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Officer Yanez’s Panic, And Ours

An trigger-happy society acquits a trigger-happy cop

Around the time of the Philando Castile shooting, I wrote the following:

The deep roots of the problem of police brutality and unjustified killings are complex. But some of the shallow reasons are relatively simple. Police are, increasingly, trained to treat suspects as a threat first, and as members of the citizenry they are bound to serve and protect second.

This week, in the wake of Jeronimo Yanez’s incredible but frankly unsurprising acquittal, I wrote a follow-up:

St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez is clearly responsible for his actions on July 6, 2016, in both a moral and a legal sense. But from watching the footage of the shooting, it’s plain that his actions sprang not from malice or cruelty but from pure, blind panic — a panic that his partner did not participate in, and for which no adequate justification has been provided.

As David French has argued in a pointed criticism of the verdict in the case, irrational panic is not supposed to be a legal defense against culpability. But by the same token, it’s not hard to understand why it’s hard to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that an officer’s fear was unreasonable, which is the standard for criminal conviction. In a strict sense, juries are reluctant to acknowledge themselves the peers of an accused officer in such a circumstance, and so to pass judgment on that officer’s judgment, however fatally poor.

But what if officer Yanez were a robot?

In that case, there would be no question of morally identifying with the officer, or a juror questioning whether he or she could really know what it’s like to be in that situation. The case would likely be open and shut. It just wouldn’t be a case against the robot, but against the manufacturer, who put an incredibly dangerous machine on the street without properly testing whether it functioned properly.

Bluntly, if officer Yanez were a robot, the corporation responsible for building him would be staring at a massive lawsuit, and a very expensive product recall. Why isn’t the same thing true of the St. Anthony Police Department?

Just as my pieces on the shooting advocate deescalation, I tend to practice deescalation in my writing, which is to say, I try to get outside of my own feelings to understand them, and the feelings of those on the other “side” (presuming I have a “side”), and to think about practical solutions not only in technical terms but in terms of navigating that minefield of emotion. But I have to admit, sometimes that feels inadequate.

My colleague Rod Dreher asks whether there’s a relationship between our state of permanent war and our apparent acceptance of the use of extreme force by the police, even in cases where it was clearly inappropriate. Another colleague, Pratik Chougule, asks whether America’s childrearing practices are raising up a generation of instinctive authoritarians, both deferential to those with power and demanding that that power be used regularly to demonstrate that authority’s care and concern.

I think they are both on to something. We live in an age, and a society, where individuals increasingly feel powerless, and are turning to authority to salve that feeling, vesting it with ever greater scope and power, but receiving no salve, both because external authority can never substitute for self-assurance, and because the same forces that leave individuals feeling powerless — from social media to mass migration to the proliferation of powerful weapons to finance capitalism — also hamstring authority.

So a productive politics for our time has got to fight a two-front war: against the causes of our pervasive social anxiety, and against the false salves for that anxiety that have already proved far too appealing.

And it still has to advocate for productive reforms — like better deescalation training for police — that presume a politics that cares more about results, and an authority that is more confident in its position, than is generally the case.




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