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by Peter Moskos

August 27, 2014

"Unarmed" man not shot by police

One of the things that keeps coming out of the Ferguson shooting is that Michael Brown was "unarmed." As if "unarmed" people cannot be a threat to cop.

That's bullshit.

Now I'm not talking about whether Michael Brown was or was not a threat. I do not know. But the fact that he was "unarmed" does not mean he wasn't a threat.

This is a video (from 5 months ago) of an "unarmed" man on the whom I think the police officer should have shot. But the cop didn't. I guess the officer didn't feel his life was in danger. Kudos to him. Seriously. But I think his life was in imminent danger. And I think I would have shot the guy.

Just based on the description of the video (and the fact that the train isn't leaving and a police officer is involved), let's assume guy threatened to shoot subway passengers. A cop responded. The guy attacks the cop. That's where the video starts.

The cop tries to retreat. Then the cop maces him at 0:15. There's a nice deflection at 0:17. (Shazam! Jujitsu shit.) The asp comes out at 0:21. [Wack.] Little if any effect. The guy keeps coming at the police officer. Notice how few seconds have passed.

The grappling continues. The guy keeps coming. What would you do?

Now when you can use lethal force is not cut and dried. It's up to the police officer. And I can't read this police officer's mind. But he didn't use lethal force. That was the choice he made. Maybe he never felt his life was in danger.

But I'm telling you I think I would shot guy point-blank at 0:45.

Would this have been a "good" (ie: justified) shooting. Abso-fucking-lootly.

I've been in fights. And I haven't shot anybody. For whatever reason (backup, for instance) I never felt my life was in danger. I won't say this cop should have shot the guy. He felt he didn't need to. And he turned out to be right. But had he shot him, I would defend that shooting (as would the law).

But what if there's no video? What if the cop does shoot? What if, as would happen, some "eyewitness" on the subway says "the guy had his hands in the air [which, actually, he kind of did]. And he was surrendering when the cops shot him for no reason!" Then what do you assume?

Because when cops hear of a cop shooting an "armed person," they assume something like this happened. Cop know, based on everything they have done and seen, that police do not shoot people for no reason. Cops think: there but for the grace of God, go I.

Also note there is a train of people, not one of whom helps the cop. (Or you could say it's good nobody helped the other guy, who was asking for help).

So this subway cop showed amazing (and perhaps even unwise) restraint in use of force. But yes, in hindsight, it's clearly better that nobody got shot.

So did this officer receive any kudos for his bravery or his restraint? I don't know. Should he? Yes. Did he? I doubt it.


Corey said...

I've been thinking the same thing (vis a vis the Brown scenario). Thank you for saying it out loud. I'm trying to withhold judgment until more of the facts get released; but this case has become such a political football and the St. Louis Depts have mishandled it so badly, I am not confident we will get useful information.

On the absence of police shooting in your embedded video, all I can say is WOW. It's a nice illustration of escalation of force. It must have been terrifying to be that guy. Not just in the fight, but even more when the subway cleared out and people started swarming toward him.

Anonymous said...

If there is no video, then the policeman should go to jail pending trial and then plead and prove self-defense to the satisfaction of the jury at his trial.

He he wants to be tried quickly then the policeman should take care not waive his right to a speedy trial.

If the policeman cannot afford an attorney, then the state will provide a lawyer.

It is not clear whether Darren Wilson has been arrested, but he should have been by now.

Shorter version: the policeman defending himself should be treated just like anyone else defending herself. No better, no worse.

bacchys said...

If someone who wasn't a cop was in a similar situation as the cop in your video and shot his assailant- in MD- he'd at best have years of having criminal charges hanging over his head while waiting for the DA to make a decision on whether or not to prosecute.

Even in Stand Your Ground states, shooting someone who isn't armed is going to increase the scrutiny and the likelihood one is going to be criminally charged for using deadly force. Our self-defense laws generally require some proportionality in the force used.

Anonymous said...

Yes an unarmed person can be a threat. It is not too difficult to kill someone with your hands or feet. But police in my area (and I would assume St. Louis metro as well) usually carry two or three less lethal weapons that can be used as an alternative to their firearms.

In regards to the Brown case, my question is why did P.O. Wilson introduce a firearm into the "tussle" that witnesses described. What, no taser, no telescopic baton, no OC? I know Brown was a large man, but I find it very strange that a "trained" police officer would need introduce a firearm into a "tussle," which raises the stakes exponentially. The fact that Brown then wound up approximately 35 feet from the squad also looks really bad, as does the GSW to the top of Brown's head.

My cynicism about Wilson's actions stem not just from my activism, but from my professional experience. I have worked for over twelve years in the security field. The vast majority of this time has been spent in the often violent, unpredictable field of healthcare security. Every day I interact with the same kind of people (angry people, intoxicated people, criminals, mentally ill people, etc) that cops like Darren Wilson work around. Indeed, my work environment--whether in the ER, the Behavioral Health Units or in the middle of family disputes--is probably more tense than the work environment of the average suburban cop.

Over the years, I have had to go hands on with many people, some of them quite large. I have survived these scrapes and have never been allowed to carry anything other than OC (which I never actually used). My verbal de-escalation skills, my DT training (supplemented by more training outside of work, since hospital administrators are cheap bastards)and, most importantly, teamwork, have gotten me through these altercations, though I have sustained some minor injuries.

I accept that my job entails some risk. I also accept that I am required to act as a professional. This means I have to avoid seriously harming combative people, especially when they are our patients. If I used overwhelming force on people and then started mouthing platitudes about "my safety is number one" or "I need to go home to my wife tonight," I would be terminated.

I guess being the POlice has its privileges.

Dave- IL

Anonymous said...

This idea that cops get to shoot when they are possibly in danger is wrong. There is no proportionality to that argument. Look up the statistics - sworn officers die on the job less than other professions, like construction. The myth that they get to do ANYTHING to protect themselves because their life is ALWAYS on the line is a myth.

PCM said...

OK. So let me ask you this: when would *you* shoot?

Anonymous said...

When my life was in imminent danger. (And sure you can argue that this cop's life was in imminent danger, but the reality is the fight in all its immediacy does not represent a life-threatening situation). I would have maced the guy. I would have tasered him. I would have done my best to disengage like this guy did. I think this guy did an admirable job. If I had been injured/incapacitated, I might shoot, but cops shoot without warning and shoot and shoot and shoot. Cops don't "shoot" anymore; they almost always kill it seems. You're the statistician; tell me if my perception that there were fewer shots per incident and a lower proportion of death/incident than in the past is accurate.

BUT I would never be a cop because I don't like them; that's not because they are cops, but because I know too many who are a**holes and I would not feel comfortable having my job/life depend on people I didn't respect.

PCM said...

The cop did mace. He had no taser.

Shot per incident hasn't changed much over time. There has been an ever-so-slight increase with the shift to semi-automatic from revolver in the 1990s. But it wasn't much (I once looked at this for the NYPD; I forget the numbers; but I decided there was nothing there).

The percentage of people shot who die has slowly increased over the years (I think just NYC), but again not by much. I think this is due to more deadly bullets.

Anonymous said...

IOW, cops DO shoot more times per incident and are more likely to kill when they do than they used to (I assume ever so slight is still an increase). I think that information validates my perception rather than refuting it. Also, what percentage of cops have substance abuse issues (including alcohol), or are racist or sexist, or have anger management (including domestic violence) issues. IF that number ain't north of 10% than I may have to revise my thinking, but I am sure it is. Hell, I'd guess alcoholism could top 10% just by itself.

PCM said...

I wasn't trying to agree or disagree with you. I was just offering some facts you requested.

You tell me what percentage of the general public meets those definitions, and then I might proffer a guess as to cops. It's probably a bit higher among cops.

I think police are pretty reflective of the economic and social class from which they come. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily. Or at least nothing wrong you can blame police for.

If you want a different class of cops, you need to recruit and hire and pay a different class of people. I mean, it's a civil service job. Everybody is welcome to apply.

Not really certain what your point is, to be honest. Unless it's just you think most cops are dicks....

In which case I'll counter with: "Are not!"

And then you can say: "Are too!"

And then we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Anonymous said...

Nope. I think that when somewhere between 1 in 5 and 1 in 4 of the sworn officers have issues that should preclude them from being allowed on active duty in a job where lethal force can be used with such impunity that it's a problem. With that many impaired individuals, it means that I think that a significant number (10%) of cop shootings are because the cops made bad judgements (and they suffer no consequence) and probably somewhere between 1 and 5 percent are probably outright homicide. When need to hold these officers and police departments to a higher standard, remediate when the problems are known, and terminate when remediation doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

Instead an arbitrator in Oakland reinstated a guy who the force actually fired because of excessive force and the Seattle PD are in outright revolt even though a consent decree states they used excessive force and the police monitor ordered policy changes. This is just on the West Coast. Oh and John Pike of UC pepper spray fame gets to retire with whatever pension he earned plus Workman's Comp.

campbell said...

Christ, yet another security guard comparing his gig to being a cop. If I had a dollar...

Bonus for mentioning his extra DT training.

Anonymous said...


Wow, condescending much? There's an attitude straight out of the FOP lodge for you.

Don't be so arrogant and obtuse. There are clear parallels between security work--especially in a healthcare or campus setting--and policing. Until you understand the environment that I work in (OSHA stats indicate that healthcare is among the most dangerous sectors in the US), I'd think twice about belittling my experience.

There are also a lot of differences between what I do and policing. And I appreciate those differences, because there are a lot of things police are involved in that I wish to avoid.For instance, I am proud NOT to be a drug warrior. I also have no desire to man speed traps, control poor people or shoot dogs. Mock me all you want, my porcine friend, but I sleep just fine at night, even though I have a fucked up 401K instead of a fat public pension.

And what's with the snark about the DT training. I don't claim to be a black belt (most cops aren't either), but I know what I'm doing. And most of what I'm doing involves de-escalation. Do most cops these days even know what that is? Here's a clue: It doesn't involve tasing some dude ten times and telling him to "stop resisting" as his body flops up and down. Cops in the era of the taser have become fucking soft, so don't expect me to marvel at police DT skills.

See Campbell, not all of us lowly "security guards" think that our public counterparts walk on water. And this one is long past wanting to be associated in any way with your "brotherhood."

Fraternally yours,
Dave- IL

campbell said...

Mock me all you want, my porcine friend

Truly, your de-escalation fu is strong.

PCM said...

I like Dave's comments (not that that matters). He's been a long time reader and an intelligent commenter for years. Let's just let that one line pass as "heat of the moment". Maybe not Dave's best moment. Regardless, there were greater points made. And the disrespect did seemed to be mutual. Let us move on...

Anonymous said...


Well said and I apologize for taking it there. I still enjoy your blog and I respect you for trying to move policing forward in the US. And out of respect for you (and myself), I'll avoid getting into "who's is bigger" contests in the future. Calm breeds calm, after all.

Campbell struck a nerve when he made light of my experience and training simply because I have not worn a government issued badge. I imagine he has no idea what I actually do. All he cares about his protecting his turf, which is kind of sad. I know his kind and I should have just let it slide.

His flippant approach suggested that he is yet another ignorant individual who believes that he knows all there is to know about private security personnel because he has seen "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." Indeed, his comment could have been made by any number of drunks, psychiatric patients or run-of-the-mill criminals I've dealt with over the years. But I suspect that Campbell is a police officer (or thinks he is), so his ignorance is inexcusable.

If Campbell wanted to have a real conversation about the similarities and differences between public and private protection entities, that would be great. After all, most "policing" is done privately and always has been (think about it). Public police are, of course, a relatively new invention.

I have serious issues with private security, as I do with public police. I was a criminal justice student so I have done ample research on these issues. I also seriously considered careers in local, state and federal law enforcement. I know what it is like to toil on an eligibility list for a year or two only to hear nothing. That can be frustrating. But the excesses of policing--especially the drug war-- were what really drove me away from policing.

If people like Campbell really care about policing, they should ask themselves why people like me, who would have been well qualified to be police, opted out. Instead of mocking those of us on the outside, they should look in the mirror. And they should do it before things get even uglier. If Ferguson freaked you out, I don't think you've seen anything yet.

Dave- IL

campbell said...

I won't claim I couldn't have been a bit more diplomatic there. I might have been drunk, it's been known to happen.

Dave, comparing private security guards to the police will always be ridiculous for the simple reason that for criminals you are not a real consequence. You do not have the power to take their freedom. Felons see the police coming for them and know they're facing the end of life as they know it for a time, possibly forever, depending on the crime. Does anyone think they're going away for a nickel in the pen when they see campus security? Can the security guard take information that person offers and work with the DA to make that charge disappear? The police are the arm of the govt with the power to take and give freedom and sometimes life by use of force. It fundamentally alters the interactions we have with people and it's why you will never be able to compare security with police.

If people like Campbell really care about policing, they should ask themselves why people like me, who would have been well qualified to be police, opted out.

Here's where I lose patience with fellow liberals. Quit whining and get in there and do something. As legendary cop Jimmy McNulty once said, "The patrolling officer on his beat is the one true dictatorship in America". You want to see things be different? Get on your beat and be that officer who focuses on actual quality of life issues instead of trying to get a rock of crack off of every scrote just because you can. Be the officer who ignores the weed on that non white kid and takes him to his parents and lets them deal with him instead of fucking him with a drug charge at age 16.

You know who cops take their cues from? Other cops. Be a cop who takes shitheads to jail and is a reliable guy in a fight and you'll have more influence on that cohort than a thousand drum circles.

Anonymous said...


This is the kind of conversation I was alluding to! It is the kind of chat I can imagine having over a cold one with a cop. Or maybe with my dad, who was a cop for thirty years.

If that is what you meant by comparing jobs, then I can agree with you. If I do not witness a crime being committed (or if it is not captured on CCTV), then I may not make a private person's arrest. I can't detain on reasonable suspicion, as you know. And of course I don't have the State's Attorney on speed dial.

Since the organizations I have worked with prohibit the carrying of firearms, I also can't engage an armed threat (Unless I can ambush him; my employer has no right to ask me to take on a suicide mission, after all). I know the lack of a firearm does make a difference to some of the people I deal with. Sadly, they only seem to respect a gun or a beat down. Clearly cops have the edge with these clowns.

So it turns out you and I may not be poles apart after all. Your skepticism about drug war policing in particular makes me confident about that. I appreciate your invitation to hit the streets. I guess I take that as a compliment, even though we got off on the wrong foot. And I always appreciate a drum circle joke!

The likelihood of me getting into policing at this point isn't great though. For one thing, I am about to age out here in IL (36 is the cut-off). That doesn't mean I couldn't go elsewhere. Like many in IL, my wife and I are thinking of moving elsewhere ; )

OK, so the age thing isn't much of an excuse. What about the fact that I've been in private sector security for twelve years. I have heard rumors that that can be held against you.

But as I suggested, the biggest obstacle would be my strong opposition to the drug war. I don't know if I could do the job without compromising my principles. But maybe some officers find ways, as you inferred.

I'll confess that I am pretty well burned out with this gig. Now may be an opportune time to take a fresh look at career options. I don't know if I'd fit in these days, but stranger things have happened.

Thanks for caring enough to write back.

Dave- IL

PCM said...

I went into the job thinking the war on drugs was a mistake. I left the job knowing it is mistake. I still managed to do my job and not compromise my beliefs, working in a high-drug area. I so wish more people who don't fit the "typical" cop mold would become police. Policing would benefit.

Anonymous said...


That's cool. If one is already a critic of policing (at least some parts of it) pre-service, that does present some interesting possibilities.

Due to the "burnout" that I referenced, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately. My wife--who is also quite critical of policing--even told me maybe I should look at one police department in particular (Madison, WI) that I tested with previously. That one surprised me a bit, as I stopped looking at PD's a few years ago.

Then yesterday I saw this on the Drugwarrant blog:


So now a UN commission is talking legalization/regulation. Shit won't change overnight, but that gave me some hope.

When I walked away from the police applicant process, it wasn't because I lost interest in policing. It wasn't because I didn't have "what it takes," whatever that means. Rather, it was because I felt like the era of drug war policing would continue through my lifetime. But then Colorado and Washington happened. And Ferguson has opened up a conversation, even though it has been a rough conversation for the police. And now the UN thing.

With these events and the input from you and Campbell in mind, I wonder if maybe I was a bit hasty. I'll think about what you've said. Thanks for your encouragement and thanks for running a blog where these conversations can happen.

Dave- IL

Anonymous said...

4 times more likely than general population to be involved with domestic violence and no consequences in most cases.


PCM said...

Anybody (including the Atlantic) who believes that almost half of all cops physically abuse their spouse is crazy. Out of the question.

Anonymous said...

That's a BS knee-jerk reaction and unworthy of you. It doesn't even say that; is said 40% in families that experienced domestic violence. A more salient criticism is that the citation is from 1992. Here's one from 2011 that hits close to home for you, but it's behind a paywall. Baltimore police officers were surveyed and results reported. There was a robust 68% return rate from volunteers. Care to read it and let us/me know what it says.

Anonymous said...

Sorry. here's the cite.

PCM said...

Well, you hooked me with the Baltimore link. But are you really making you do your reading for you?

Here's the bottom line, I suppose: "Out of all respondents, 9% admitted losing control and becoming physically aggressive with an intimate partner." Seems about right (as in, a bit low, but about right for what one would expect in a survey).

And an interesting tidbit in that black women police officers were the worst offenders.

I have a lot of problems with quantitative analysis. Non-random missing data: 68% response rate may be considered good by social scientists, but it's not good enough. Not if the 32% are the one's messed up ones. We just don't know.

I have a lot of problems with interpreting a question to mean something else.

And if you want to talk about stress, why doesn't the questionnaire ask: have you been afraid for you life? Have you been shot at? That is what fucks up officers. Instead it asks about chemical spills(?!).

But what I really liked was getting that data. I've always wanted to know basic demographic info about the BPD from my time there, and did not know about this data set.

But going through the original data (not the article you cite), it says that 27% (excluding those still in the academy) of officers have shot somebody! That is too high, which is a reason to question the data.

For those with at least 2 years on, 70 were the subject of an IID investigation. And that was much more traumatic than violence and gore on the job!

Such tidbits like 20% don't ever pray (and 80% do) are interesting. 63% don't hang out drinking with cops at bars.

And, by my rough interpretation of the data, about 20-25 percent of cops are emotionally messed up. Rings true. But I didn't need a survey to tell me that.

PCM said...

And the Atlantic article *does* say almost half of all cops are involved in domestic violence.

OK, so maybe some cops are on the receiving end, but how else do you read: "At least 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence"?

And I still say that is bullshit.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to do the reading; didn't have access. You have those beautiful university library subscriptions that I envy. I was surprised that it was paywalled since it looked like it was supported by a govt. grant. Thanks for the info. (P.S. I'm going to pat myself on the back. Without any thing other than a swag, I apparently hit the mark on emotionally messed up, "Nope. I think that when somewhere between 1 in 5 and 1 in 4 of the sworn officers have issues that should preclude them from being allowed on active duty in a job where lethal force can be used with such impunity that it's a problem."

Anonymous said...

Grew up that way. Have a stepchild who came from a family with DV. Married someone whose ex hit them. Has kids with an ex where the new partner hits his kids or step siblings or ex. More liberal interpretations might extend to their own siblings or nieces or nephews especially if we start talking about taking in displaced family members. I would divide by at least 2 and possibly 4 to get to direct abusers.

PCM said...

If you like stats and know how to use them, you can get the original data set: ICPSR 02976.

The article wasn't government funded, just the original research.

PCM said...

Email me and I can send you the article.

PCM said...

The definition of "domestic" varies a lot. But in Maryland, it meant (and still means, I think): two people who have had sex. Period. It is not broadly defined to include "people under the same roof" like it is in New York.

But the survey does not actually ask about domestic violence. It asks, "Have you ever gotten out of control and been physical (e.g. pushing, shoving, grabbing) with:".

The "violence" part of "domestic violence" must leave some sign of injury. So the survey is asking a much broad question about ever getting "physical."

So while 10% say they have gotten "physical," that is not the same as saying 10% have committed domestic violence, which would be lower (though it would be a odd cop who would admit to something that would get you fired).

Anonymous said...

"If people like Campbell really care about policing, they should ask themselves why people like me, who would have been well qualified to be police, opted out."

"I know what it is like to toil on an eligibility list for a year or two only to hear nothing."

These read like poster child quotes for cognitive dissonance and adaptive preference formation. I think it it's highly likely that you toiled on eligibility lists for a year or two because you weren't, in fact, as "highly qualified" as you believe yourself to be. And "opting out"? It's clear you didn't "opt out"; you tried to get on with a department and weren't selected.

"Don't be so arrogant and obtuse." - Did you even look at your own post before publishing it? Campbells post was two and a half sentences, and you replied with more than three paragraphs. So, how exactly is Campbell the arrogant one here?

PCM said...

Let's just leave it here. This is just about where I'm going to cut things off. This is not the tone I like in my comments.