Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tough Choices

On February 6, the Edmonton Journal ran a story about a 17-year-old boy who had been shot and killed by a police officer.  The gist of the article was that a robbery suspect fleeing a crime scene had charged an officer while armed with both a bat and a knife.  At a distance of 6-8 feet, the officer shot the teen three times, and despite emergency surgery, the young man died later in the hospital.

It is heartless and unreasonable to expect the boy's mother to look at the situation objectively, so when she was quoted a couple of days later as saying the situation was "unfair" and that her son Cyrus may actually have been the victim of an earlier robbery, it was easy to be sympathetic.  Clearly, a fatal shooting is not how any of those affected would have liked to have seen the situation resolved; not Cyrus, not his mother, and certainly not the officer forced to make a split-second decision that ended a life.

Obviously there are a number of investigations now underway to determine not only whether or not the officer's actions were justified, but also trying to collate the events that lead up to the shooting.  While I am grateful that these oversight measures exist, the amount of armchair quarterbacking, second guessing and ascribing of nefarious motives to this tragedy have made me angry.   It began with this letter published in the Journal February 7th:

Another day, another police shooting. It seems the Edmonton Police Service has itchy trigger fingers these days, as this past weekend we witnessed the third fatality in as many months by our uniformed officers.  Was this a bank robbery in progress? A drug cartel deal gone bad? A hostage situation?

No, just some troublemaking kids armed with blunt and sharp objects, clearly more lethal than the pistols our officers carry. We all know a knife can be thrown much faster than the projectile speed of a ninemillimetre round.

So of course it was an appropriate response to fire three rounds centre mass and bring this suspect down (as police are trained to do). After all, getting hit with a bat and slashed with a knife is always fatal, correct?

If the police insist on killing anyone who remotely threatens them, they will further erode public confidence in their ability to use sound judgment. If it is their mandate to use firearms in this manner, then why do we have both police and military?

If the use of lethal force is taught and condoned, then wouldn't it be much more effective to have one branch of law enforcement and defence? In fact, why don't we skip due process altogether, and dispense justice at the street level? No need for the court system.

It turns out we don't need a debate on capital punishment, it's already dispensed at the hands of EPS.

Cole Losey, Edmonton

From its sarcastic tone to the idea that the size of the knife the youth carried is somehow relevant, this letter hit practically every hot-button I have, so I wrote a response the following day, and it was published yesterday (albeit with a typo):
Cole Losey's letter (Teen death shakes faith in police, The Journal, Feb 7) is long on indignation and sarcasm, but very short on sense.  While it is tragic when any young person dies from a gunshot, if an armed person chooses to charge a police officer, using their service weapon to defend themselves (and the public at large) is not an unreasonable response.  Growing up next door to a police officer, I remember asking him how he dealt with the responsibility of going to work with a firearm, knowing he might have to use it in the course of his work.  While he agreed that it was daunting, he also said, "I would rather be tried by twelve than carried by six."
This weekend I had an opportunity to talk about the incident with a friend who serves on a police commission outside of Edmonton, and he spoke at length about the 'continuum of force' model that Canadian police services use.  I recalled how the inventor of the taser found it discouraging that a hundred years later, today's law enforcement personnel had pretty much the same options as Wyatt Earp when it came time to subdue a violent suspect: club them or shoot them.

I think is is not only fair but necessary to ask if there was any other action that could have been taken instead of shooting, but if the situation went down as initially described, and a person armed with a club and a blade made a threatening move towards an officer trying to arrest him, then the shooting was simply the natural unfolding of tragic circumstance.

The notion that the officer could have tasered Cyrus instead of using his service weapon is disregardable as the officer was not equipped with such a device.  The idea that perhaps he could have disarmed Cyrus by shooting the weapons out of his hands is utterly ridiculous, a holdover from romanticized western movies.  Mr. Losey's suggestion that an officer should be willing to risk injury or death by grappling with someone armed with a knife capable of removing an eye, slitting their throat, or puncturing their heart, as well as a baseball bat capable of breaking a limb or crushing a skull, is absolutely ludicrious. 

Somewhat more plausible is the questioning of the number of shots, with some critics saying that had Cyrus been shot only once, he would have promptly sat down and become compliant.  We have no way of knowing if this would have been the case in this instance, but it doesn't seem like an unreasonable course of inquiry.  What is unreasonable is asking an officer to take this into consideration in the fraction of a second he has in which to decide whether or not to use potentially lethal force.  The fact is, when a police officer decides to open fire, concern for their target's well-being is not a consideration; they are acting to save their own life or someone else's from someone intent on doing them harm.  Three shots is not an unreasonable amount of force to be used on someone advancing with a weapon less than three paces away; it's not as though the shooter has time to assess the effect of the preceding shots.

Now, it is certainly possible that the situation unfolded in a manner different, either subtly or significantly, from what the original article describes, but if I have to make a snap judgement based on what I have available to me, and I have to choose between a weaponized teenage alcoholic with a criminal record who, according to his mom,  "couldn't stand the police", and another person who has chosen an increasingly thankless career defending the public interest with both his time and his body, well, I'm afraid I am not going to find that nearly as tough a choice as the one that officer had to make.  And to suggest that the shooting was racially motivated, and that police officers are laying out death sentences wherever they can without any kind of corroboration is simply offensive.

My hope is that if the shooting turns out be 'in policy' and that the officer is determined to have acted appropriately, the people making these accusations can turn their energies to some very tough questions that we all have a part in answering, like what drives someone to alcoholism at 17?  Even if police officers are imperfect, being human, why is it societally acceptable for people to say they hate the police?  Was there anyone around to tell Cyrus that regardless of provocation, hitting the streets angry with a bat and a knife looking for payback was most likely to end in tragedy, like it did?  If Cyrus had spent the evening in a nightclub, as his friend asserts, did he get in with a fake i.d., or did the doorman just not care enough to check?  Are we doing enough to make sure kids like Cyrus Green have options on a Saturday night that don't involve drinking and weapons?

Adolescence is a chaotic time when a lot of us do stupid things we often end up having cause to regret.  I'm saddened that Cyrus won't get that opportunity, but in the end, he made a rotten choice in approaching a police officer while armed.  That officer made a choice to defend himself, and now the young man in question has had all his future choices taken away from him.

The worst part for me in all of this is that despite the best intentions of everyone involved, Cyrus Green stands a very good likelihood of becoming "a statistic" like his mom feared, or just "one less aboriginal".

There could be someone in your life setting themselves up for a bad decision, maybe with fatal results like Cyrus, or maybe with economic or health or social repercussions.  If there is one lesson we can perhaps take away from this tragedy, maybe it's our responsibility to speak up, to let the people in our lives know that we care about them, that what happens to them matters to us, and that there is always another choice.

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