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Law & the Courts

Knives, Guns, and Shots to the Leg, Cont’d: An Officer’s View of One Case

Bodycamera footage showing Ma’Khia Bryant swinging a knife before being shot by Columbus Police. (Screengrab from The Hill/YouTube)

Having watched body-cam footage of the shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant, I find it right to conclude — as some of my colleagues at NR have done — that Officer Nicholas Reardon had no reasonable option but to open fire and could not have been expected to aim for Bryant’s legs. Bryant, wielding a knife, was lunging at another woman who was very close to her, and the entire episode, from lunge to firearm discharge, happened in just a few seconds. I don’t know how Reardon could have protected Bryant’s probable victim from death or grave bodily injury by aiming at Bryant’s legs. (If you watch the footage and change “legs” to “leg,” the unreasonableness of the expectation becomes even more patent.) I have never been a lawyer or a policeman, but such are the impressions of this lay observer.

Part of what’s so difficult about discussing police uses of force, however, is that most of the terms and phrases with which we describe them cover a wide range of cases. There are many ways to wield a knife, and many contexts in which to fire at a knife-wielding person.

I would suggest that, as a way of perceiving the reality of these ambiguities, you consider watching video footage of the 2012 police shooting of Milton Hall in Saginaw, Mich. Hall also had a knife, but the confrontation happened in glacially slow motion compared with the events that led to Bryant’s death. I myself always feel a strong aversion to watching people get killed, as a matter of respect for the dead and because of my feeling that one might not wish to have one’s worst experiences witnessed unnecessarily. So I also offer a description of the shooting, from an article I wrote for The Atlantic’s website a few years ago about the elasticity of use-of-force standards:

On July 1, 2012, Milton Hall, a homeless man with a history of mental illness, stole a cup of coffee from a convenience store in Saginaw, Michigan. The store’s clerk called 911. When an officer arrived, Hall produced a knife with a three-inch blade and threatened her with it. She called for backup and seven other officers soon joined her, one of them with a police dog. They formed an arc around Hall and aimed their firearms — pistols and a rifle — at him. The standoff continued for several minutes, with the officers repeatedly asking Hall to put the knife down and Hall repeatedly refusing. Finally, Hall, still wielding his knife, began to walk toward the police dog and the K9 officer. After he had taken a few steps — three, by my count, as I watch video footage from a patrol car’s dashboard camera and available on YouTube — the officers shot Hall to death in a volley of 47 bullets.

From later in the article:

I asked Chris Gebhardt, a former lieutenant with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., and later a SWAT-team leader in Utah, what he thought. “The officers had a K9 there,” Gebhardt answered. “Release the dog and let it do its job.” By choosing instead to open fire, he explained, “they have basically said that a dog’s life is more valuable than a human’s.” Indeed, in the moments immediately before his death, Hall seems mainly to have been confronting the dog. Michael Thomas, Saginaw County prosecutor at the time, conceded as much when he announced at a press conference that he would not file charges against the officers. (Hall’s mother later sued the city and the officers for wrongful death and received a settlement of $725,000.) “This dog handler and this dog in particular seem to be what [Hall] was directing his attention to,” Thomas said.

Thomas emphasized that, according to two witnesses, “the police dog and the police-dog handler” were two to three feet away from Hall at the closest point. But they could not have been equidistant from him, since the dog stood between the handler and Hall. As the video makes apparent, the handler began to walk the dog backward as Hall approached, maintaining his distance from Hall; and when the shots were fired, Hall was clearly more than two or three feet away from the dog. Thomas’s failure to acknowledge any of these facts supports Gebhardt’s observation that the dog’s life was considered more valuable than Hall’s. (Thomas did not respond to an email or a voice message requesting comment.)

Today, I’d like to present the full set of comments by Gebhardt from which I extracted the quotations above, because they include a remark about the possibility of shooting at one of Hall’s legs that I didn’t include in the article. Gebhardt emailed me:

Milton Hall is a sad case. The officers had a K9 there. Release the dog and let it do its job. They have basically said that a dog’s life is more valuable than a human’s. Milton obviously had some mental instability but that does [not] make him a lesser human. Critical Thinking applied to his case would have caused a two man team to approach him. One with a TASER and another with lethal cover. Get close enough to use the TASER. If he approaches with the knife, then shoot. Also, from that distance and with that many officers, including one armed with a rifle, why not apply a tactical shot from the rifle to his leg? Rifles are insanely accurate and he was not dancing around much. It is an easy shot. Give me 30 minutes with any shooter and I’ll have them dialed in to take that shot. These officers were only thinking one thing: if he doesn’t drop that knife, I’m going to shoot him.

I don’t deny that reasonable people, civilians or police officers, might disagree about the practicality of taking a shot at Hall’s leg, along with other aspects of Gebhardt’s analysis. But this is a perspective worth considering, from someone who has direct experience of these tremendously difficult situations — as most of us mere scribblers never will.

Another perspective I heard at the time came from Mark Fancher, an attorney with the Michigan ACLU, who noted that police dogs can do tremendous damage to a human being and believed that deescalation techniques might well have made a fatal or injurious confrontation unnecessary.


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