The Kim Potter trial in Minnesota has focused special attention on the recurring incidence of police shootings of motorists after traffic stops. Potter, now an ex-cop, fatally shot Daunte Wright when he appeared to be preparing to flee the stop, because she mistakenly drew her gun and fired it instead of her taser. The news media, as usual, is pre-biased against the police, and its analyses have reflected that, despite the fact that stopping a car has frequently proven fatal for many police officers, and there is ample justification for heightened caution and suspicion when approaching a stopped vehicle. The Washington Post unhelpfully issued a fatuous editorial headlined, “Being pulled over for a broken taillight shouldn’t end in death. Too often, it does.” Yes, indeed it does, and this is virtually always because of a combination of uncooperative and alarming behavior by the motorist and a mistaken, excessive, or poor choice of a response by police in the split second the officer has to assess the situation and act.
One way to prevent what “should” never happen is for police to just allow infractions on the highway and never stop cars. That would work. It would also result in some highway deaths caused by the uninhibited law-breaker that “shouldn’t happen,” but there are prices for everything. This is where law enforcement policy will soon arrive if the anti-police lobby gets its way and police are fired and prosecuted every time a driver sets in motion a sequence that ends in his or her own death.
The New York Times, in a thorough, if slanted, investigation of such police-involved shootings, reported that an officer’s chances of being killed at any vehicle stop are less than 1 in 3.6 million. About sixty police officers died after pulling over motorists since 2016, with ten dying so far this year in traffic interactions. If you are a police officer who makes traffic stops, which statement resonates more:
- Ten police have died this year making traffic stops, or
- The chances of getting killed making a traffic stop are 3.6 million to 1.?
The Times quotes an experts who says that “hidebound training” makes police approach stopped cars with “a confrontational stance.” “The fear is excessive,” one expert told the Times. “The more fear officers feel, the more aggressive they become.” I guess they should never watch “Fargo.”
The Times uses the traffic stop death of Coltin Le Blanc (above), shot dead by an officer September 27, 2018 during a traffic stop in Hammond, Louisiana, as an example of how police are often at fault for such tragedies. (There are several other fatal scenarios covered too; all are different.) The trooper stopped Le Blanc and informs him of why he was stopped. When he returns to his truck to get his license, as observed by the officer standing within the open vehicle door, it was apparent to the trooper that Le Blanc was going to flee: he pushed the brake and shifted gears. Believing the driver was drunk and posed a danger to the public on the road, the officer grabbed the open door and issued multiple commands to the driver to stop. Le Blanc did not, and the officer opened fire, killing the young man.
The officer was neither disciplined nor tried, but the Times suggests that he was at fault.
Asked by State Police investigators why he had jumped on the door, the officer told them he believed LeBlanc was intoxicated and he wanted “to stop the vehicle, to stop the driver, to stop him from killing somebody.”
“If the guy drives away — could it be bad? Yeah, absolutely,” Jon Blum, a former officer who writes training curricula for police departments across the country tells the Times. “But is it worth jumping into the car to get possibly run over or killed doing it? Nope.”
OK. But the officer did do it, in the heat of the moment with an unexpected development. Then what?
Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer who advocates rolling back the film, concludes that the officer was at fault, saying,
“He created a situation where there was an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm to deal with the situation where there wasn’t. If you jump onto a moving car, it’s foreseeable that you’re going to end up shooting the person.”
But Lewis “Von” Kliem, a former officer and a lawyer with a police training company called the Force Science Institute, wrote that penalizing the police for officer-created jeopardy unjustly relieves the suspect of responsibility while ignoring the fact that officers must improvise, and every choice cannot be the best, least risky or, in retrospect, the wisest. “People too often imagine a level of certainty that simply does not exist in dynamic and unpredictable human interactions,” he wrote to the Times, objecting to Stoughton’s analysis.
I believe Kliem has the better of the two approaches. As with the police shooting that do not involve automobiles, the single factor that would make these incidents impossible would be if the suspect followed officers’ lawful directions and did not attempt to resist, obstruct, or flee. When a police officer reacts to a situation created by the suspect and the result is a shooting, the police officer should always be accorded the benefit of the doubt. Choices made in the midst of “dynamic” situations that are clearly motivated by the officer’s sincere desire to do his or her job, protect the public, and avoid injury to himself or others should not lead to prosecution, even if, in hindsight analysis, such a choice is judged as a mistake.
Authorities, the public and journalists must not presumed malign intent or, worse, tilt the benefit of the doubt and presumption of good will to a victim who in one way or another set in motion the forces that led to his death by defying authority and breaking the law. The problem with this standard is that it is essentially the standard that had been followed by police departments, investigators, prosecutors and juries right up until “Hands up! Don’t shoot!,” a fabricated account of a legitimate police shooting, began making a policeman’s lot, not just an unhappy one, but an impossible one.
And yes, I realize the implications of this conclusion. As I have mentioned here before, my own son endangered lives, including his own, when he led state police on high speed chase shortly after turning 18. He was stopped by a road black and a helicopter and arrested at gun-point. A few years later, trying to recall what the hell he was thinking (he wasn’t thinking), my son told me, “I was lucky I wasn’t shot.”
“Yes,” I said. “And if you were shot, it would have been nobody’s fault but your own.” His response?