Context and Police Shootings

It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. It is easy to criticize the decisions and actions of others when we have the luxury of time and additional information. However, such criticisms are almost always guilty of the same error: They drop context. As an example, consider stories alleging unjustified shootings of citizens by police officers.

A recent story in the Chronicle illustrates this point:

About 70-80 percent of HPD’s officer-involved shootings involved people with weapons. Yet, 20-30 percent of cases involve the unarmed, including people like [Casey D.] Brown with no criminal history, and the mentally ill.

Certainly, an unarmed individual is likely to pose less of a threat than an armed individual. But police must often make a split-second decision whether an individual is armed and the extent of the threat he poses.

In March 2016, the city paid $100,000 to the family of John T. Barnes Jr., a wrecker driver who was shot and killed in 2009 after being confronted by an off-duty officer in an apartment parking lot. Barnes had been fighting with his common-law wife when the officer approached him with a Taser. After a struggle, Barnes was shot and killed. The city fought the lawsuit for five years and spent thousands of dollars on experts and transcripts before agreeing to settle, documents show.

Hidden in this paragraph is a short statement that Barnes struggled with the police officer before being shot. Yet, this is a crucial part of the context. If Barnes had been cooperative, the shooting would likely have been avoided. From where I sit, anyone who struggles with a police officer poses a threat.

This is the type of reporting about these events that frequently occurs. The emphasis is often on such things as the fact that the victim was unharmed or suffered from mental illness. The victim’s actions that precipitated the shooting are downplayed or mentioned in passing.

I do not mean to give police officers a free pass every time they shoot someone. They should be held accountable when they do so unjustifiably. But many on the political Left are eager to castigate the police and portray them as trigger happy racists. That is not true, and it is a gross injustice to the police.

Context is crucial. Before we rush to condemn the police for shooting someone, we must consider the full context. Anything less is irresponsible.

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