The non-indictment

Two best things I’ve read on the non-indictment in the Tamir Rice case are both in Slate.  First Leon Neyfakh with a look at complex legal issues surrounding “officer-created jeopardy”

McGinty’s office made the case for the non-indictment during an extended press conference this afternoon. But the central concept in the case—the one that it is crucial to understanding the grand jury’s reasoning—was never mentioned. That concept is known in law enforcement circles as “officer-created jeopardy”: situations in which police officers are responsible for needlessly putting themselves in danger, committing an unforced tactical error that makes them vulnerable—and then using deadly force to protect themselves.

Here’s how “officer-created jeopardy” relates to the death of Tamir Rice. As security footage of the shooting shows, Loehmann and Garmback’s car didn’t come to a stop until it was right next to Rice. In fact, the video indicates that the car was still moving when Loehmann opened the passenger side door and jumped out. Faced with a suspect they believed to be armed, in other words, Loehmann and Garmback decided to drive right up to him—thereby exposing themselves to the possibility that Rice could open fire on them with almost no warning.

The question the grand jurors had to answer, then, was whether to take that decision into account when determining the legality of the officers’ actions. Did it matter that no one forced Loehmann and Garmback to approach their suspect so aggressively? Did it matter that, by approaching him the way they did, they were the ones who had created the situation in which it then became necessary, in Loehmann’s view at least, to use deadly force?

There is no legal consensus on this…

And then a nice discussion of the complex legal issues and interpretations.  It does seem to me, though, that even if officer-created jeopardy” is not in legal play in should be in administrative play and no way does an officer who acted so foolishly to create a situation where he felt (supposedly reasonably) that he had to shoot somebody just get off completely.  There’s just no way that police officers who behave in this manner should continue to be police officers.  It would be nice if we could at least agree on that.

Meanwhile, a terrific post (I think this is going into the next Criminal Justice Policy syllabus) from Jamelle Bouie on how we look at the role of police officers and their safety.  In truth, part of being a police officer is to face greater danger so that ordinary community members face less.  When police officer safety– rather than public safety– becomes the number one priority, though, that leads to some perverse consequences:

Strip away the rhetoric, and McGinty [Cuyahoga County prosecutor] has made a clear statement about police conduct: If police perceive a threat to their lives then they’ve de facto justified their actions regardless of context, even if it ends with taking the life of a child. That includes situations like the Rice shooting, where police chose to create a confrontation, rather than manage an encounter.

More broadly, police are empowered to take control of all situations by any means necessary, even those that aren’t criminal. They have no obligation to survey a situation to seek the least violent resolution. Taken together, these prerogatives—established time and again, by departments across the country—encourage police to use lethal force as the first resort…

What we see with Tamir Rice—and what we’ve seen in shootings across the country—is what happens when the officer’s safety supercedes the obligation to accept risk. If “going home” is what matters—and risk is unacceptable—then the instant use of lethal force makes sense. It’s the only thing that guarantees complete safety from harm.

It’s also antithetical to the call to “serve and protect.” But it’s the new norm. And worse for any accountability, it sits flush with our broad sympathy with police in the courts of law and public opinion.[emphasis mine] So that, when police kill someone in this relentless drive to reduce risk, it’s almost impossible to hold officers accountable, barring incredible circumstances. The public just accepts that this is what police had to do…

Given this status quo, Tamir Rice—his shooting and the officers’ acquittal—is inevitable. Indeed, it’s almost certain to happen again, since the system isn’t equipped to push back on these new norms of policing and the extraordinary benefit of the doubt that police receive…

Unaccountable lethal force defines contemporary law enforcement, at least for black Americans and other minorities, and barring a sea change in attitudes among the majority of Americans, there’s little reason to think that will change.

Yes, yes, yes!  Hopefully some good will come from this, but really, if we really want change in police shootings and police accountability it is long past time to re-think our conceptualization of police and public safety.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to The non-indictment

  1. R, Jenrette says:

    Do you think the fact that there are so many guns everywhere in the U.S. has something to do with police fear in that anyone and everyone around them could have a gun? In that environment, any adverse contact with anyone could result in gunfire. The possibility must raise the adrenaline levels in every encounter, raising the chances of irrational fear born acts in police and in the public.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Yes!! I think I even said so in a post a while back (and if I didn’t, I meant to). This is truly just one more horrible consequence of America’s pathological love affair with guns.

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