Waiting for Facts Before Passing Judgment

Pam Linn

Everybody’s got an opinion, even before they have all the facts. Maybe even after, if the facts don’t happen to fit their personal bias. 

But when is media coverage of a violent event just distasteful and when does it actually perpetuate the conflict on which it is reporting? In the past few weeks we’ve seen more brutality than we ever cared to see including videos of police actions that seemed to cross the line between effective action and provocation. But did they really? 

The result has been demonstrations (mostly peaceful) opposing what appeared to be excessive and lethal force by police officers against racial minorities. A willingness to resort to killing when the miscreant might have been subdued and taken into custody without being fatally shot. Or choked, as in the case of Eric Garner, who died after what appeared to have been an illegal chokehold applied by an NYPD officer. 

No one denies that Garner resisted arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. A video shows several officers taking him to the ground and Garner saying several times, “I can’t breathe.” However, his ability to repeat that indicates he in fact was still breathing. The July incident prompted demonstrations against city police for enforcing “quality of life” regulations as a method of cutting down on serious crime. That approach worked for years and made the city safer but there may be new discussions about its relevancy now. 

The medical examiner later found the chokehold resulted in Garner’s death but that cardiovascular disease, obesity and asthma were contributing factors. One might say his unhealthy lifestyle choices made him complicit in his own death. Or not. 

In Cleveland last week, a rookie police officer killed a 12-year-old boy who was playing with a fake gun. Police responded to a complaint from a man who witnessed Tamir Rice pointing the BB gun at people. The orange tape indicating it wasn’t a real firearm had been removed. When told by the officer to raise his hands, the boy took the gun from his waistband and was shot. 

Demonstrations last week in Ferguson, Mo., erupted after the grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson in the August shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. In fact, none of the police officers accused of using lethal force was held accountable. Demands are circulating to revamp the grand jury system, as it now exists. Many find conflicts of interest when prosecuting attorneys seem to favor law enforcement, particularly when the victim is black and the officer is white. 

But there is more to know about the Brown case. Moments before the fatal incident, he was caught on video stealing cigarillos from a convenience store. When the officer gave chase, Brown allegedly punched him in the face and tried to take his gun. It should be noted that at 6 feet 4 inches and 290 pounds, Brown out-stouted Wilson and might easily have overpowered him. 

The difficulty in making a split-second decision on whether to shoot or wait is one that I learned at the Bozeman Citizens Police Academy. We were put in the position of having to make that decision with very little information to go on. This is a training all city police officers must take regularly. We stood at a set distance from a screen where the altercation is played from a lieutenant’s computer. Every scenario has about three possible outcomes. In every case, I hesitated to shoot and would have been killed. My daughter, on the other hand, shot an accused rapist who actually was unarmed, although he had in his hand a TV remote that looked like a handgun. 

What we all learned is that police face these choices all the time and for the most part they take the appropriate option. When they do, they get to go home to their families and they live to face another day. Once you’ve been through that training, it’s unlikely that you would jump to conclusions as to an officer’s guilt or innocence. 

However, in areas where race relations are strained and minority populations feel they are dealt with unfairly by law enforcement, more rigorous training may be required. It must be unnerving to mistrust the very people we rely on for protection. 

Having lived through the riots in Los Angeles sparked by similar rulings by juries believed to favor the police, I can understand these feelings. But I also saw looting by opportunistic hoodlums and unbelievable damage to property of innocent shopkeepers. 

There’s no denying that in some places relations between white police officers and minority residents are strained almost to the breaking point. But we all need to practice withholding judgment at least until all the facts are made public. If it takes a trial to do that, then so be it. 

Pam Linn is a former Malibu Times editor.