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by Peter Moskos

April 24, 2020

Paterson police-involved shooting

In some ways this is a very typical police-involved shooting, not that police-involved shootings are are typical. But it's all here: a man with a gun, probably mentally disturbed, confronted by police. And not for the first time. The man is white. You hear cops saying, "We can help you." You also hear the de rigueur, "Drop the fucking gun!" He does not drop the gun. He raises the gun, not at first to a shooting position. He isn't shot. Five seconds latter he lowers the gun barrel just a smidge. A cop fires. Then a barrage of gunfire is heard. That could be contagion shooting or in response to man seemingly trying to take a shooting stance. Many bullets strike him. He is dead.

What makes this post-worthy is that there are at least 3 cellphone videos I've seen of the incident, and all of pretty good quality. Also, the area, despite the man who was shot being white, seems to be black.

Here's a transcript from the video that I put together:
Man #1: I would have been shot, that nigga, man.
Woman #1: Watch that bitch on side.
Man #1: Hey, yo, kill that nigga.
Woman #2: [exasperated] Come on.
Man #1: If he was black I would’ve been shot, that nigga, man.
Woman #1: They’d a-bin shot.
Police: Drop it. I’m not fucking, drop the fucking gun.
Woman #1: Oh, my god
Police: Drop the gun. You gotta help me out.
Woman #1: Drop the gun
Man #1: Yo, if he was black, I would’ve been shot him, man.
Man #2: He up that gun, they gonna shoot him.
Man #1: He did up it already.
Woman #2: They’re going to light his ass up, if he shoot.
Man #2: Nigga still doing something.
Man #1: Light his ass up!
Man #2: Cause he not putting the gun down.
Man #1: If he was black I would’ve been [unintelligible]
Woman #2: But I’m saying, if he shoot.
Man #2: He not putting the gun down.
Man #1: But but but, I’m up top, nigga.
Woman #2: Hell no, he ain’t putting it down. He had an opportunity the first fucking call.
Man #1: Light his ass up.
Woman #2: He like, “hell, no.”
Man #2: They got all right to shoot him. He ain’t putting the gun down.
Man #1: He standing his ground, man
Man #2: Once he raises it they gonna shoot him.
Woman #2: He raise it...
Man #2: Once he raises it they gonna shoot him. They got all right to shoot.
Others: Oh!
Man #1: They done him!
Others: Oh, my God.
Man #1: BYE, BYE! BYE, BYE!
Others: I told you they...
The crowd's combination of spectator sport, sporting commentary, fatalism, blood-lust (Man #1, below, makes me think of how crowds must have been like at death matches in the Roman Colosseum), and actually quite astute legal analysis on whether the shooting is legally justified before it happens. Man #2 says exactly when "They got all right to shoot him."

One person warns the to-be-shot guy about a cop approaching. Another person wants nobody shot. A third person wants him shot. A fourth is calling the shooting justified before it happens. It really does cover all the bases. And all this in one scene of less than 60 seconds.

It's worth watching the video just for the crowd commentary. Depends on what kind of neighborhood you live in, you might be surprised. One rarely gets this sense of scene (mise-en-scène, if I may) in post-shooting analysis. But here you have it. American 2020, in the midst of the Coronavirus.
I do feel bad A) for cops who have to deal with and armed man and end up killing him and B) also for a man who was killed, probably while in state of mental crisis.

But consider being a cop and having this running commentary in the background. Calling out the position of cops places everybody in greater danger. People shouting "shoot him" does not make the job easier nor the shooting less likely. Also, if gun shots are about to fly, sound advice is get out of the line of sight. But who am I to judge? Policing in this kind of neighborhood is different. So is living there. And people forget these facts.

Of note: A woman officer jumps out of cover to tell an approaching motorist to back up. She may have saved a life. They were all brave. She should get a special medal just for that.

The gun in the lowered position. At 0:57

Gun is raised at 1:03

The gun is in the raised position from 0:58 to 1:03 in the video. My Monday-morning-quarterbacking opinion is police should have shot him at 0:58, when he raised the gun. But I wasn't there. At that moment no officer felt it was a threat. Maybe the barrel of the gun was pointed elsewhere as it was raised. Who am I to judge? Regardless of my opinion, police hold their fire for another 5 seconds. Kudos? Maybe. But I'm glad nobody else got shot. Given how this situation ended up being resolved, lethally, I see it as a dangerous delay, at least in hindsight. 

When I first watched the video I thought, "how odd they didn't shoot him when he raised his gun and then did shoot him 5 seconds later as he stood still." Even I missed this: he didn't stand still. Cops on the scene would see this. Bystanders and those watching the video in real time would not. 

Because of the threat, tunnel vision and heightened senses kick in for the officers. At 1:03, the man lowers the barrel of the gun, just a bit (3A-3D, below). Only then is the first shot fired. (The first cop to shoot is off-screen to the left. You don't see him in these pictures). Here is a frame-by-frame at the moment of shooting. 

That little movement (3A-3D) is the difference between life and death. Both for him and, potentially, police officers. Because once that barrel points towards you, you could be dead. And as a police officer, I wouldn't take that chance. And I won't ask other to take it, either.


Then there is what sounds like the predictable contagion fire. Except notice the stance the guy takes after being shot (4). Whether this is a reflex reaction to being shot or his desire to take a few cops out, I don't know. Either way it's a shooting stance. And he gets lit up.

Had the victim been black, given the video, this would be bigger news. So far this incident is just in the local press. And there it probably will remain. Which is fine. (And a pretty good account here; local press is often better than the Big Boys on police-involved shootings, because they report just what happened without running it through the politically-correct filter that fancy journalists seemed to have learned in "J-school").

Because the victim of the shooting is not black, by taking race out of the equation it makes it easier to analyze this shooting objectively. Not that the bystanders do. There's something tragically ironic about one woman, right before the man is killed saying "Boy, if he was black...". Turns out white people get shot by police, too.

[Linguistically, not that you asked, I'm fascinating with this sentence from Man #1: "Yo, if he was black, I would’ve been shot him, man." "Would have been shot him." Is he saying "Were the guy black, he would have been shot" or "I would have shot him, if he were black"? It's the "him" at the end that throws me. "...[were I] him" or "I would [shoot] him"? Sorry, I do think about things like this.]

Update. This comment from twitter expressed something I wanted to say but couldn't figure out how to say:
Another thing the video shows is the constant trauma in poorer communities. It shouldn't be a thing where people are at a stand off and someone is video taping not worried about being shot. Or you don't run or drop to the ground once shooting starts.

Post Script: If you're interested in this kind of deep description of policing, see my description of the 2016 fatal Chicago police-involved shooting of Paul O'Neal. I also wrote described in great detail the 2015 arrest of Sandra Bland. And, as always, there is my book about policing in Baltimore, Cop in the Hood.


Concerned citizen said...

Professor Moskos-
Thank you a remarkable account and analysis.

It must have taken you a ton of time.

The perspective you provide is priceless.


A bleeding heart conservative who has voted Dem in the past 3 pres. elections and has a portrait of Pres. Obama on my living room wall

PS--As you mentioned: When police shootings are either partly or fully suicide-by-cop, I feel terrible for the cops.

Steven said...

The person filming is in the line with one of the officers and so could be shot. But it just seems like they never give the guy a chance. They understand the situation and they don't think he can get a shot off. Sure they might be more lenient to a white guy but not THAT lenient.