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by Peter Moskos

January 11, 2009

BART Shooting (II)

Here's a link to a The Raw Story and clearer video of the police-involved shooting of Oscar Grant on a Bay Area BART station. Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog for the link.

In court, the officer’s actions will be judged by the standard of a “reasonable police officer.” It does not matter what the people shouting for the BART train felt. In fact, their shouting undoubtedly contributed to the general sense of danger the officer felt.

My guess... but I don’t know (let’s remember that none of us know; we weren’t there)... My guess is that the officer will be charged and criminally convicted of something like manslaughter that is based on negligence but not dependent on intent.

Is this a racial issue? Yes and no. No, police don’t go out saying let’s kill black people. In this situation, would white frat boys have been treated differently by police? Who can say for sure. It always depends on the situation. But it's very likely.

Anybody who thinks that police behavior isn’t affected by race and class is crazy. In different neighborhoods, both the the public and the police act differently. Don't think for a second that all police act like the police you know and see and deal with.

A few points on guns:

1) Police handguns (at least all the ones I know) do not have a safety.

2) Guns fire when the trigger is pulled. You may accidentally pull the trigger. But guns don’t “accidentally” fire. That’s important to remember. Your finger shouldn’t be on the trigger unless you’re taking aim and are seriously considering shooting. As a police officer, you are responsible for each discharge. Period.

3) In most jurisdictions, pulling a gun from the holster is not considered “use of force.” In my time on the street, I probably had my gun out of its holster every other shift. But I only pointed it at somebody two or three times. And I never pulled the trigger.

I was free to pull the gun out whenever I felt the need to. That was very often (say when searching a vacant building).

But when dealing with suspects, the gun is often just an intimidating bluff. If the suspect calls your bluff and nobody’s life is in immediate danger, you can’t shoot them. You have to holster up and pull out something you can actually use as a compliance device. In my case that was mace. And even that I only used once. (But I wasn’t on the street for long.)

Look, this shooting certainly looks terrible. Facts may come out that justify the officer’s action. But I doubt it.


dave h. said...

"But when dealing with suspects, the gun is often just an intimidating bluff. If the suspect calls your bluff and nobody’s life is in immediate danger, you can’t shoot them."

True enough. In this case, I'm just perplexed at why the gun came out at all. I have to deal w/ suspects on the ground occasionally (that's where you want them, if they are resisting, a flight risk, etc.) and I have come to the conclusion that having something in your hand at that point can be more of a hinderance. Why did the BART officer's gun come out at all? That will be the pertinent question.

Anonymous said...

This may come across as an extremely naive question, but do police officers really need to carry pistols to do the job in the US and Canada? My understanding is that in the UK the cops don't carry guns. The cops call in a special team of officers if firearms are required. I heard that London the cops were polled about carrying pistols in the future and most disapproved. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary only started carrying guns in 1998. Your thoughts, Peter.

PCM said...

The UK has tough gun control laws. There just aren't that many guns in the public's hands there.

The level of gun ownership here in the U.S. is massive. Too many criminals (and non-criminals) have guns. Police can't go into almost every situation at such a disadvantage.

That being said, it would be an interesting experiment in theory.
I do suspect that not having guns would make police police better!

But I would not be willing to find that out at the cost of police officers' lives.

Frankly, the thought of policing without a gun in Baltimore's Eastern District would terrify me. But then there are (non-paid) New York Auxiliary Police who police in uniform without guns. Granted they're answering calls or put in situations where conflict is expected. But it isn't absolutely impossible.

PCM said...

Dave, I have no idea why the gun came out. Maybe he saw something something unrelated to Oscar Grant?

And yes, you're right. In close quarters, the gun can be a big disadvantage because it effectively takes away one hand. I mean, you can always whack a guy over the head with a gun, but that is not recommended.

gswift said...

I have no idea why the gun came out.

Look at the way he looks down at his belt after the shot. To me he looks surprised and confused by the gunshot. I continue to think that he meant to use his taser.

PCM said...

But had he been using the Taser (correctly), he would have given a verbal warning before pulling the trigger.

gswift said...

Sure. Every time I watch that video though, my impression is of surprise from both him and the other officers. I haven't heard or read anything that said if he carried his taser on his strong side.

I personally think strong side taser carry is madness. I suck at manipulating that thing with my left hand, but I keep it weak side in a cross draw.

PCM said...

Can you even fit both weapons on one side?

I kept my baton on my weak side, I guess where the Taser could go. The holster position is the only place you can put the straight baton so it doesn't get in the way when you ran.

I'm glad I didn't have any more crap on my belt. I tried hard (and succeeded) to keep the back my belt empty to avoid bringing on the back pain.