Are police officers above the law?

The results of the inquest into the shooting death of John Williams by Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk have come back and while they state that the shooting was unjustified, no criminal charges will be filed. Understandably, many folks are more than a bit angered. One friend of mine posted on her Facebook wall “WTF?! This cop should be executed in the same way that he murdered this defenseless, innocent man. Un@#%&ingbelievable!” Many of her friends chimed in in agreement. To her credit, when I called her on such an inflammatory posting she redacted it slightly, saying that I shouldn’t take it literally, that she was just angered.

It raises an important question though. What should a community do when a member of law enforcement unjustifiably, but without malice, shoots someone?

While the inquest didn’t find him “guilty”, everyone involved, including Officer Birk, seems to agree that the shooting was a mistake. But mistakes happen all the time and decisions made when under duress, in the blink of an eye, are not always the same ones we’d make when given time to reflect. Of course all the time that goes in to training a police officer is suppose to hone those officers’ decision making skills so that mistakes that the average citizen would make while under duress wouldn’t be made by the officer. It seems, then, that perhaps Officer Birk’s training was not all it should have been. Or perhaps Officer Birk just wasn’t fit to be a cop. I think most people will agree it’s a good thing that he chose to resign and find another line of work. But calling for his head; even calling for him to be charged with manslaughter and thrown in prison, is a dangerous road to go down.

First of all, I’m guessing that Officer Birk isn’t some bloodthirsty murderer who had it out for Native woodcarvers and joined the force just to be given the opportunity to go around shooting them. He’s going to have to live with the mistake he made for the rest of his life. Like most people who have killed another person, even if completely justified, the mark it will leave on his conscious will not soon disappear. He’ll likely be tormented by flashbacks and PTSD, so as a community, while our hearts go out to the family of John Williams, our hearts should also go out to Officer Birk.

There are some folks who always like to jump up when an officer shoots someone, even completely justifiably, and use what I like to call the “Dirty Harry” argument. “The guy only had a knife! Why didn’t the cop just shoot it out of his hand?” Really? Tell you what. I’m going to stand 30 feet away with a knife, act a little crazy, make some threatening gestures and start coming toward you. I’m going to bet that your survival instincts kick in pretty fast and you do whatever is necessary to stop me; including shooting at the biggest target you have: my chest; not my hand, arm or leg and certainly not the knife. This is not the movies and Jason Bourne does not exist so let’s put that myth to rest right away. That’s not to say that John Williams was charging at Officer Birk with his knife swinging through the air but since there were only a few people on that corner that day and, if after all their testimony and the testimony of other expert witnesses, half the members of the inquest jury came away believing that Officer Birk did feel his life was in danger, it means that there are enough questions that remain unanswered that no one will know for sure what was really going through Officer Birk’s mind and what the appropriate response should have been. After all, Seattleites are not typically known as gun-toting, trigger-happy, anti-Native American racists so if they’re willing to give Officer Birk a pass then he probably deserves one.

Of course, if Citizen Smith had shot John Williams and then claimed that Williams was making a marginally threatening gesture with a knife, it’s a fairly good bet that Citizen Smith would be facing five to ten years as a guest of the state for manslaughter for using what the law calls “imperfect self defense.” If the prosecutor was feeing lucky he might even be able to pin him with second-degree murder. So does this mean that, because the only difference between Citizen Smith and Officer Birk is a badge that law enforcement is above the law? Well, yes. From something as simple as being allowed to speed toward the scene of a crime all the way up to being allowed to use deadly force; even force so deadly it can wipe an entire city off the map (after all, the president is the top law-enforcement agent in the nation), we’ve given certain folks extra rights to operate outside the law in order to enforce it. It’s the tradeoff we make for living in a civilized society. We trust that these people will act properly outside the confines of the law that the rest of us must follow and, generally, they do. Sometimes, though, they make tragic mistakes. We, of course, still have certain guidelines or laws they must follow when living outside the other laws. If an officer’s supervisor got wind of him speeding around just for the thrill of it he’d be heavily reprimanded. And any time a cop discharges his weapon, even justifiably, he has to fill out reams of paperwork. If it was found that a general ordered the mass slaughter of an entire village of civilians, he’d be dishonorably discharged and would probably spend the rest of his days in Leavenworth. (At least he should be. Unfortunately justice isn’t always perfect.) But any of these law enforcement officials facing such charges must be investigated and given a fair trial. What’s more, they must be given a bit longer leash than the rest of us.

The problem with charging Officer Birk with manslaughter, even if his civilian counterpart would have been, is that, the next time an officer is on the street and someone starts swinging a knife around, instead of taking the shot that officer may recall what happened to Officer Birk and, even if he does choose to take action after weighing the pros and cons, the extra seconds he spends doing so may cost him and others their lives. The same argument can be made for how we’re waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We should certainly discipline, even to the point of imprisonment, any soldier who uses excessive force or who does not follow the rules of engagement, but when we’re talking about Mirandizing combatants we meet in the field of battle and treating war like some routine traffic stop, we make soldiers second-guess their actions or, perhaps, choose not to take action at all. After all, why would any soldier risk his life to capture the enemy if he thinks he may be charged with a crime for doing so or that the enemy he captures may just end up being freed a few months later.

Instead of calling for the blood or our own police officers and soldiers because some may make mistakes, we should thank them for putting their lives on the line every day in defense of ours and if we really are facing problems of poor decision making in the field, as it appears is the case with the shooting of John Williams, we should make sure the training and screening process of our officers is the best it can be so we can better trust the decisions they make.

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