Law & the Courts

Another Police Shooting Raises Hard Questions about Police Restraint

A Cook County sheriff patrols the grounds of Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois (Frank Polich/Reuters )
Simply put, an officer shot and killed the good guy with a gun.

If I ever had to use my gun to defend myself or others, I’ve often wondered, what would I do when the police arrived? After all, they’re not going to be able to immediately discern friend from foe. Each person with a drawn weapon will be perceived as a threat. And the chances of mistaken identity are high.

And on early Sunday morning in Illinois, mistaken identity cost an armed citizen his life.

The facts are terrible. Simply put, a police officer shot and killed the good guy with a gun. He shot Jemel Roberson, a young black security guard who’d used his weapon to stop an attempted murder and to secure the suspect.

According to local media reports, after security asked intoxicated customers to leave Manny’s Blue Room Bar, a person approached the bar with a gun and opened fire. “Security returned fire,” and Roberson reportedly detained a suspect and held him on the ground, with Roberson’s knee and gun in the suspect’s back.

What happened next is tragic:

Soon after, witnesses said, an officer responding to the scene fired at Roberson — killing him.

“Everybody was screaming out, ‘Security!’ He was a security guard,” [witness Adam] Harris said. “And they still did their job, and saw a black man with a gun, and basically killed him.”

NPR reported that Roberson was wearing his uniform, including a hat that was labeled “security.” Making matters worse, there is a report that other officers were already outside with Roberson, handling the situation appropriately, when a cop ran from inside the bar and opened fire.

Roberson wanted to be a police officer. He had a nine-month-old son and played music for area churches. Our hearts ache at his death.

I want to first state the obvious — it is hard for a police officer to arrive on a dangerous crime scene and immediately possess the necessary situational awareness. It is especially difficult if they’re on extraordinarily heightened alert because shots have already been fired. And we know such situations are extremely dangerous for cops. A police officer was gunned down just last week responding to the Thousand Oaks, Calif., mass shooting.

In other words, this wasn’t like some previous police shootings of innocent armed citizens. They hadn’t gone to the wrong house. They hadn’t mishandled a routine traffic stop. They hadn’t entered a man’s home without a warrant. Police were arriving at the scene of a firefight.

At the same time, however, armed citizens stop enough shootings for police to understand — from the moment they get the call — that a private citizen may have already responded, and he may be defending the lives of innocent men and women in those precious minutes before the police arrive.

Therefore, from the moment a police officer arrives, he cannot assume that everyone who is armed is hostile. This places an undeniable burden on the cop to make rapid, accurate assessments of the situation from the moment they arrive — including by listening to bystanders. There is also a burden on the armed citizen to clearly identify himself immediately, but his or her burden is lesser. They may well be engaged in a life-and-death struggle and must focus on the immediate threat.

And so, as I read the sketchy details of brief news reports, my mind fills with questions. Did the officer clearly identify himself and shout clear commands? How chaotic was the scene at the moment of the shooting? Were bystander warnings that the armed man was a security guard clear enough to be heard? Was there enough light to see the security guard’s uniform? Was he given an opportunity to say or do anything before the officer opened fire?

There are those who read this terrible story and immediately attack the entire concept of the “good guy with the gun.” But imagine if Roberson had not been present. How many people would the gunman have killed? Here, the good guy with a gun did his job. The police failed. That’s no reason to limit or scorn Second Amendment rights.

Indeed, the armed citizen appeared to have the situation under control — until the police arrived.

We ask a lot of cops. We truly do. In some ways, we ask more of them than we should — they are all too often the state’s immediate point of contact with mentally distressed individuals. But it is not asking too much to ask them to shoot the right person, or not shoot at all.

There’s no easy fix here. There’s no simple training tip that can remove the fog and fear of a firefight. And that urgency is absolutely enhanced when a police officer sees a gun pointed at another person. At the same time, a citizen’s right of self-defense shouldn’t face material limits simply because police officers may make mistakes. So-called commonsense gun control doesn’t have much bearing on cases like this. But as we ponder these situations, I come back time and again to two words — awareness and restraint.

Police must be aware of the possible presence of the good guy with the gun. They must continue to train themselves in the unique skill of assessing a tactical situation under duress. Armed citizens — to the extent they are able — must also be aware that police will approach, and they will not immediately know who is a threat.

Then there’s restraint. What is the additional risk of pausing just a bit to take in more information? There is risk either way. Pause a moment, and a bad guy may gain an advantage. Shoot immediately, and you may shoot the wrong man.

Soon enough, we will learn the complete facts of that terrible night in Illinois. We may learn that the police officer plainly and clearly acted with reckless haste. Or we may learn complicating facts. But one fact is unlikely to change — that Jemel Roberson died a hero. May he rest in peace.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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