Protect and serve: American law enforcement’s greatest failure

A shoot-first state is a police state. America must do better.


US police shoot dead unarmed man ‘after mistaking his iPhone for gun’

– Bodycam footage shows officers pursuing father-of-two Stephon Clark before shouting “gun, gun, gun” and opening fire.

California police officers shot dead an unarmed man in his grandparents’ back garden after apparently mistaking his iPhone for a gun.

The Sacramento Police Department has released helicopter and bodycam footage that shows officers firing up to 20 shots at father-of-two Stephon Clark on March 18.

Officers had responded to reports of a man breaking into at least three vehicles and a home in Sacramento.

Bodycam footage shows Mr Clark, 22, being pursued by officers as he enters his grandparents’ back garden in the dark of night.

An officer can be heard shouting “show me your arms, gun, gun, gun” before he starts firing rounds.

In the footage, both officers reassure each other that they have not been hit.

One adds later: “He’s still down, he’s not moving. We can’t see the gun.”

No weapon was found at the scene after Mr Clark’s death, and it is believed he was holding an iPhone 6.

“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time in his own backyard,” Mr Clark’s grandmother Sequita Thompson told the Sacramento Bee.

This is a hard post to write. It will almost certainly offend some people. But the time has come, and it must be said. 

Before I begin, I want to offer a preface.

First, police today often have a hard job to do. It can be dangerous – lethally so – it can be thankless, it doesn’t pay all that well compared to the risk, training isn’t always up to snuff and the department may or may not provide all necessary gear.

I’ve known my share of police officers. Someone close to me works for a law enforcement agency and deals routinely with people whom she knows may not make it back at the end of the day. In fact, one officer was very close to tragedy a couple weeks ago.

I am not blind to the realities, nor am I ungrateful for what the nation’s law enforcement officers do for us. I don’t want to think too hard about where we’d be without them.

Second, it shouldn’t need saying, but neither this nor anything else I ever say on the subject can be taken as any kind of blanket comment – I don’t mean all of anything. The criteria and analysis I offer can be taken as specifically defining who I am and am not talking about.

Now, onward.


We’ve all read about a large number of cases in recent years where the officers were charged with wrongful killing (by the public, political and community groups, if not actual law enforcement agencies), with the Sacramento story above being merely the latest example. The stereotypical incident involves a white officer killing a black or minority victim who is frequently unarmed and/or uninvolved in wrong-doing. This isn’t always the situation, of course, but it describes enough incidents to provoke concern.

In short, the charge is that each year, police in the US kill many citizens who should not have been shot.

Let’s consider some data.

Police killings - US vs UKA lot of Americans are killed by the police each year – 1,147 in 2017 alone.

Some stats help us understand the magnitude of the issue. (Source: Mapping Police Violence)

  • Most killings (640) began with police responding to suspected non-violent offenses or cases where no crime was reported.
  • 89 people were killed after police stopped them for a traffic violation.
  • 149 were unarmed.
  • Most unarmed people killed by police were people of color.
  • Black people were more likely to be killed by police, more likely to be unarmed and less likely to be threatening someone when killed.
  • In at least 48 cases the officer had shot or killed someone before; 12 had multiple prior shootings. (The 48 cases represent more than 8% of the cases in which the officer was identified.)
  • Police recruits spend 7x as many hours training to shoot than they do training to de-escalate situations.
  • If police did not kill people who were not posing a threat with a gun, there would have been 638 fewer deaths last year — a 57% reduction.
  • Officers were charged with a crime in only 1% of these cases.

And while it isn’t a scientific metric by any means, the fact that a Google search for [shot by police while running away] returns more than 5.6 million results is distressing.

You can slice and dice the facts using individual cases, but it’s nearly impossible to conclude – unless you’re hell-bent on doing so despite the evidence – that the US doesn’t have a severe police violence problem, and worse, one with an undeniably racial character.

Why does this happen?

As I suggest above, law enforcement exists in a frequently dangerous world, one made all the dicier by the ubiquitous availability of guns and a socio-political economy that perpetuates poverty and hopelessness among broad swaths of the population. If you were trying to create a context treacherous for police you’d have trouble doing much better.

Into this environment we insert officers who are often ill-equipped for the mental challenge. Training and social/personal bias lead them to expect danger, and this predisposes them to look for danger. They’re armed, and at some point… Well, “to a man who has only a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.” As noted above, recruits spend precious little time learning to de-escalate. Instead, they learn to shoot.

Many are simply afraid. And fear guarantees bad decisions.

The crux of the issue.

All too often, police officers seem governed by a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later mentality. Stephon Clark is a good example. He was in his grandmother’s backyard with his iPhone and two cops gunned him down because they thought it was a gun. “Gun gun gun!” 20 shots.

Officers confronted with this situation should hold fire until they clearly see a gun. Period. In the world we actually live in, though, they sometimes pull the trigger if they can’t be sure it isn’t a gun. He may have something in his hand. It could possibly be a gun.

It’s dark, you’re expecting trouble, an innocent man dies.

Here’s what has to be said.

When you sign on as a law enforcement officer, you swear to protect and serve.

You promise to be not a hammer, but a shield.

And, for better or worse, you agree to risk your life.

Getting shot at is part of the job. Potentially getting killed in the line of duty is part of the job. Courage is a requirement. Selflessness is a requirement. And fear, while perhaps understandable, can never be the impetus for any action you take in the field.

Saving an innocent citizen is the greatest thing you can accomplish. Killing an innocent citizen is the worst of all possible failures.

Heading into the streets to protect and serve is – and I do not use this word in anything but its strictest sense – a noble thing to do.

But if you cannot put the lives of the citizens you serve ahead of your own, you’re in the wrong line of work.

When you shoot a man with an iPhone in his grandparents’ back yard because you thought it might be a gun, your cowardice dishonors your entire profession.

I know it’s a hard call. It’s a snap decision based on incomplete information. And you got it wrong because you erred on the side of shoot first rather than protect and serve.

The answer?

This is toughest part of all. I’m not a police officer. I never had to make that snap call. I will undoubtedly be accused by some of sitting here where it’s safe and pontificating about things I don’t understand.

My guess is that there aren’t enough officers out there who are genuinely qualified to meet the standard I’m getting at. There’s too much dangerous world to cover. And we can certainly talk about the value of training, but how do you train for a situation like the one in Sacramento? You can run simulations and scenarios, but cadets know they aren’t really in danger of being killed in a training facility. It’s the adrenaline-soaked, immediate realism of confronting someone unknown in the dark that overruns any and all possible training, isn’t it?

So I don’t have a magic wand.

What seems clear, though, is that every cadet in every academy, on day one, needs to accept that being a good officer means being willing to take a bullet in an uncertain situation. Shoot once you’re sure and not a millisecond sooner.

Success may mean dying. Surviving may be failure. This is the profession you chose and if you can’t accept the terms then go find for a safer job. For everyone’s sake, including yours.

It must be this way. Because a nation where law enforcement shoots first as systematically as ours does is – and there’s no way around the term – a police state.

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