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This morning at 7:30 am (December 13), I met with Captain “Johnson” at the Police Department in Shawnee, KS. Captain Johnson was one of the many instructors in the Citizens Police Academy (September 8 through November 16, 2016). I wanted to get his take on the mistrial of Michael Slager, a white North Charleston police officer and the video footage showing Slager fatally shooting a fleeing Mr. Walter Scott, an African-American. The Captain started our discussion with two U. S. Supreme Court rulings: Graham v. Connor (1989) and Tennessee v. Garner (1985). Each ruling has implications for policing, and specifically when an officer is justified in using deadly force.

  • Implications of Graham v. Connor – a police officer can use deadly force (1) after considering the severity of the crime; (2) if the suspect is trying to flee; (3) if the suspect is a danger to the officer or general public; and (4) when there is a need for immediate apprehension of the suspect.
  • Implications of Tennessee v. Garner – the reasonableness of an officer’s use of force, whether against a fleeing suspect or otherwise, is to be determined from the perspective of the officer under the circumstances that are apparent to him or her at the time.

After watching the video footage of Slager killing a fleeing Scott, Captain Johnson said “this makes me really uncomfortable.” Moreover, Captain Johnson shared his questions with me: (1) What did the officer know beforehand that was not shared with the public (e.g., Scott was considered dangerous?, the vehicle was stolen?, there were outstanding warrants)? [Captain Johnson was quick to say, this did not justify the officer’s actions necessarily] (2) Why did Scott run? [Again, Captain Johnson was quick to say, this did not justify the officer’s use of deadly force necessarily] (3) Did Scott have Slager’s taser? (4) why did Slager shoot Scott (7) times? [officers are trained to shoot until the threat stops] (5) Was Slager driven by implicit bias or explicit bias against Scott? and (6) Why did Slager move the taser? [According to the Captain, this ‘poisoned the crime scene.’  The use of foul language is another way an officer can poison the crime scene according to the Captain.]

“The court decided what Slager did was wrong,” said Captain Johnson, “however, the jury could not decide unanimously if Slager would be charged with homicide or manslaughter.” Thus, a mistrial.

We also discussed Philando Castile, a 32 year old African-American male who was shot by a police officer in suburban St. Paul, MN.  Captain Johnson said that Castile alerted the officer that he was licensed to carry a handgun and was reaching for his wallet at the officer’s request when he was shot and killed.  “This had a horrible outcome,” said Captain Johnson. Captain Johnson said this officer relied on his “training” without thinking (this reminds me of the scene in the film, Crash, when a white police officer shots and kills a young African-American male who is reaching for a miniature statue in his pocket.  These are called ‘furtive movements’ according the the Captain).  I asked, “are officers trained to consider the context first or robotic-ally follow their training?” Considering the context or sizing up the situation is something that officers learn later in their career…sometimes.  And sometimes police officers follow their training to their own detriment.  Here, Captain Johnson recounted the Newhall incident (1970), also called the “Newhall massacre.” Officers were trained to collect their brass after firing their weapons; and they did just that while engaged in a shoot out with two heavily armed criminals. As Captain Johnson lamented, “these slain officers were found with brass in their pockets.”

Captain Johnson said he is bothered by the strife and division in our country.  Me too. We both wished the other a “Merry Christmas.”

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