Yesterday, David French examined the recent police shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, arguing that though the two involved officers may not be criminally culpable for Clark’s death, the incident is nonetheless “deeply troubling and problematic.” He argues that the officers should have considered “probabilities and perspective” before pursing Clark for the minor crime of breaking windows. He writes:
If it’s dark, police are sprinting, and flashlights are shaking, what are the chances that the cops’ first assessment that the suspect had a gun are wrong? What was the reasonable risk of backing off and continuing to give strong, verbal commands rather than immediately moving from cover to an exposed position and opening fire? What are the possibilities that the suspect hadn’t heard the commands at all? (There’s some evidence, from his grandmother, that he may have had earbuds in.)
David’s analysis rests partly on facts unknown and unknowable to the officers who responded to a report of what was, yes, a minor offense. Given what we now know about the incident, i.e., that Clark was unarmed and in his grandmother’s backyard, it is tempting to say that the officers’ conduct should have been different. And while David acknowledges that “routine encounters can and do escalate,” he then discounts the precautions officers must take to avoid any such escalation.
Consider: The officers responded to a report of a man breaking windows, and their initial demeanor is, as David describes, “quite calm and casual.” But then deputies in a circling helicopter alert them to a possible suspect who has broken the window of a nearby home. David asks the officers consider the risk “of backing off and continuing to give strong, verbal commands rather than immediately moving from cover to an exposed position and opening fire.”
Here’s the risk. While the radio call told of a man breaking the windows of a truck, the officers are now told he has broken the window of a home, presumably after becoming aware of the police presence. Now the officers must ask some questions. Is the suspect attempting to enter the home, and are there people inside who might be harmed if he did? And when the suspect jumped a fence and entered the next yard, did the occupants of that home face a similar risk?
Yes, today we know it was his grandmother’s house, but if the officers had failed to pursue the suspect and allowed him to break into an occupied home, resulting in a hostage situation or worse, today people would be criticizing them for their inaction.
Surprisingly, David also asks that officers, before deciding on a course of action in response to a fleeing suspect, perform an instant, on-the-spot risk analysis based on historical data. “What is the background level of risk here?” he asks. “According to the City of Sacramento, it’s been almost 20 years since a cop was shot and killed in the line of duty.”
Yes, the last Sacramento Police Department officer shot to death was William C. Bean, Jr, who died in 1999. And the last before him was Doyle A. Popovich, who died in 1974. But the fact that a police officer is murdered in the city only once every 20 or 25 years does not lessen the risk of any individual encounter. And I should ask David if the officers should have been allowed to include the fate of Sacramento County Deputy Robert French in their risk analysis. French was shot and killed last year in what began as an investigation into auto theft, a crime more serious than breaking windows, but perhaps not serious enough, in David’s view, to warrant concerns for his safety.