Rayshard Brooks & Deadly Force
Here is the Atlanta police body cam and dashcam footage from the Rayshard Brooks shooting:
As you can see in the video, police arrived to find Brooks passed out drunk in his car at a Wendy’s drive-thru. They got him to pull over, then performed a field sobriety test, which he failed. You will notice throughout their encounter, the officers are professional and courteous, as is Brooks in response.
Trouble began when the officers told him he was too drunk to drive, and started to cuff him. Brooks resisted arrest. Both officers tried to wrestle him to the ground. You can hear one of them warn him to stop resisting, or he would be tased. Then you can hear a cop voice tell him to get his hands off the taser.
Brooks steals one of the police taser and begins to run away. Here’s how the New York Times broke down the scene on camera:
The security camera footage filmed at Wendy’s shows Officer Rolfe chasing Mr. Brooks. In seconds, Officer Rolfe passes his Taser from his right hand to his left hand, and reaches for his handgun.
While being chased, and in full stride, Mr. Brooks looks behind him, points the Taser he is holding in Officer Rolfe’s direction and fires it. The flash of the Taser suggests that Mr. Brooks did not fire it with any real accuracy.
Officer Rolfe discards the Taser he is carrying, draws his handgun and fires it three times at Mr. Brooks as he is running away. Mr. Brooks falls to the ground.
An investigator for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation put it like this last night:
“It does appear in the video that he is fleeing from the Atlanta police officers, that as he’s fleeing he turns back over his shoulder with what appears to the naked eye to be his Taser that the eyewitnesses told us they saw the individual have that belonged to one of the officers,” Reynolds said. “And as he turned it over, you’ll be able to see on the video the Atlanta officer, literally reach down to get his service weapon and as he gets his weapon, Mr. Brooks begins turning his body away from him, I presume to flee.”
I strongly urge you to watch the clip. The key sequence is when a fleeing Brooks turns to fire the stolen taser at Officer Rolfe. Rolfe then reaches for his pistol, and fires at Brooks, who by then has his back to the officer. This drama takes place in two seconds — from the 3:57 to the 3:59 point on the video. Understand, at the beginning of those two seconds, Brooks fires the taser at the officer, who makes a split-second (literally) decision to unholster his weapon and fire at the suspects.
The Atlanta PD’s use of deadly force policy is this:
1. He or she reasonably believes that the suspect possesses a deadly weapon or any object, device, or instrument which, when used offensively against a person, is likely to or actually does result in serious bodily injury and when he or she reasonably believes that the suspect poses an immediate threat of serious bodily injury to the officer or others; or
2. When there is probable cause to believe that the suspect has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm (O.C.G.A. Section 17-4-20) and the employee reasonably believes that the suspect’s escape would create a continuing danger of serious physical harm to any person.
Constitutionally, “police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances,” David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis professor who studies use of force, said. The first circumstance is “to protect their life or the life of another innocent party” — what departments call the “defense-of-life” standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.
The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger said, comes from the Supreme Court’s decision in Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He’d stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn’t shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, “they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you’ve got a violent person who’s fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight.”
The key to both the legal standards — defense of life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn’t matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer’s “objectively reasonable” belief that there is a threat.
So, where are we? A drunken suspect violently resisted arrest, stealing an officer’s taser, and firing it at an officer as he ran from police. The cop fired at about one second to decide what to do. He shot the fleeing suspect. Was the suspect a sufficient threat to injure him or someone else? It seems that the “deadly force” judgment depends on that.
Let us stipulate here that drunk-driving Rayshard Brooks would be alive today if he had complied with the lawful orders of police, who treated him with courtesy. Let us stipulate that Rayshard Brooks would be alive today if he had not stolen a police taser and fired it at cops. Let us also stipulate that burning down a Wendy’s, as the Atlanta mob did, is not a reasonable response to a police-involved shooting that takes place in its parking lot.
Now, watch that video and put yourself in Officer Rolfe’s shoes. Could you make the call not to shoot, in a split second, under taser fire from a violent fleeing suspect?
Maybe Officer Rolfe — sorry, the now-former Officer Rolfe — really is guilty of using excessive force. I await the results of the GBI investigation. But I gotta say, I would never, ever want to be a city cop, not these days. Our cities are going to become unpoliceable.