Stephen Gottlieb: Another Black Man Shot In The Back By Police

Jan 15, 2019

Albany’s DA recently decided against prosecuting anyone in connection with police shooting of a Black man and paralyzing him. He may have had a hunting knife. But police first charged that he was  charging them. So the apparent justification was that the police were scared. Then reports of a video showed that he was running away and was shot in the back.

I have no inside knowledge of this case but, unfortunately, it’s part of a pattern. Police tell everyone that a Black man was charging them when a video shows that the guy was running away with his back turned. Or the police acknowledge that he was running away but claim to be scared because he was carrying something, maybe a knife or the keys to his apartment. One Black man after another has been shot in the back by police who claim to be scared that he would turn around, too scared of Black men to hold their fire when they have no reasonable fear of his behavior.

Actually it’s systematic partly because police are trained that they have no time. So they shoot first and ask questions later. Shooting is a first, not a last, resort. As a result of that training, even some Black officers have bought into it.

Think about it. If you were charged with shooting a man in the back and you told a jury that you were scared because the man was carrying something, you’d be convicted of manslaughter at the least. You and I have no right to shoot on the basis of speculation of what could be. You can’t mow people down because one of them might turn around revealing an unseen weapon, perhaps a gun in his briefcase. That’s not reasonable behavior; it’s not a rule we can live with. A rule of fear would put us all under ground. The law properly requires more before you can kill. But put on a badge and strap on a holster and suddenly there are no rules.

If this were the Philippines or Indonesia we’d call it “impunity.” When big shots over there act with impunity it means they are not accountable for their behavior. It’s here too when police treat Black men as if their lives do not matter.

The public seems to think that brave people must be honest and decent. But what do you do with the bravery of athletes who abuse women? I don’t know the percentages, but what do you do with the regular revelations of police who commit crimes, frame people for crimes they didn’t commit, and abuse women and Blacks? In addition to repeated revelation of Black men shot in the back by police, we’ve had revelations in New York about police ordering women to strip on the highway and revelations about frame-ups on the southern tier. We know that prejudice compounds the message of training that drives police to shoot African-Americans in the back. Should we assume that badges and guns will produce honorable behavior, make police feel empowered to take advantage of others, or both?

I would make it illegal to shoot anyone in the back unless they are in fact armed and dangerous. Or I’d require a warrant before police get to strap on weapons. A free country cannot have armed men acting with impunity, with or without badges. It is totally unacceptable. You can’t correct death.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. 

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