Politics & Policy

The Underexamined Factor in Too Many Police Shootings

New York City Police officers stand guard in front of Trump Tower after a jury found officer Jeronimo Yanez not guilty of second-degree manslaughter in the death of Philando Castile in Manhattan, N.Y., June 17, 2017. (Bria Webb/REUTERS)
As the tragic death of Willie McCoy showed, what cops do in the moments before drawing their weapons can make all the difference.

Last last week, the Vallejo, Calif., police department released several minutes of body-cam footage showing the controversial police shooting of a young black man named Willie McCoy. McCoy had apparently fallen asleep in the drive-thru line at a Taco Bell with a gun in his lap. Police were called when he didn’t respond to horn honks or taps on his windows. A few minutes later, he was dead.

After watching the video, I believe McCoy’s death was likely the moment the cops arrived and saw his gun, and it became likely in large part because of the way the police handled the encounter. Moreover, this incident helped illustrate why police kill too many Americans: Their poor tactics and unwise choices place burdens on troubled, impaired, or confused civilians that can make tragedy inevitable.

First, let’s break down what happened to McCoy. You can watch the entire, rather disturbing video here, with helpful analysis from a cop-friendly perspective [WARNING: DISTURBING CONTENT AHEAD]:

I wanted to link to the more pro-cop video analysis for a reason: It very clearly shows the potential danger presented by a sleeping man with a gun in his lap, especially when that man starts to move. But I was intrigued by the fact that it didn’t analyze the cops’ actions before the decision to fire the fatal shots.

When the police arrive, they find McCoy fast asleep — so asleep and unresponsive that he seems closer to unconsciousness. In spite of the fact that they know that he has a gun (in the moment they think the magazine is halfway out of the gun and believe he has at most one shot, a potential round in the chamber), the officers cluster right by him, clearly in his sight line should he wake up. Then they discuss their plans. They consider opening the door and snatching the gun, or smashing the window open.

When McCoy does start to move, the officers’ response is dramatic. From the video, they seem reasonably relaxed when McCoy scratches his left shoulder, but then McCoy leans forward and appears to move his arm. There’s no indication he’s clearly awake, yet all at once, the officers start screaming, “Show me your hands!” so loudly that it’s necessary for captions to explain that the yells weren’t in fact gunshots. Within roughly three seconds, the officers start firing.

Think back to the plans the officers considered before McCoy starts moving. Both of them involve dramatically startling an armed, sleeping man while he has a gun in his lap. I could understand that kind of jarring action if the man was currently a threat to himself or others, but he was asleep. His chief offense was blocking customers from accessing tacos.

Of course a man should not fall asleep in a Taco Bell drive-thru. It’s even more unnerving when he does so with a gun in plain view in his lap. But it’s odd for officers to simultaneously declare that they felt in mortal danger while also placing themselves directly in the suspect’s potential line of fire, considering drastic action as he continued to sleep, and then responding to his substantial movements with a cavalcade of startling shouts that he had three seconds to properly process (from an unconscious sleep) before he was shredded by bullets. Why did officers place themselves in such a vulnerable position? Why did they ponder such dramatic measures to wake a sleeping, armed man?

The department claims the officers fired in “fear for their own safety.” Well, yes, their fear in the moment, was palpable, a fact which the law asks juries to consider in such cases. But we should also ask whether the officers’ actions were reasonable before they opened fire. Did their own decisions unnecessarily contribute to the moment of crisis?

Other unjust police shootings in the same vein immediately come to mind.

In the terrible video of the shooting of Daniel Shaver, police can be heard screaming conflicting commands to him, including ordering him to “crawl” but not “put his hands down for any reason.” Shaver — unsteady, sobbing, crawling on the ground — is shot as he appears to try to pull up his pants.

Then there’s the horrifying story of Andrew Scott. The police, without their lights on, without a warrant, and without identifying themselves as police, pounded on the wrong door late at night. When Scott answered with a gun in his hand — as was his constitutional right, by the way — he was instantly shot dead. In that case, the officer not only wasn’t prosecuted, federal courts deemed him immune from any civil action.

And who can forget Philando Castile? The officer in that case gave Castile two potentially hard-to-square commands: provide your license and don’t reach for your gun. As Castile reached for his license, he assured the officer that he was not reaching for his gun. He died anyway.

When we evaluate police shootings, we wrongly tend to limit our analysis to the very instant of the shooting itself. The question of a cop’s reasonable fear at that instant is allowed to trump all other concerns, and becomes the deciding factor at trial. I would argue, however, that officers act unreasonably when they don’t give a citizen a reasonable chance to live — and giving a citizen a reasonable chance to live involves properly handling the situation so no weapon need be fired.

Willie McCoy was a sleeping, obviously troubled man who woke up to screams and shots. He did not have to die. He should not have died. And unless we highlight cases like his, there will be more such tragedies (and more heartbreak and political division) in the years to come.

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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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