and swift response”, “quick resolution”, and “quick action” beg the question why is speed necessary in de-escalating a dangerous situation?
British police, as noted by Inspector Michael Brown of the UK College of Policing in the “Hold Your Fire” documentary, slow things down, allowing time to help calm or at least wear down the suspect. If the suspect is isolated from bystanders, as it appears the man in Colorado was, why is his life not worth minutes, or, if needed, hours of several officers’ time? There is no report he attacked officers, only refused to comply with their orders. One reason the Constitution affords Americans the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and again, the police are not the courts, is because, as much or possibly more than the innocents he has endangered, such a person may need help.
American police, however, do not appear interested in helping mentally unstable suspects, Boulder Police Chief Melissa Zak, when asked whether the officers considered “non-lethal methods” to subdue the suspect, couldn’t answer but still defended the killing.
“Given the weapon that the suspect was armed with, given the statements already made to our initial victim and given the nature of how (the suspect) was maneuvering through the Champions Center, we believe that it was in the best interest of the university — that it was a deadly force situation.”
Her statement acknowledges the suspect was threatening various people with a deadly weapon. On the other hand, it ignores he had to that point chosen not to use it despite multiple opportunities. One person is quoted as being told by the suspect they “don’t want none of this.” That person, like the original victim, fled, and was not pursued with intent. Was the man just expressing his anger and pain without any desire to inflict it on others? It may be naïve to think the man’s behavior wouldn’t escalate, but now that armed police were confronting him, why was there a need to kill when he still limited himself to resisting vocally rather than physically?
This is a question that doesn’t seem to interest the Boulder chief or few other law enforcement leaders. “Let’s just deal with these people quickly and get back to the donuts” seems to be their mission statement. The sort of training which UK and European cadets undertake, three years rather than nineteen months, with intensive study in de-escalating volatile confrontations, itself appears too time-consuming, nor as cost-efficient as seven hundred and thirty-six bullets.