The Police War on Innocent Citizens

Another week has gone by, and with it, another very questionable shooting of an innocent person by a police officer has occurred.

In Dallas, an off-duty police officer, Amber Guyger, after allegedly working a 15-hour shift, returned to the apartment complex in which she lived.  Instead of returning to her apartment on the third floor, she walked into an apartment on the fourth floor, directly above her own apartment.  She claims the door was ajar when she put the key into the lock, and when she entered the apartment, it was dark and she “saw a large silhouette” across the apartment who she thought was a burglar.  She fired two shots, killing the man, who was later identified as Botham Jean.

The only problem was that this was Botham Jean’s apartment.  He was in his own apartment, minding his own business, when this reckless police officer burst in and killed him.  She had no business being in his apartment.  In fact, there was a very unique and distinctive red floor mat outside of Mr. Jean’s apartment that other units lacked.

Yet, somehow, the other responding police officers let the killer go home immediately after the killing.  It was not until the public outcry grew that Amber Guyger was finally arrested and charged with manslaughter three days later.  Even after these charges, there are doubts as to whether she will be convicted because of two legal doctrines available only to police – qualified immunity and reasonable fear.

Unlike regular citizens in similar situations, police who use deadly force on other people are immune from prosecution or culpability if they demonstrate that they had a “reasonable fear” that they, or someone else, might be in imminent danger.  It doesn’t matter if that danger is real or not – the police officer just needs to believe it is.  The standard for this “reasonable fear” is set ridiculously low; it is must be seen in the context of what reasonable officers would do in the same situation, given the danger and stress of police work.

One must keep that definition in mind, particularly the phrase, “given the danger and stress of police work.”  This means that a skittish police officer has carte blanche to use deadly force just because he or she might be fearful in a given situation because the job of a police officer is “stressful.”  No other citizens can claim this defense in similar situations, regardless of the stress of their own jobs or personal lives.

If Amber Guyger can convince a jury that she was operating in the role of a police officer, and felt genuinely in fear of her life, she might very well be acquitted of the charges against her.  This is in spite of the fact that she was essentially trespassing in Mr. Jean’s apartment, if not outright breaking and entering.  If, on the other hand, the jury recognizes that she was off-duty and treats her as a regular citizen, it is difficult to see her being convicted of anything less than manslaughter.

The vast majority of police officers go through their entire careers without ever removing their firearms from their holsters.  Yet, this has been the second time that Amber Guyger has shot somebody, even though she is only 30 years of age and has only been with the Dallas Police Department for four years.  It is quite obvious that she is a skittish, fearful, trigger-happy officer who has no business holding a position of public trust.

An investigation of the 50 largest police departments by Vice found that 20% of all police shootings are against unarmed persons.  And in proportion to their total population, black citizens are more likely to be shot by police than any other group.  It is hard to believe that there is not an overt or subconscious racial bias among many police officers.  But even so, innocent victims of police shootings span different ages, genders, races, and walks of life.  These shootings aren’t confined to inner cities or “dangerous areas;” they have claimed the lives of pastors, people in their own homes in good neighborhoods, and people innocently walking down the street.

Even when the victims of these police shootings are innocent of any crimes, the police officers responsible are very rarely held accountable for their actions.  Even when the shooters are prosecuted, conviction is difficult because of the qualified immunity and reasonable fear doctrines.  Rather than being held to a higher standard than the rest of the population, those entrusted with keeping the peace and enforcing the law are actually held to a lower standard!  The qualified immunity and reasonable fear doctrines grant police officers the carte blanche power to use deadly force in all but the most egregious situations.

Apologists for police officers argue that their jobs are stressful and difficult, and that police are often targets of criminals.  That is true, but police officers take their jobs voluntarily, with full knowledge of the risks involved.  Normal citizens, on the other hand, have no reason to suspect or believe that they may arbitrarily become victims of an overly skittish or fearful police officer, or that a rogue officer will escape charges just because he or she believed, in his or her own mind, that there might be some kind of imminent danger.

In fact, very few police officers are killed each year, particularly when compared to the number of people killed by police.  In 2017, for example, 46 police officers were killed.  Yet, in that same year, police officers killed 987 people.

As difficult as police work may be, there is no excuse for police officers harming or killing innocent individuals.  And there is certainly no reason to exempt police officers from accountability for their actions just because their jobs are “stressful.”  If a police officer can’t handle the stress of the job, that individual should seek out another career.  And if a police officer harms an innocent person, that officer should be held fully accountable for his or her actions.

There have been arguments that these unjustified police shootings could be reduced by requiring police officers to undergo racial sensitivity training, more training on police procedures, or by having police departmental policies updated.  But the fact remains, none of these proposed remedies will make a bit of difference until police officers are held fully accountable for their actions.

Police officers must be held to the same legal standards as regular citizens.  They should not be granted any special immunities.  The laws must be revised to abolish the qualified immunity and reasonable fear doctrines granted exclusively to police officers.  Why shouldn’t those responsible for enforcing our laws be held to same legal standards as the citizens they are charged to protect?

Stephon Clark, Alton Sterling, Terence Crutcher, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, Tony Robinson, Rumain Brisbon, Laquan McDonald, Michael Brown Jr., Eric Garner, Daniel Shaver, James Scott, Andrew Thomas, Dylan Noble, Andrew Finch, Rev. Jonathan Ayers, Justine Damond, Botham Jean – the list of innocent victims of police shootings goes on and on.  If we fail to abolish the qualified immunity and reasonable fear doctrines, we will continue to mourn the deaths of innocents at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve us.