The Corner

When Should an Officer Pull the Trigger?

The latest police use-of-force controversy centers around the case of Ramarley Graham of the Bronx. The details are still coming together, but evidently the NYPD was investigating a drug deal and suspected Graham was involved. They also suspected he was armed — according to various accounts, officers either saw him adjusting his waistline in a suspicious manner, or thought they saw the butt of a gun protruding from his pants. When two officers pulled up alongside him in a car and yelled at him to stop, he ducked into his nearby apartment building, and they gave chase.

The two officers, joined by two others, followed him into his apartment — in the bathroom of which, apparently, he was trying to flush his marijuana down the toilet. When an officer yelled “Show me your hands!” he allegedly reached for his waistline instead. The officer yelled “Gun! Gun!” and shot him, fatally.

It turns out that Graham was unarmed. Judging by the information currently available, the situation eerily parallels that of Amadou Diallo — another unarmed man who went for his pocket when NYPD officers told him to show his hands.

Few people saw or even heard what happened, so we may never know the full truth. But for many of those expressing outrage, the fact that Graham was unarmed seems in itself to prove that the officers acted badly. Why didn’t they wait until they were sure he had a gun before firing?

Because by the time an officer can positively identify a firearm, there isn’t enough time left to react. In fact, even in training drills where officers know what to expect, they cannot pull the trigger fast enough when a suspect tries to shoot them.

Here is one such study. (More details in this report.) In it, the suspect (played by a young criminal-justice student) started with his gun pointed away from the officer, and the officer (played by an experienced SWAT officer) started with his gun pointed at the suspect. The suspect then either surrendered or tried to shoot the officer. When the suspect fired, he was typically able to do so before the officer — even though the latter’s gun was already readied and aimed.

The bottom line is that once a suspect has produced a gun, he can shoot an officer faster than the cop can respond. In fact, the most talented shooters can unholster a weapon and fire it in less than the average human’s reaction time. And if the suspect’s gun starts out concealed, you can add some precious milliseconds for the cop to positively ID the firearm. The only real option for an officer who wants to survive such a confrontation is for him to shoot when a suspect disobeys an order to show his hands and instead reaches for his waist — especially when the suspect is already thought to be carrying a gun.

The official police policies I’ve consulted, including the NYPD’s, respect this reality. They require that an officer have reason to believe the suspect is about to cause death or serious injury to the officer or another person; they do not require that officers divine information their senses do not reveal.

It is, of course, tragic when an unarmed man is shot by police. But police can act only on the information that’s available to them, and when that information is “I told this guy to show me his hands, and instead he’s reaching for his waistline,” one can hardly expect him not to shoot.

Again, I don’t mean for this to be a full-throated defense of the officers in this particular case; I have no idea what actually happened. I merely aim to point out that Graham’s being unarmed is not proof of police misconduct.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Broward’s Cowards

It is impossible to imagine circumstances under which Broward County sheriff Scott Israel could attempt to perform his duties with the confidence of the public. He should resign immediately, and if, as he promises, he refuses to go quietly, then he should be shown the door by the people he professes to ... Read More

Courage: The Greatest of Virtues

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays. Dear Reader (Or Listener), As the reporter assigned the job of writing the article about all of Sidney Blumenthal’s friends and supporters told his ... Read More

My American Dream

This morning, at 8 a.m., I did something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember: I became an American. I first applied for a visa in early 2011, and since then I have slowly worked my way through the system — first as a visa-holder, then as a permanent resident (green card), and, finally, as a ... Read More
Politics & Policy

CNN’s Shameful Town Hall

CNN recently hosted an anti-gun town hall featuring a number of grieving children and parents from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who aimed their ire at the National Rifle Association, politicians peripherally associated with the NRA, and anyone who didn’t say exactly what they wanted to hear. ... Read More

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More