Law & the Courts

The Corner

The Police Murder of Daniel Shaver

If you have the stomach for it, I want you to watch one of the most outrageous and infuriating videos I’ve ever seen. It shows the police shooting of Daniel Shaver in Mesa, Arizona. He was crawling on his hands and knees, crying, and begging police not to shoot him. An officer shot him anyway:

The background is simple. Shaver was a traveling pest control worker. He was in his hotel room (a La Quinta Inn) showing off to guests a pellet gun he used for work. Police responded to a 911 call claiming that a man was pointing a rifle out a window.

When police arrived, Shaver was alone with a woman. They had been drinking. The police ordered them out of the room, and they came out, raised their hands, and got on their knees. So far, things seem routine. Police responded to a call from a concerned bystander, they were concerned that the suspect may have a gun, so they demanded to clearly see Shaver’s hands. That’s entirely fair and appropriate. 

Then, however, things got strange — very strange — rather than asking Shaver and his friend to keep their hands visible while police (who, at this point, had guns pointing straight at both of them) approached and applied handcuffs, they ask them to crawl towards police in a highly-specific way. The Washington Post’s account is decent, but you have to watch the video truly grasp the strangeness of the requests:

Langley tells Shaver to keep his legs crossed and push himself up into a kneeling position. As Shaver pushes himself up, his legs come uncrossed, prompting the officer to scream at him.

“I’m sorry,” Shaver says, placing his hands near his waist, prompting another round of screaming.

“You do that again, we’re shooting you, do you understand?” Langley yells.

“Please do not shoot me,” Shaver begs, his hands up straight in the air.

At the officer’s command, Shaver then crawls down the hallway, sobbing. At one point, he reaches back — possibly to pull up his shorts — and Brailsford opens fire, striking Shaver five times.

In fact, the Post actually sugarcoats the encounter. At one point an officer tells him “do not put your hands down for any reason,” even saying, “If you think you’re going to fall, you better fall on your face.” Then he says, “Crawl towards me.” How he can crawl without putting his hands down, I don’t know.

As the sobbing man crawls, he reaches back towards his pants (perhaps to pull them up) and is immediately shot dead. He had no weapon. He had done nothing wrong. And now he’s dead.

Essentially, what the police told an innocent, law-abiding, intoxicated American was this: Follow my highly-specific, very strange instructions or die. There was no need to make him crawl. The police were in command of the situation. At no point is there a visible weapon. I have seen soldiers deal with al Qaeda terrorists with more professionalism and poise. When a man is prone, his hands are visible, and your gun is trained upon him, he is in your power.

At trial, the officer testified that he though the suspect was reaching for his gun, and that if he had a chance to do things over, he’d make the same decision again. In other words, he presented the classic defense. He was afraid, so he fired.

I’ve written about this before. Juries time and again acquit frightened cops, regardless of whether the cop botched the situation or whether his fear was objectively reasonable. I wrote this after the Philando Castile verdict:

Legally, it’s not enough for an officer to show that he was actually afraid for his life. He has to show that “a reasonably prudent person” would also have the same fear. Clever defense lawyers twist this standard into a line of argument that goes something like this: The officer was afraid, and he can explain to you the reasons why he was afraid. Therefore, it was reasonable that he was afraid. But real fear isn’t always reasonable fear.

That’s especially true when the police — through their own incompetence — create their own fear. Philando Castile was shot even as he followed his killer’s instructions. Shaver died trying his best to comply with a highly unusual, complicated set of commands while under extreme duress. Scared cops still need to be competent cops, and members of the public shouldn’t face death because a police officer can’t keep his emotions in check.

Finally, I know that police have a dangerous job, but they’re not at war. As I noted above, it’s infuriating to see civilian police exercise less discipline than I’ve seen from soldiers in infinitely more dangerous situations. Not one of the men I deployed with would have handled a terrorist detention the way these officers treated American citizens. 

Arizona law defines second-degree murder as killing a person without premeditation “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life, the person recklessly engages in conduct that creates a grave risk of death and thereby causes the death of another person.” In this instance, the charge fit the crime. The jury’s verdict was a gross miscarriage of justice. My heart breaks for Daniel Shaver’s family. May God have mercy on his soul.

David French — 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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