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Use of Deadly Force on Black Bodies

September 21, 2016

by Preston Shipp

In the wake of yet another apparently unnecessary killing of an unarmed black man by a police officer, this time forty-year-old Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there seems to be a gross misunderstanding of when law enforcement officers are authorized by law to use deadly force. People defend police officers by pointing out when the victim of the shooting was not innocent of all wrongdoing. Perhaps he was in possession of drugs, had a criminal history, or had treated the law enforcement officers disrespectfully or even failed to obey their commands. These factors, while not irrelevant, do not by themselves justify the use of deadly force by a police officer. As a former criminal prosecutor deeply saddened by the epidemic of violence against black bodies, I think it is terribly important to seek clarity on these matters.

Police officers may only employ lethal force after all other reasonable means of apprehension have been exhausted or are unavailable, and where the officer has probable cause to believe that the individual poses a threat of serious bodily injury to the officer or others. Some of this language comes straight from my home state of Tennessee’s statute on law enforcement use of lethal force, which is fairly standard. So if the officer does not have probable cause to believe that lives are in danger, essentially, then lethal force may not be used.

Refusing to follow a police officer’s orders is NOT tantamount to putting the officer’s life in danger, as any good cop will tell you. People refuse to obey orders all of the time. Dealing with it with patience and respect is really tough, but it’s part of the job, as any good cop will tell you. For example, if a police officer comes up to me out of the blue while I’m walking down the street and wants to see my identification, I can refuse that order. Unfortunately, many people have no idea which orders are lawful and must be followed and which are not, and there are some police officers who lack understanding in this area as well.

Even if I fail to obey a lawful order, such as exiting my car during a traffic stop, it does not follow that the officer may then kill me. Resisting arrest is a misdemeanor, a crime punishable by less than one year in prison. So the next time you hear someone say, “If he didn’t want to get shot, he should have done what the cop said,” feel free to respond, “Actually, the penalty for resisting arrest is less than one year in jail, not the death penalty.” People can refuse to raise their hands, open car doors, and on and on, and they do every day, but this does not give rise to the officer killing the person. Mere disobedience is not the same as threatening serious bodily injury, and law enforcement officers should know this. Officers are expected to be trained in de-escalation of conflict, and deadly force is seldom a lawful option. It should always be an absolute last resort after everything else has been tried, as any good cop will tell you. What many of these videos are showing us is officers not adhering to their training, rushing to use deadly force, and attempting to justify it later. This must stop, and people of conscience, black and white, cops and ordinary citizens, must not be silent.

I believe that the longstanding justification for the kind of violence we see in the case of Terence Crutcher and others has little to do with the officer’s life actually being in jeopardy. Rather, the perceived threat is based on the blackness of the subject’s skin. Black people are perceived as inherently more dangerous. This is nothing new, as a cursory study of American history and religion will reveal. Under these circumstances, virtually anything can lead to a black person being killed, as we have seen time and time again.

On the other hand, we tend to think of police departments as sacrosanct. Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out that many of us are more devoted to the preservation of order than to the promotion of justice.  We therefore are willfully blind when systemic racism persists among the people we trust to protect and serve us, despite the findings by the Department of Justice regarding cities like Ferguson and Baltimore. We desperately need to flip the script, stand with the black community and insist on accountability in our police departments.

As someone who tries to be a Christian, it grieves me to see my fellow white Christians failing now the way our forebears failed in the 50s and 60s. Instead of standing in solidarity with our black sisters and brothers, we vilify people who peacefully protest by not standing when the national anthem is played. Instead of adding our voices to the chorus demanding justice for all people regardless of skin color, we cast aspersions on protestors who offend our sensibilities as we attempt to pretend things really aren’t as bad as the highway-blocking activists are making it out to be. We will speak out on a whole host of issues, but we are silent on this one. Or we glibly say “All Lives Matter” when clearly they do not. Or we become more incensed at the destruction of property or bottles being thrown at police officers in riot gear than we do the repeated unnecessary loss of black life. It seems that although we are called by our scriptures and Sunday school lessons to love our neighbors, all of them, as we love ourselves, many of us are unmoved by all of these people whose names have become hashtags.

At this point, the fact that black people are calling for justice and not revenge for centuries of subjugation and brutality in the forms of slavery, lynchings, political disenfranchisement, and mass incarceration is, in my mind, a testament to the inherent goodness of black people. I question whether I would be so gracious if the tables were turned.

For several years, Preston Shipp served as an appellate prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s office. While serving as a religious volunteer and teaching college classes in Tennessee prisons, he became good friends with many people who were incarcerated, one of whom he had actually prosecuted. These relationships caused Preston to wake up to the many injustices that are present in the American system of mass incarceration. Preston felt increasing conflict between his faith in Jesus, who was executed as a criminal, and his role as a prosecutor, which required him to argue for the punishment of people he did not know. Unable to serve two masters, Preston left his career as a prosecutor in 2008.  Since then, he has taught in universities and churches, lectured at conferences, and written about the urgent needs for criminal justice reform, a shift in how we regard imprisoned people, and a new vision of justice that seeks healing, transformation, and reconciliation, not merely the infliction of suffering. Preston’s conversion from prosecutor to criminal justice reform advocate has left him convinced that his salvation is bound up with that of his friends behind bars. Preston lives in Nashville with his wife Sherisse and their three children, Lila Joy, Ruby Faith, and Levi.

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