This morning, my mind is occupied by one long-standing ethics issue, and the rest seem trivial in comparison. Let’s warm up by trying to find some way out of this mess.
The ethical problem seems increasingly beyond our ability to solve. Yesterday there was second mistrial in the retrial of Raymond M. Tensing, the former University of Cincinnati police officer who has been charged with the 2015 murder and voluntary manslaughter for fatally shooting Samuel DuBose, an unarmed motorist. This is the third example of a police officer shooting a black man under questionable circumstances being found short of being criminally responsible in a week:
In St. Paul, police dashboard video showed Officer Jeronimo Yanez shoot into the car where Philando Castile was sitting with his fiancée and her daughter, and acquitted the officer. In that case, the officer appeared to have panicked after Castile reached into his pocket for his wallet after telling the officer, unasked, that he was carrying a firearm. In Milwaukee, jurors acquitted Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown after watching frame by frame as he shot once at fleeing armed suspect, Sylville K. Smith, then fired a second time after Smith tossed the gun he was holding and lay on the ground. Now, in Cincinnati, jurors couldn’t agree on the proper culpability of Officer Tensing. He stopped DuBose for a missing license plate, then asked him for his driver’s license. Instead of producing it, DuBose pulled the door closed with his left hand and restarted the car with his right hand. The officer reached into the car with his left arm, yelled “Stop!” twice, and used his right hand to fire his gun directly, into Mr. DuBose’s head, killing him.
What can we say about these scenarios, and many others?
1. The victims did not deserve to die.
2. The officers grossly mishandled a situation.
3. In each case, the victim behaved in a manner that placed him in greater peril than he needed to be.
4. The officers either ignored their training, were not sufficiently trained to deal with the intense situations that police necessarily must be prepared to deal with responsibly and professionally, or were temperamentally unfit for their jobs.
5. Jurors do not presume that police officers target blacks out of bigotry and malice, and believe that the dangers they accept by taking on the duty of protecting the public and enforcing the law earns them the benefit on the doubt.
I will add that I also do not believe that police officers target blacks out of bigotry and malice. I do believe that many officers enter these confrontations with more fear of blacks than whites, and that this bias often leads to unjustified shootings.
What can be done to address this continuing, tragic and divisive problem? The furious demands of activists that every such police shooting should be prosecuted as a murder doesn’t help, for then cowardly, Baltimore-style prosecutors bring excessive charges for political expediency, and juries properly reject them, leading to political attacks on the system and society itself and emotional protests. Civil damages are often appropriate, and perhaps they provide incentive for police departments to do a better job recruiting and training. Prosecutions, meanwhile, make it more difficult to persuade intelligent, dedicated men and women to go into police work, when they see that a mistake under stress will cause them to be labeled a bigot and a murderer. It is tempting to say, “This is simple. If a cop says “Don’t reach for your gun,” keep your hands on the wheel. If you have a gun and a cop says stop and drop the gun, stop and drop the gun. If an officer stops your car, don’t try to speed off while he’s talking to you.” These statements are all true, but violating them should not warrant instant execution, or its equivalent.