Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Walter Scott Was Not Michael Brown

Officer Slager Is 
Not Officer Wilson

The shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown, by white Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO, created no little outrage among the civil rights activists and even, disappointingly, among some Reformed students and ministers. This event and its aftermath were responsible for the moving of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission's Leadership Summit on The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation to an earlier date. In my opinion those who chose the shooting of Mike Brown to highlight racial problems in America chose a bad case. The grand jury chose not to indict Officer Wilson and not even Eric Holder and the Justice Department found cause to indict the officer for violation of Brown's civil rights.

Now, however, we have what appears to almost all reasonable citizens to be a case of the unjustified shooting of a black man, Walter Scott, by white Officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, SC. The video of Officer Slager's firing eight shots, four of which struck the fleeing Scott in the back, is available for anyone who wishes to see the evidence for him/herself. The shooting has been condemned by both the the Mayor and the Chief of Police, and the Officer is charged with murder and being held without bail. It remains to seen if race played any role in the shooting. 

However, there have been those who have made arguments that the killing may not qualify as murder but as a lesser crime. It is reasonable for those who look at the evidence and the law and reach such conclusions to make such arguments. There is an ongoing investigation; the charges will get scrutiny; and a trial will be held. We hope and expect that eventually justice will be done.

Of a different nature are the attempts of some to show that Scott was deserving of being killed and that Office Slager engaged in a "righteous shoot." The most egregious example of this I have come across is by "journalist" Charles Johnson and his GotNews site.

Chances are that I would not be aware of GotNews if I did not follow Mississippi politics. GotNews is linked on the website of Mississippi Conservative Daily which exists to promote state Senator Chris McDaniel, his run last year against Thad Cochran, his United Conservatives Fund, and the stirring of public support for what he supports or opposes. Last summer Charles Johnson got some attention by charging that the Cochran campaign engaged in race baiting and vote buying in the runoff primary. Since then Johnson has refused to appear before a grand jury that was investigating whether he paid a witness to claim that there was vote buying.

On Thursday Johnson began by posting BREAKING: #Walter Scott Called For Violence Against George Zimmerman . He included with the story a picture of a July 2013 Facebook posting by Scott saying justice in the Trayvon Martin case would be done if Martin's parents were each given a gun and could put them at George Zimmerman's head and pull the triggers simultaneously. Evil sentiments for sure. What Johnson did not do was to show how this was relevant to Scott's being shot in the back by Slager. Had Slager known about this post, would he be justified in shooting Scott because of it? Now that we know, should we justify the shooting?  He also pointed out Scott's failure to pay child support and his being charged with assault and battery 25 years ago. So Scott was not a choirboy, but this, too, is irrelevant to his being shot in the back. Johnson also alleged that the video showing Scott's killing had been "selectively edited." 

Friday Johnson followed up with an "anonymous" reporter's BREAKING: Yes, It Was Legal To Shoot A Fleeing #Walter Scott. As is often the case with tabloids, the sensational headline does not match the content of the story which says that maybe the Tennessee vs. Garner decision will apply. Tennessee vs. Garner held that, while deadly force is not justified to prevent most escapes, deadly force may be used against a fleeing person if he has threatened an officer with a deadly weapon or if he has committed is threatening to commit a crime involving the infliction of death or of serious injury. Thus it does not appear that this court decision will apply.

The case of Walter Scott raises a problem with police work that might by called "the parental syndrome." My wife and I raised 5 boys. My parental theory was that, once engaged in a conflict that involved your authority, you had to win. I still think that most of the time, once such conflicts are joined, the parent has to win. My wife and I find ourselves thinking like old people when we see parents in public trying to reason with a three year old, or watching helplessly as the child throws a tantrum, or giving in to the child's demands rather than risk a confrontation, or inflicting the child's bad behavior on us as we try to enjoy a meal in a restaurant. 

But, in my dotage I have realized some weaknesses in my approach to parenting. One is that some conflicts can be avoided or are not worth having. For instance, before you order a child to his room, you can ask yourself, "Do I need to do this?" Once you say that he must go to his room, then either you have to force him or risk his concluding you don't mean what you say. But do you really need to face him and yourself with this potential conflict? Or, if you offer the kid some cookies, and he says, "I don't want cookies; I want chocolate ice cream," and you have chocolate ice cream, why not give him the chocolate rather than say, "I offered cookies, and it's cookies or nothing"? There are also times that you have got yourself into a conflict, and you are now faced with winning or losing this confrontation. Is every confrontation worth winning at all costs? You told your daughter to clean her room. She didn't. Is this a case where you want to win by forbidding her to go to her prom because she did not clean her room? 

It appears to me that police face similar dilemmas. They feel that, once they get into a confrontation and assert their authority, they have to win. It may be personal: "I'm the authority here, and I have asserted my authority, and I am going to win." Or it may be institutional: "I represent society and the law, and people have to obey or else we have chaos." How many confrontations of these sorts don't need to happen? In other words, think about choosing your battles carefully and wisely. You may not need to create that conflict of the wills in the first place.

Further, and this is relevant to the Scott shooting, how far are you willing to go, or do you need to go, to win the confrontation, whether joined wisely or unwisely, once it occurs? Scott was stopped because he had a broken taillight. He apparently thought he might end up in jail that night because of his child support issues. He bolted, and the officer pursued. There was some kind of scuffle, perhaps involving the officer's taser. At some point Scott decided just to run. The officer pursued, drew his weapon, fired eight shots, and killed Scott. This seems clearly to be the kind of situation where an officer should, no matter how frustrating it is and how angry it makes him, watch the person get away.

I also have a thought about tasers. I have heard that they provide an option of using non-lethal (usually) force so that lethal force is not required. I have a question. Is there a temptation to use them just because they are rarely lethal? Do officers sometimes use them as unreasonable force just because they are not lethal?

Most conservatives, and many others, are pro-police, pro-law-and-order. They see police as doing a dangerous job for which they are not adequately paid. They think of the police as the thin blue line that protects them from the dangerous elements of society. Except for what I observe of some traffic enforcement, that is my first response, too. But I wonder, however, if such conservatives have forgot the value of freedom - freedom to be left alone, to move about without interference by authorities, to possess and exercise one's rights without the permission of authorities. Sometimes, when a person expresses misgivings about, or criticism of the police, it is said, "Next time you're being mugged call the ACLU." No, when you're being mugged, you call the police. That does not mean you want to be driving on a highway and encounter a roadblock where one's "papers" are checked by the police when there is no presumption that you have committed or are committing a crime.

Moving on, it is disappointing that that some segments of the civil rights community in a knee jerk fashion assert "racist murder" when a black man is killed by a policeman. It is equally disappointing when some in the "law and order" community feel they must say "righteous shoot" every time an on duty policeman kills someone. A black man can be killed by police because he is a dangerous criminal. A policeman can kill a man because the officer makes a wrong decision in the heat of the moment. 

We should have compassion for the family of Mike Brown. The killing of any human being is tragic because it is the killing of one made in the image of God. We should have compassion for the family of Walter Scott, who did nothing worthy of death. We can also be thankful for the Christian statements made by some members of his family.

We should also have compassion for Officer Slager. Who of us has not made bad decisions - that cannot be called back and that have lifelong effects - in the heat of the moment? I, for one, hope he gets mercy when his trial is done. Surely we should have compassion for his mother, for his pregnant wife, and for their children.

God have mercy on us all.

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