If you haven’t already heard by now, a few days ago, college football player Christian Taylor was shot and killed by Arlington, Texas police – even though he was unarmed. From the surveillance footage that’s been released, it looks like Taylor may have been up to no good (maybe he was trying to steal a car, maybe he was pulling a prank, maybe he was just bored and acting stupid). That of course, is a red herring, but you will see it mentioned a lot in the media coverage. Being up to no good is not enough to get you shot and killed by police. 

Arlington Police chief Will Johnson described what happened:

Called to the scene of a suspected burglary early Friday morning, Miller pursued 19-year-old Christian Taylor through the broken glass doors of a car dealership showroom without telling his supervising officer, Johnson said.

Instead of helping to set up a perimeter around the showroom, Miller confronted Taylor and ordered him to get down on the ground, Johnson said. Taylor did not comply. Instead, he began “actively advancing toward Officer Miller,” Johnson said.

Miller’s field training officer, who had followed Miller into the showroom, drew his own Taser. The training officer heard a single pop of what he thought was Miller’s Taser, but Miller actually had drawn his service weapon and fired it at Taylor, who is believed to have been 7 to 10 feet away from the officer, Johnson said. After Taylor continued to approach, Miller fired his gun three more times.

“This is an extraordinarily difficult case,” Johnson said. “Decisions were made that have catastrophic outcomes.”

For these mistakes, Arlington PD fired the officer. He may face charges (probably not, if you ask me… even if he does I’d be shocked if he’s indicted and even more shocked if he’s convicted of anything).

Inarguably, the officer made mistakes (as the chief pointed out, the first mistake was going after their suspect instead of helping to set up a perimeter). Equally inarguably, police have a difficult job. I’ve seen posts by police officers I know who lay out how difficult their job is and how unfair they feel the public questioning their actions are. Their argument goes like this: our job is incredibly difficult. We routinely deal with bad guys. A mistake on the job could get us killed. Things happen really fast out there. If I pull my gun too fast, I get hung out to dry in the media… if I draw my gun to late I (or possibly one of my buddies) goes home dead…. 

Personally, I think arguments like this from police officers are right on, but that doesn’t in my mind justify jumping to deadly force in any tense situation. This is the way I see it: Yes, the job we ask the police to perform is difficult and can be very dangerous. They deserve respect and better pay. They probably need better training and more frequent training. But we give them a number of options to resort to rather than lethal force. In this situation, the kid was unarmed… the officer probably could’ve handled it without any weapon. The officer probably wouldn’t have felt so vulnerable (and thus the need to reach for his gun) if he hadn’t have separated himself from other officers by running after the kid instead of setting up a perimeter. If he couldn’t tell the kid was unarmed, he could’ve gone for his taser instead of his gun (non-deadly force). Personally I don’t like the taser much and think it’s over-used in situations that don’t call for it, but it’s infinitely better than firing 4 rounds at an unarmed guy.

For me, the bottom line is this. Yes we ask a lot of our officers by putting them in tense and dangerous situations – ones that happen incredibly fast in the real world – and expecting them to only use a level of force that’s appropriate to the situation, but that’s the only expectation that’s reasonable. Otherwise we slide towards a society where the populace uniformly distrusts and fears the police (sadly much of our population already feels this way). I don’t want just any cowboy to become a police officer. If you’re looking for an exciting job where you get to chase and shoot at bad guys, if you’re hoping for a confrontation so you can show what you’ve got… you’re not the officer I want hired. I want the officer who doesn’t want to discharge his weapon. I want the guy who feels the weight of the responsibility he’s entrusted with and accepts the challenge to live with that responsibility every day. That’s my police officer. Like this guy: “All I want to do is go out, do my job, do it well, and go home in one piece. When I lock a guy up and I tell him, ‘Turn around, put your hands behind your back,’ and he does it, I’m happy. I would much rather buy a guy a hot dog on the way to jail…which I’ve done, rather than roll around in the street and fight with him.” Exactly.

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