The recent shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant predictably prompted diaries on this site implying, and expressly stating, that the police acted wrongfully. As has become the norm, these statements were made without knowing or thinking about what actually happened.
The video of the shooting appears to justify the police officer’s actions. In that video, it is clear that Bryant is shot just as she is swinging a knife at her intended victim, only seconds after the police officer exited his vehicle. By shooting Bryant, the police officer appears to have saved the life of Bryant’s intended victim. While not all of the evidence has yet been released, what is known so far strongly indicates that this was a justified shooting.
The shooting happened only seconds after the officer exited his vehicle. The officer did not have time to try and de-escalate the situation and did not have time to try less-lethal force (which, if he had, may have resulted in Bryant gaining the time needed to successfully kill her victim). This extra time was not available because Ma’Khia Bryant wasn’t waiting to stab her victim.
The facts that Bryant was Black and that she was a child are irrelevant in this particular case. The only relevant facts are that Bryant made the choice to arm herself with a deadly weapon, and then made the choice to try and use that deadly weapon to kill someone, even after the police had arrived.
Some amongst the protestors of the police have utilized the acronym “ACAB,” meaning All Cops Are Bastards, and there appears to be a lot of underlying sentiment to that effect. I don’t believe that, and wanted to respond to some of the themes I’ve seen about the police in diaries and comments:
1. We’re Not the UK. There are more than 400 million guns in the U.S., meaning that our country has more guns than people. That isn’t changing for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding various suggestions for gun control that have no chance of working (See, ”The Second Amendment is obsolete and must be abolished!”).
People criticizing American police often compare our country to the U.K., or another jurisdiction in which there are few or no guns in general circulation. They observe that in these locales, there are many fewer police shootings. That is true, but it is irrelevant. In our country, each time a police officer makes contact with a citizen the officer needs to assume the citizen is armed with a gun. That is because in a large number of American cases, the citizen is in fact armed with a gun. We live in a country that is swimming in guns. American police officers did not put all of these guns into circulation, and they are doing nothing wrong by assuming that the citizens they encounter may be armed.
2. Police Shootings Are Rare. There are around 1 million law enforcement officers in the U.S. Based on this number and the size of our population, I would very conservatively estimate that each day in the U.S. there are around 3 million encounters between the police and members of the public. Everything from speeding tickets to homicide response to helping people whose cars have broken down on the road. On a yearly basis this would work out to about 1.1 billion encounters between the police and the public.
Each year there are around 1,000 people shot by the police, meaning that roughly 0.0001% of encounters with police end in a shooting. Put another way, for every encounter with the police that ends in a shooting, there are about 1 million encounters with the police that don’t. To characterize police generally as being trigger-happy simply isn’t accurate.
More importantly for me at least, these shootings often represent the dedication of police officers. They receive calls about criminals who are threatening the lives of ordinary people just going about their day. They confront these criminals, putting their lives on the line to protect others. Sometimes they are required to use deadly force in these encounters. I don’t cheer anyone’s death, but if either a criminal or an innocent person will die, I think it should be the criminal.
3. Unjustified Police Shootings are Even More Rare. The vast majority of police shootings are justified. I’ve made this statement in other comments, based on generally reviewing stories/bodycam footage of police shootings generally (an example of a YouTube channel devoted to this is here, with a caution that the footage is often disturbing). In most cases, the police shoot someone who is shooting at them, pointing a gun at them, charging them with a knife, etc.
I’ve often received “Say his/her name”-type responses to this comment, reciting George Floyd, Tamir Rice and other people who have been wrongfully killed by the police. This is all true, and it is entirely desirable that the police officers responsible in these cases be fired and prosecuted. On a numerical basis however the rate of this type of police killing is extremely low. It seems like each year we hear of only a few cases like this. Even one case of this type is too many, but together they represent a fraction of a percent of all police shootings, and only an infinitesimal portion of total encounters between the police and the public. They are the exception and not the rule.
As an aside, when confronted by these facts the response is often along the lines of “maybe all police aren’t bad for shooting people, but they’re bad for covering up misconduct.” As the numbers above demonstrate, this is also inaccurate. The majority of police in our country have neither shot anyone, nor had the opportunity to cover up another officer’s shooting. As the police testimony during the Chauvin trial demonstrated, it is also a mistake to assume that all police officers will try to excuse misconduct by other police officers when given that opportunity.
4. Hindsight is 20/20, But Often Not Accurate. Each shooting generates a great deal of uninformed observations on what the police officer could have or should have done or not done. These observations often disregard or distort important facts, and ignore the realities of policing. Some of my favorites:
A. “The cop should have . . . XYZ” These observations are often made in connection with situations in which the police had only seconds to react. Police receive training, but no amount of training can imbue someone with superhuman reflexes. The reaction a police officer had to a particular situation needs to be judged from the perspective of an ordinary person with both police training and ordinary reflexes. In a situation in which a police officer has only a few seconds to react, it’s not reasonable to expect a series of deliberations that would take minutes.
Which brings me to the observation that many people shot by the police bear some responsibility of their own by not following orders. When a police officer orders someone to raise their hands, and instead they run away while reaching for their waistbands or pockets, that person has escalated the situation. That person has confirmed to the police officer that s/he is a criminal (this is because it is a crime to not follow a lawful order from a police officer), and given the police officer ample reason to worry about his or her safety. There have absolutely been cases where someone who was completely cooperative was shot for no reason (the killing of Philandro Castile is an example), but in general people who comply with police orders have a greatly reduced chance of being shot as compared to those who don’t. Which leads me to . . .
B. “He didn’t deserve the death penalty for shoplifting” (or other minor crime). We can all agree that shoplifting and similar crimes do not warrant the death penalty. But statements like this are often disingenuous, focusing on the event that began the police encounter, not the one that ended it. The police were called to investigate a shoplifting suspect, but they did not shoot that person for shoplifting. That person was shot after reaching for a gun or pointing a gun at the police. Or perhaps that person ran away into the dark and was found crouching behind a dumpster reaching for something in his jacket. Either way, that person did something to escalate the situation, and it is simply inaccurate to relate a shooting back to the original minor crime.
Think about it this way: Assume you drink a bottle of vodka, get blindingly drunk, and then barrel down the highway at 100 mph. Do you deserve the death penalty? No, because neither drunk driving or reckless driving is a crime anyone would consider appropriately punishable by death. But have you embarked on a course of action that makes it more likely you will die as compared to not getting drunk and instead staying at home? Yes, you have.
C. “He should have used a taser” Tasers are not the appropriate weapon for situations where the use of deadly force is legally justified. This is because they are inaccurate, have only one shot, have a limited range, and don’t always work even when they hit. If someone is about to shoot or stab a police officer or an innocent person, a taser is an insufficient response to that threat level because there is a significant chance that the attacker will not be neutralized. The appropriate response in this situation is to use the force guaranteed to neutralize the threat posed by the attacker, and that is a firearm. Which leads me to . . .
D. ”He shot too many bullets” or “He should have just shot him in the leg” When deadly force is legally justified, police officers are not trained to kill the person they’re shooting at. That isn’t the purpose of using deadly force. They are trained that the purpose of using deadly force is to neutralize the threat of deadly force posed by the person they are shooting (and in my view, that training is appropriate). Recall from discussion above that the police often have to make these decisions on a split-second basis in a frenetic situation. For purposes of neutralizing a threat, this means that it is necessary to fire bullets at the person until they are no longer attacking, understanding that multiple bullets may be needed because some may miss, and some may not incapacitate the attacker. Additionally, a police officer in this situation will aim at the center mass of the person (and not the leg) because this is the area that is easiest to hit in a fast-moving situation, and minimizes the chance that the person they are shooting at will maintain enough functionality to shoot back or otherwise continue an attack.
So What Now? My argument is that it is unproductive to paint all police with a negative brush, or to immediately jump to the conclusion that any police shooting is wrongful or excessive. Doing this ignores the facts that most police do a good job, and more importantly that ordinary people need the police. It sounds good to say “defund the police” or “cut their budgets,” but fewer police officers will result in a spike in crime, as Minneapolis found out, and that spike in crime will disproportionately affect poor people and people of color.
We don’t need fewer police, and we shouldn’t criticize all police. Instead, we need to focus on specific reforms that will result in (1) better policing; and (2) removing the minority of police officers who are not suited for the responsibility and empathy that must come with a badge and gun.
And that means that in the case of Ma’Khia Bryant we should wait to judge until all of the facts come out. And if it turns out that this police officer took the action necessary to save the life of an innocent and unarmed person, he should be commended for saving a life, not condemned for taking one.