Ethics Observations On The Shooting Death Of Peyton Ham [UPDATED]

There were no mostly peaceful protests in Leonardtown, Maryland this week, despite the similarities between the 16-year-old high school student’s shooting death at the hands of a Maryland state trooper and the sensational death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland six years ago. Why is that?

Ham was fatally shot by a state trooper who had responded to two 911 calls about someone “acting suspiciously” and armed with a pistol. A witness to the event told police that troopers encounter Ham in a driveway “in a shooting stance” using an Airsoft gun. A trooper opened fire on the teen and wounded him. A second witness said the wounded boy then took out a knife and tried to get up, whereupon he was shot dead.

Airsoft guns are realistic replicas of real weapons. They shoot plastic BBs. My son collected them; once we had our parked car surrounded by police because he left some of them in the back seat. Pointing an Airsoft at a police officer is an excellent way to get shot, and justifiably so. But the reason there were no protests, demonstrations or riots after his death is that Peyton Ham was white. There is no other reason. (Well, it also wasn’t Portland. More about that later…)

Because the victim was white, there was no immediate presumption of racism and police brutality. Nobody argued that police should have tried to “wing” him. Nobody argued that a social worker rather than police officers should have responded to the 911 call. Ben Crump didn’t immediately make a statement that this was yet another “execution” of an innocent, promising young black man due to cop brutality and racism, and a racist system. The story wasn’t even national news.

Yet the family played by the script that has become so familiar. It quickly put out a statement that made Ham sound like the perfect son. It described him as “an incredibly smart, gifted sweet young man” with a “Alex P. Keaton” type personality, referring Michael J. Fox’s character on the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.”

“Our family is absolutely heart broken and shattered over this sudden, unexpected loss of life of a talented young man, filled with promise,” the statement says. “Words cannot express the gratitude our family is feeling with the overwhelming love and support being extended by our friends and family in our amazing community.”

Speaking to the AP, Ham’s mother described her son as “an awesome young man.” You know, like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. This kind of statement, which made no sense whatsoever in the context of the facts of Ham’s death, was calculated to spark anger and suspicion against the police, and to shift responsibility from the shooting victim to those trying to protect the community. If Ham had been white, there would have been the assumption of a cover-up, and the presumption of a deliberate racist killing of an innocent boy.

But “awesome young men” do not aim realistic toy guns at police. The story made no sense to me at all when I first read about it, and sure enough, the preliminary investigation indicates that the boy himself made those 911 calls that summoned the police who killed him, or, as a mob would have claimed had he been black, “murdered him.” His demise appears to have been “suicide by cop.”

At the outset, then, let’s establish a few things.

Peyton, like most of the black young men who have been shot in encounters with police, had serious problems. He wasn’t the model of young manhood portrayed by his family’s statement. If this was suicide by cop as it appears to be, he engaged in a horrible, destructive act against other innocent human beings, a classic Kantian breach of the categorical imperative, using them for a selfish personal objective. What Ham apparently did is even worse because he knew the current anti-police environment in his state, Maryland, and the nation. All right, some empathy and pity is in order because he was not an adult and suffering from some kind of emotional problem, but nonetheless, had he been black, what he did would have harmed many more people, including his family and the trooper, possibly businesses, definitely police, and perhaps the nation. Unless the boy was legally insane and could not determine right from wrong, he was culpable. He was the villain here, not the police.

Had he been black, none of this would have mattered, though. Yet at the very outset of the Black Lives Matter false narrative that the police were gunning for black men, professor and moderate black commentator John McWhorter wrote in part,

I seek progress on the main obstacle to getting past race in this country: the tensions between black people and the cops, including so many black people’s sense of the police as a racist occupying army.

The heart of the indignation over these murders is a conviction that racist bias plays a decisive part in these encounters. That has seemed plausible to me, and I have recently challenged those who disagree to present a list of white people killed within the past few years under circumstances similar to those that so enrage us in cases such as what happened to Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, Sam Debose and others.

The simple fact is that this list exists….

This list of whites dying at the hands of cops must inform how we go forward in grappling with the issues. Hillary Clinton and President Obama have suggested that the time has come to revive a national conversation on race. Many might reasonably assume that on the topic of the police, the purpose of this conversation will be to inform white America of the role that racist bias plays in these lethal encounters. However, might we open up to the possibility that the conversation will also include black people learning that racist bias may play much less of a role in these cases than one might think?

A common response will be that cops kill more black people proportionately than whites. According to a survey by the Washington Post, whites are 62% of the population but were roughly half of those killed by cops since January 2015, while blacks are 13% of the population but were about a quarter of those killed. However, this isn’t the slam dunk dismissal it may seem….[M]any would argue that disproportionate poverty levels among black people render them more likely to encounter police officers in the first place—vastly unfair, but different from the problem being simply cops’ standing racist bias.

In any case, I’m not sure statistics of this kind are what truly undergird the hurt we feel in these times. When a black man is killed by a cop, do we grieve more because there are 46 million of us as opposed to 198 million whites? I doubt it: most Americans never hear about the white men’s deaths at all….we operate according to a meme under which cops casually kill black men under circumstances in which white men are apparently let off with a hand slap—and occasional cases of just that are what often get around social media, suggesting that they are the norm. That meme is quite understandable given the existence of racism in America. However, in 2016 that meme is vastly oversimplified.

Economist Roland Fryer’s conclusions, stunning even to him, that cops use more force against black people but do not kill them more than they kill whites is perhaps less perplexing than it seems.

…It can be hard to adjust the narratives we process life through, especially when the past and even present justify that narrative in so many ways. However, on black people and the cops, the stakes are grievously high. Our conversation must be based on facts, and the facts in 2016 are different than they once were. We can all agree that the police kill too many innocent people, but at this point, we can disagree—as eminently reasonable minds—that the cops kill out of bigotry.

Update: I was not aware when I posted this that McWhorter had just posted an updated essay on the same issue…here.

In 2021, however, very few have the courage to challenge the now standard narrative that racism is behind these shootings—when the victim is black. Indeed, to even question that assumption is considered racist itself. Refusing to support that assumption, and in the process the dangerous hatred and distrust of police, is likely to be attacked. Last week an Oregon newspaper was under fire for informing readers that a police shooting victim was white, in an effort to stave of “mostly peaceful” protests.

The Oregonian reported on a police shooting in which a man was killed after police were alerted that someone was seen with a gun at a park in Portland. Police said they confronted the suspect and fired a “less lethal” projectile before a second officer shot him fatally, resulting in the man being declared dead at the scene. The “gun” he had apparently had an orange tip, meaning it likely was an Airsoft like the the one Peyton Ham held.

The Oregonian reported that three sources had confirmed the man was a white male in his thirties. “The Oregonian/OregonLive is identifying the man’s race in light of social unrest prompted by police shootings of Black people,” a tweet from the paper read.

“The Oregonian is noting the race of the man who was shot in Portland because people won’t care enough to riot unless the victim is black and can use it to forward a political agenda. How instructive,” tweeted talk show host Jason Rantz. You bet it’s “instructive’! That’s exactly why it was important to point out the victim was white—that and the fact that readers have a right to know, and in the current race-obsessed environment, they need to know. And if the paper doesn’t want to spark more riots, it has an ethical obligation to tell them: “No, you can’t call this shooting racist. No riots. Sorry. Maybe next time.”

Oooh, mustn’t do that! Undermines the narrative!

Besides, this being crazy Portland where Black Lives Matter has the whole concept of policing on the run, news of the shooting alone was sufficient to spark an anti-police uprising. Within 90 minutes of the man’s death, protesters arrived at the park. The mother of Patrick Kimmons, a black man who was shot and killed by Portland police in 2018, used a megaphone to shout, “We’re sick and tired of you killing people!” About 100 protesters chanted “Justice Now!”—they had no idea what had happened or why, just that police had shot someone— and lined up against a flank of about a dozen officers in riot gear as police told protesters to leave the area or risk arrest. Some protesters threw sticks and full water bottles at officers, and the tires of at least one police car was flattened. Later they started a fire in a large recycling bin, blocked traffic and engaged in altercations with motorists. That night police declared a full riot when protesters smashed windows, burglarized businesses, and set fires.

The paper was immediately excoriated by fans of Black Lives Matter by not leaving the race of the shooting victim unmentioned. “So @PortlandPolice murdered a man in Lents Park today and the @Oregonian had the audacity to print this. Someone school them on what solidarity means. Protesting killer cops is going to happen regardless of the race of the victim. The Oregonian staff just showed their whole ass,” read one tweet.

Sure. “Mostly peaceful” protests have nothing to do with the race of the victim. You know, just like in Leonardtown, Maryland. What’s that? You never heard about the shooting there? I wonder why!

It’s instructive to observe Black Lives Matter activists, who have persistently claimed that the revision “All Lives Matter” is racist, now arguing that the race of a police shooting victim shouldn’t matter.

But the Oregonian still apologized and deleted the tweet, tweeting “We included information in an earlier tweet about why we identified the victim’s race that was poorly worded. It was not intended to minimize what happened, only to provide context.”

7 thoughts on “Ethics Observations On The Shooting Death Of Peyton Ham [UPDATED]

  1. Policing in the United States is fast becoming a lose-lose proposition and a job fewer and fewer people are going to want. If you take action, you are considered a thug, a bully, and automatically a racist. If you take no action, you are either lazy or dead from the neck up and need to be fired. We’ve been over this half a dozen times since the death of George Floyd. Policing is by nature a dangerous and demanding job. Policing by nature sometimes requires split-second decisions which have a tiny margin for error and possibly grievous consequences if gotten wrong. Policing is not just about crossing schoolkids, directing traffic, getting lost children home, making reports of fender benders, and once in a while giving out a ticket to someone driving a little too fast or parked in a place clearly marked “no parking.”

    Even in the safest small towns in America there are always going to be domestic violence calls, holdups, drunk and disorderly conduct, kids getting into drugs, or the mentally ill who do crazy things that endanger themselves or others. Like it or not, a big part of policing involves making unwilling individuals comply with lawful orders necessary to keep order. Sometimes there is no way to make that happen but to use force. Using force isn’t pretty. It’s not pretty to slam a violent husband or boyfriend down on the kitchen table and cuff him before he hits the woman in his life again. It’s not pretty to cuff a drug-addled, emaciated streetwalker who you’ve told to move along for the umpteenth time and been met with a torrent of profanity each time. It’s not pretty to throw a reeking homeless person who’s been harassing shoppers into the back of a police cruiser to take him somewhere where he can (hopefully) get the help he needs. And no, it’s not pretty to arrest some dreadlocked black thug who’s spent his whole life doing nothing but commit crimes when he commits yet another one. It’s also not pretty when a hapless wife or gf gets a broken jaw or a spiral fracture of the arm from a partner who she “just wouldn’t listen to.” It’s not pretty when a family can’t walk down the street without seeing some skeletal prostitute shooting up. It’s not pretty when everyone has to avoid the block that “Crazy Joe” has claimed as his own. It’s not pretty when DeShawn, out of prison barely a week, sticks up a bodega with a gun or hits somebody over the head because he has no money and few prospects.

    Somehow, though, it’s always easier to sympathize with whoever ends up on the receiving end of the bad thing, no matter what the circumstances. The same people who would say “Geez, it’s too bad Mr. Kim’s convenience store got robbed and he got beat up, I hope he pulls through,” are the ones who’d say “Geez, was it necessary for those two cops to beat that guy so badly when they broke up the robbery? There’s got to be a better way.” You’re not supposed to say, “that idiot tried to rob Mr. Kim of his hard-earned money, thankfully the police were nearby when he tripped the silent alarm, then he was more of an idiot when he tried to fight the police. He got what was coming to him.”

    Somehow also, it’s too easy to sanctify someone who’s been the victim of violence. You’ll hear about “the good kid who wanted to do good,” whose life was cut short in a gang crossfire. However, you’ll also hear about “the bright young kids with their whole lives ahead of them” who got pressed flat because they were shooting romantic pictures using a railroad bridge, and didn’t know that you won’t see or hear an approaching train until it’s almost on top of you. You’ll hear about “the beautiful, wise, good young woman destined for great things,” who’s dead because she just couldn’t bring herself to walk out on the boyfriend who smacked her around whenever he got angry. You will also hear about the “promising young black man” killed by a cop during a robbery because he “fell in with the wrong crowd” but was “just about to turn his life around when a police bullet took away that chance.” You’re not supposed to say “what happened to those kids was tragic, and more so because it was completely avoidable if they had only used their heads.” You’re not supposed to say, “Diana’s dead because she couldn’t muster up the wisdom or the will to leave someone who was making a punching bag out of her.” You’re not supposed to say, “Malik’s dead because he decided stealing from other folks at gunpoint was easier than working, but this time his luck ran out and the police shot him before he could shoot anyone else.”

    Somehow this idea that the victim of violence is always blameless, no matter how the violence happened, has taken root in this country, alongside the idea that there are no heroes. When there are no heroes, there are only villains and victims. Guess which one you are if you aren’t the villain? At the same time the idea that the white race, especially white men, is evil and owes everyone else a huge debt that can never be repaid for all of history, has also taken root.

    Oh, and there’s one more toxic idea that’s found it’s way into the mix here. There’s a myth that waaay back in 33 A.D. a gypsy stole the Fourth Nail from the Romans during the crucifixion, thus sparing Christ some suffering. As a result, the gypsies were forever forgiven the sin of stealing, and that’s why they frequently lived by theft, confidence gaming, and deception, not really caring who they stole from or tricked. There’s also a myth now that this country DIDN’T start in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or in 1492 when Columbus landed on Hispaniola. It REALLY started in 1619, when the first slaves were brought to the Western Hemisphere. As a result, everything that happened since then is tainted by the wrong of slavery, and the non-white races, especially the blacks, cannot be held accountable for anything they do as long as it is done in the name of redressing that wrong.

    When you put all these ideas together, there’s no wonder that now every single incident between the police and a black person that ends with a shooting or other use of force leads to riots. The circumstances are really irrelevant. What it always boils down to is that a white person, deputized to enforce the white person’s law and heir to the slave patrols, used force on a black person who was totally innocent, and, no matter what reason is given, that white person did it for no reason than the black person was black. That person must be punished forthwith and the entire community must pay, in order for there to be justice for that black person.

    Come to think of it, you know what that reminds me of? In the days of the Nazi occupation of several nations, if a Nazi soldier or officer was killed, frequently the whole community would end up paying for it by violence or otherwise. This culminated in 1942, when the Czech resistance assassinated Reichsprotektor Reynard Heydrich, second in the SS only to Himmler, near the village of Lidice. In retaliation all the men of that town were executed, while the women and children, except those deemed suitably Aryan, were taken to a concentration camp and gassed. It didn’t matter what they’d done, or even if they knew about it, they were guilty of violence against a Nazi and must pay collectively. Part of it was actual punishment, part of it was sending a message, and that message was: Do not resist. Do as your masters/betters tell you. If you do not, then the fate of Lidice will befall you and yours.

    The message being sent here is loud and clear too: Do not police. Do not do anything to any black person. Do as your moral superiors tell you. If you do not do so, the fate of Minneapolis and Portland and all those other places will befall you. There’s another message being sent too, to the black people: Do not obey. Do not be good citizens. Resist. No one can touch you now.

    So the police don’t pull over that car. At best they are asking for trouble with the brass. At worst, they might get shot themselves, and blamed for their own deaths. Now Berkeley, CA, is going to try to create an UNARMED agency to do traffic stops. I guess the story of NJ State trooper Philip LaMonaco, shot dead during a traffic stop in 1981 by violent Marxist radicals partially because he was armed only with a service revolver against automatic weapons that carried many more bullets didn’t make its way out there. That’s when the NJSP adopted automatics themselves. Now Berkeley wants to go UNARMED? I feel like sometimes I am living in some kind of crazy parallel world of nonsense.

    The police also don’t investigate that abandoned building with the door torn off. They space out their patrols less often and they don’t patrol certain areas at all. They slow walk their responses to assaults, muggings, whatever so that they arrive only in time to take a report, not to break up the assault or stop the mugging. Then they take the report back to the precinct, pass it to the squad, and the detectives file it away as yet another unsolved crime with few or no real leads to follow up on. Maybe they even say something among themselves to the effect of the victims should have used common sense, and not walked home that late, or passed through that area, or whatever, so why bother chasing a few tenuous leads that won’t pan out. Put on a fresh pot of coffee, will you? This one’s been laying for a while.

    Welcome back to the bad old days of the 1970s, except this time there will be no “morning in America” and no Giuliani types to revive the cities.

      • If you are someone who comments with the intent of nailing a CPTD, then you should move along to the next post. There in not enough time left on the scoreboard clock to overcome Steve’s lead.

        Steve gives one the idea that he has “been there and done that”, or if not, he has some close friends who have and have shared some real world experiences with him His post is a great summation of the world of the urban police officer.

  2. I thought the purpose of the orange tip on toy guns was to alert police officers that it was a toy.

    If a young white woman guilty of nothing but trespassing can be shot dead by Capitol police with impunity because coming through a broken window poses a threat to the officer or members of Congress I suppose any shooting is justified.
    (Sarcasm alert)

    • Reality alert— there are people who paint the ends of REAL guns orange, or red, to make others, including cops, unaware of the danger they present. And there are also those who paint the orange barrel tip black because they want people to think the toy is real. It is not a binary situation.

  3. Paragraph 7: “If Ham had been white, there would have been the assumption of a cover-up, and the presumption of a deliberate racist killing of an innocent boy.”

    Probably should be “if Ham hadn’t been white, …..”

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