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As a fellow Iraq war vet, I deeply respect the service and perspective of National Review columnist David French. He volunteered out of a sense of obligation to serve in a war he had endorsed. The man put his rear end where his mouth had put others. That he was “inside the wire” as a legal advisor should be beside the point. He risked much more than any pundit. Oh, but that he would do the same with his punditry on policing. On this Mr. French is consistently, dangerously wrong.
I have spent much of three decades observing, reporting on, and training in police work. That study is further informed by my tours as an infantry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the lessons I’ve learned are clear: Mr. French’s ideas will get good people killed by shifting the risk of criminality off of the lawless. Sadly, his effort to de-risk criminality hit a nadir with his column on the death of Stephon Clark.
The facts, per bodycam and helicopter video, are roughly thus: A 911 caller reported to the Sacramento Police Department “a guy going down the street breaking windows of cars” who went in the backyard of a house. A circling helicopter crew reported a man, later identified as Clark, breaking into a second house, climbing a backyard fence to a third home then walking down the driveway. Officers confronted him, ordering him to “show your hands” and “stop,” as he bolted to the backyard. Clark turned toward the pursuing officers who took cover behind the house before shooting as one cried “gun, gun, gun” and Clark continued to advance.
From the first shout to the last shot, the confrontation lasted 19 seconds. Only later did they discover that Clark merely had a cell phone and was in the yard of his grandmother’s home, where he stayed.
Mr. French believes the officers should have assumed they weren’t really at risk. His back-of-the-envelope probabilities analysis features the ultimate in armchair quarterbacking.
French ponders: “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?” Not much. According to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database (among the most reliable compilations of such information), only 7 percent of people killed by police in 2017 were unarmed (which doesn’t mean they were not a threat). And does he really mean that the more ambiguously dangerous the situation (suspect fleeing to an unlit area) the more benefit of the doubt the suspect should get?
What was the reasonable risk of backing off and continuing to give strong, verbal commands? If an armed suspect (as French concedes the officers genuinely believed him to be) ignores commands then turns and advances on two armed officers, what additional command will be effective? Moreover, would Mr. French bet his own life on those commands? And how many would he give before shooting? The officers gave at least four.
What are the possibilities he hadn’t heard the commands? Inasmuch as Clark reacted to the commands, just distinctly the opposite of what he was told, it seems obvious that the chance is zero.
In perhaps the most ghoulish thing I’ve seen written about officer safety in a quarter century covering this topic, Mr. French asserts that because no Sacramento PD officer has been murdered in 19 years, they should have assumed there was less risk. He doesn’t ponder the probability that SPD officers who have been shot saved themselves by using the same lethal force he seeks to restrict. And, as Jack Dunphy points out, Mr. French ignores the murders of other Sacramento-area officers in recent years. Might the officers’ perceptions have been shaded by the conviction the week before of a double-cop-killer? Mr. French is silent on these, the hard details that are the reality out on the street.
Cop-hating libertarians and leftists are fond of statistics that show more commercial fisherman, loggers or cab driver are killed than cops per capita. That’s true as far as it goes. We’ve gone from over 100 officers murdered by gunfire in the 1970s to 64 in 2016 and 46 last year. This year is running 50 percent over last.
But police work stands alone with critics (like Mr. French) seeking to make it more dangerous. And purely for the benefit of people who almost always hold their own fates in their own hands. Yes, there are tragic exceptions of people who did nothing wrong, such as John Crawford, Justine Damond, Tyler Finch, and (most likely) Philando Castile. But, those are complex, literally one-in-a-thousand, awful events. And, notably, the Damond case appears criminal, which is definitively unreasonable.
But Mr. French’s worst transgression is to imply there’s predictability in the truly random nature of the risk of policing. Take, for instance, the 21-officer police department of Clinton, MO. The only two officers killed in its 150-year history were slain in the last nine months in separate incidents. Rookie Gary Michael was shot during an August traffic stop. Bizarrely, his replacement, Ofc. Chris Morton was recently slain after being sent to the wrong house on a 911 call, where he was ambushed by a drug dealer.
I have studied this issue for years. I call it “The Randomness,” and there is little predictable or probable about it. I learned this as a kid. In my hometown of West Covina, CA, the only two officers murdered on the job in the city’s history both died within five years. Ken Wrede was shot dead by a naked man. How’s that for unarmed?
Cops are murdered on the first day on the job and in the last weeks of a four-decade career. They are murdered stopping for coffee. They are murdered while handling the most minor of car accidents, by kids stealing beer before Christmas, and by people who call the cops on themselves. And they are killed in foot pursuit of suspects of minor crimes.
For those who don’t click, the latter incident, the murder of rookie Pomona Police Department Officer Gregg Casillas at the hands of a reckless driver, happened just days before the Clark shooting. Given that Mr. French wrote nothing of Casillas’ murder, we must conclude the probability is that his outrage at senseless killings has a finicky predictability.
Bizarrely, Mr. French argues it is problematic that police officers are shown videos of other cops’ deaths. It seems he prefers cops who are unaware that they can be shot dead by a man they’ve been talking to for 10 minutes, or shot in the face by a man who, like Clark, ignored commands to stop. Or even shot by handcuffed suspects.
Imagine declaring it’s dangerous to show videos of industrial accidents to fishermen and loggers.
The fact of the matter is, American police officers rarely use force of any kind, especially deadly force. There were 1.2 million violent crimes in the US in 2016, about 17,000 of them murders. Police officers made 50 million contacts with citizens, resulting in about 57,000 assaults on officers in this country with hundreds of millions of guns. That just 967 fatal shootings resulted is remarkable.
To be sure, policing in a democracy (and common decency) requires that police use lethal force only under the direst of conditions. Cops cannot and should not treat every person they meet as immediate threats. But some certainly are, and being prepared for those threats is why 597 people with guns were killed by cops in 2017, and only 51 cops were killed by criminals. It is fair though to ask: exactly how many of those 597 would Mr. French shift to the dead-cops column in order to ensure Stephon Clark can resist arrest without fear of harm? 5? 50? 500?
Of course, Mr. French will claim he simply wants to save the Stephon Clarks of the world and wishes no harm on cops. But that is not the reality. The more police procedure is shaped to give suspects the benefit of the doubt, the more that doubt will be leveraged by would-be cop-killers to lethal ends.
Of course, there are methods by which Mr. Clark may have been arrested under less dangerous circumstances. That would have involved sending numerous additional units to lock down the neighborhood and employ a variety of force options.
But if you want to do that for the Clark call, then you have to do the same for literally every domestic dispute, beer run, reckless driving, and vandalism call. Practically all 911 calls would generate a massive, costly deployment of resources that will severely impact response times.
That is the nature of The Randomness. A small but omnipresent possibility that the worst moments of one’s life have already begun without you knowing. The only remedies are the instinct and tools to quickly identify and neutralize fast-evolving threats, or flood every situation with extensive, redundant resources.
All to ensure suspects can refuse to comply without worry.
It is very sad that someday someone will have to explain to Stephon Clark’s young children why their daddy died. The fact that he made a series of bad decisions that created danger for all involved under particularly volatile circumstances will provide them little comfort. But, the responsibility for the consequences of his numerous reckless and criminal actions lies with no one but himself.
I wonder if Mr. French would rather explain to Gregg Casillas’ kids why he is more worried about Stephon Clark’s right to resist arrest than the life of their father and every other cop who lives with The Randomness.