April 9, 2014 in City

Shawn Vestal: Cocksure Spokane police critics jump the gun

By The Spokesman-Review

Shawn Vestal
(Full-size photo)

Pure, knee-jerk cynicism is exactly as simpleminded as pure, knee-jerk naiveté.

And among the many things that have dripped toxins into the relations between the city and the police, this is a part – just one part – of the problem. A certain number of residents look at police officers and always see only demons. It’s Benghazi syndrome, an unshakable conviction of conspiracy in which all evidence contrary to the conspiracy can be simply considered to be part of the conspiracy itself.

I’m not talking about skepticism. I’m not talking about expectations for verification, for oversight, for transparency. I’m not talking about concerns over past or present events, or taking note of the fact that we’ve had four police shootings this year – and hoping that these real events don’t get lost in the reform talk.

No, I’m talking about a presumption of not just guilt, but of criminality, and a knee-jerk assumption of the worst, most heinous motives assigned to every police officer. We’d have to be dumb to believe that the cops always do it right. We have plenty of examples of that. It’s just as dumb to think the cops always do it wrong – purposefully, fatally wrong – and a constant assumption of bad faith is corrosive.

Last week, I wrote about the police shooting of the robbery suspect, and the video taken by cellphone by a bystander. It’s hard to square the initial statements about the shooting with what the video appears to show, and the way that situation is explained and justified to the community will be important. I still think that. I still wonder if a mistake was made, if the force was equal to the situation. But some of the outcry that has arisen around the video illustrates a different kind of problem.

A bystander shot cellphone video of the shooting of the robbery suspect at a home on Maple Street and Grace Avenue on March 26. It shows the man exiting the house and being shot by police within a second or two. Chief Frank Straub said the night of the incident that officers had been talking with the man for a long time while he was inside the house, and continued talking to him outside the house. The department clarified that initial statement, saying that around 10 minutes of the conversation with the man occurred not outside the home, but as he stood in the doorway.

The video is distant and grainy. The man’s arms are at his side, but it’s hard to tell anything about his demeanor or attitude. He’d been told many times to drop the gun in his hand – a gun later revealed to be a pellet gun – but he emerged, after all the commands to surrender, with it in his hand. Police then shot him several times.

There is much that the video does not show conclusively. It is, in other words, precisely the type of experience for which citizens can expect accountability – not just claims, but evidence. But it’s also not this: “Spokane police kill man as he surrenders.”

That’s the headline on a piece of hackery that was posted at the World Socialist Web Site, and probably has a very, very limited audience, though I did see it bouncing around on social media sites as though it were a credible bit of reporting. It reflects the purest, dumbest cop-bashing – cops-as-murderers – that you are likely to see.

First off, to claim the man was surrendering is – at the least – dubious. The story also tries to suggest the man might not have been carrying a gun because it’s not visible in the video. But no one from the police to the witnesses to the woman who shot that video herself have varied on that one point: The man had a gun – a pellet gun, as it turns out, but I don’t think you can expect anyone to have been able to tell the difference in that moment. The story says he was walking out of the house “in compliance” with police orders, but he was not – he was coming out armed, after being asked for a long time to come out unarmed.

The video shows his arms were hanging down by his side and “posed no threat” to officers. Arguable.

That video is disturbing. No question. The shots come immediately upon the man’s exit, and it seems shockingly quick. It raises questions, but you’d have to be a glib know-it-all to think you can divine all the answers.

I think it’s necessary to aggressively demand accountability when the cops shoot someone. I also think it’s fair to consider the difficulty of the circumstances surrounding those decisions. I went out to the Spokane Police Academy recently, and went through a few scenarios on their virtual training system. As a clumsy, slow thinker, I’m probably worse than average at something like that, and yet even at that I was surprisingly bad. I shot the wrong people, and didn’t shoot the right ones, and got shot quite a bit myself in return. It made me very nervous, and I felt a little bit awful when I shot a suicidal man.

The training didn’t change my mind about anything. I think most of us understand that it is not an easy decision, and that officers are put into dangerous situations – and the fact that I, or any untrained person, am bad at it only suggests so much. It made me wonder if such training predisposes officers to see deadly threats everywhere, all the time, and if that predisposition might tip them toward shooting earlier rather than later. But it also made me appreciate viscerally the penalty they can pay if they get that decision wrong.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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