By Ken K. Gourdin
Pondering the shootings by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; of Danielle Willard in West Valley City, Utah; and of Darien Hunt in Saratoga Springs, Utah, I had the accompanying random thoughts. At the outset, I’ll affirm the (perhaps obvious) point that law enforcement use of force that results in loss of life is a tragedy. No officer goes to work intending to harm or kill other human beings. (If he did, he would be considered a psychopath or a sociopath.) The prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in officers following even justified shootings seems to suggest that there is not a high incidence of sociopathy or psychopathy among them. As distasteful as it is, however, the prospect of inflicting harm or death on someone else must be weighed against the likelihood that anyone he would do the same to other human beings. Thus, as unpleasant as the prospect might be, since he is sworn to protect the public he serves, he sometimes is placed in the unenviable position of threatening or using deadly force. In the overwhelming majority of cases, he does so simply to prevent an even worse result.
In Hunt’s case, if he had a weapon and had already threatened officers with it, in my book, the shooting still would be justified even if he were fleeing because officers can ill afford to give subjects who flee with weapons the benefit of the doubt. A similar justification would apply in Brown’s case, since, apparently, he had already assaulted and attempted to disarm Officer Darren Wilson. To those who would say that neither set of circumstances, without more, justifies officers’ use of deadly force, I would question whether that stance puts officers in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” position: what if Hunt and Wilson had committed violence against the public after fleeing from officers? Would law enforcement critics then claim that officers aren’t doing enough to protect them? As for Cowley’s case, when my father, who is a retired 43-year law enforcement veteran, asked me if, with my reduced mobility, even I could get out of the way of a moving vehicle, I told him that I can. Still, I’m reluctant to criticize Cowley too harshly: for one thing, I don’t think for a moment that he wanted to kill Danielle Willard; and for another, a duly-authorized court has found that he acted without criminal intent, and I am loathe to question that determination.
Of the two remaining incidents that have not been adjudicated, if it is determined (as has been reported) that Brown was charging at Wilson (after having already assaulted and attempted to disarm him), I think, notwithstanding the fact that the Brown shooting has been the subject of the most fervent (and, dare I say, violent) public protests, that it is most likely to be ruled justified. As for Hunt, the three observations I have regarding his shooting are: (1) If he was looking for a job and/or attending (a) job interview(s) on the morning he was shot, why did he even have the sword (“toy” or otherwise) to begin with? What might a perspective employer be inclined to think of someone who brought such an implement to a job interview (“That? Oh, don’t mind that; it’s just my toy sword”)? (2) Even if it was a simple “toy,” who’s to say that its maker wasn’t aiming for realism, and that, if such is the case, its “harmlessness” wouldn’t immediately be apparent to officers who perceived it as a threat? After all, we know that, tragically, a similar thing has happened with realistic looking toy guns; why couldn’t such a thing happen even with a “toy” sword? And (3) Even if he wasn’t a threat (while I’m not saying that this justifies officers in shooting him), Hunt apparently had disengaged from the outside world to enter his own world by listening to music in earbuds. Potentially, that makes others a danger to him even if he had never encountered law enforcement. He wouldn’t be the first person to ignore a traffic signal or to fail to perceive surrounding potential hazards because he was distracted by his device. That’s a risk anyone who wishes to disengage from the world in such a manner takes.