The Extraordinary Perils of the Ordinary Cop

Imagine you are an officer in a perceived threat environment with just seconds to make a decision. You pull the trigger, and an unarmed black man lies dead. Numerous “excellent” eyewitnesses, “mainly professional,” provide “overwhelming” evidence of your culpability. It is captured on video. What happens?

Well, as I document in my new book, TWA 800: The Crash, The Cover-Up, The Conspiracy, if you are a naval officer, and you are lucky enough to make this tragic error during a Clinton reelection campaign, the witnesses are silenced, the video is seized and likely destroyed, the media turn a blind eye, families of the black man and the 229 other dead are lied to, and you get reassigned.

Now, if you are a naval officer during a Republican presidency, you run more risk. In July 1988, Capt. Will Rogers III gave the order to fire two Standard Missiles at a commercial Iranian Airbus, IR 655. Rogers and his crew had mistaken the ascending passenger jet with 290 on board for a descending Iranian F-14, a fighter plane. The media hopped on this one. Hearings were held. Rogers was put out to pasture, and his superiors might have been cashiered had not Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shocked the military by endorsing Bill Clinton for president in 1992.

The authorities never threatened Rogers with prison. Nor should they have. Yes, 290 people died, most of them “minorities,” but he made an honest mistake under very difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, as we have seen time and clichéd time again, the ordinary street cop -- or, in George Zimmerman’s case, the neighborhood watch captain -- is cut no such slack. If the dead man is black, the media pounce, the pundits rant, the politicians accuse, the protestors march, the president condemns, and the word of every last bizarre witness is received as though it came from a burning bush.

As to the peacekeeper in question, he faces a public frenzy of the sort Mayella Ewell wrought on Tom Robinson, only shriller and vaster. Scarier still, the accused will find that the good liberal Atticuses have abandoned the jailhouse doorway and joined the mob. There, they too howl not for justice, but for racial vengeance, guilt assumed, whiteness assumed (if close), evidence be damned.

Officer Jeronimo Yanez in Minnesota and Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II in Louisiana join a lengthening lineup of those presumed guilty for killing a black man. I cannot even say ‘presumed guilty until proven innocent.’ As George Zimmerman and Ferguson’s Darren Wilson can attest, in the eyes of today’s left, once presumed guilty, one forever remains guilty.

With almost no one noticing, the left has taken a perversely dark turn. Whereas leftists once contented themselves with proclaiming the guilty innocent, a tradition dating back to Sacco and Vanzetti, today they are prepared to proclaim the innocent guilty. Once branded, no jury verdict or grand jury decision can erase the accused’s Scarlet R, as in “racist.”

From the left’s perspective, it does not matter if the black man is beating your head against the sidewalk, charging at you down the street, wrestling with you to pull his gun, or reaching for an illegally owned pistol during a legitimate traffic stop. If you shoot the black man, the left gives you less consideration than if you shot a clerk at a 7-11.

The right, easily intimidated, does little better. “Yes, there are some bad apples and, yes, we will find ways to deal with them but in no way do we indict the entire police force," said Dr. Ben Carson in response to the shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana.

Carson, however, had far too little information to suggest the accused cops were “bad apples.” They each made spontaneous decisions in the midst of a life threatening circumstance. At this stage, it is hard to tell whether or not they even made the right decision. The Louisiana video tells us little. The Minnesota video tells us nothing.

In comparing these “bad apple” police to bad surgeons, Carson overlooks some fundamental differences between these professions. Even in his most challenging moments, a surgeon never fears for his own life. A cop often does. If a surgeon makes a fatal error, he gets sued. If a cop makes a fatal error, he can go to prison for the rest of his life or get killed. In either case, he will leave his family about one-tenth the estate a surgeon would.

Consider the case of the presumed rottenest of bad apples, Michael Slager of North Charleston, South Carolina. A Coast Guard veteran and five-year member of the force, Slager had been commended by his superiors for demonstrating "great officer safety tactics" in dealing with suspects.

On April 4, 2015, Slager made a legitimate stop on fifty-year-old Walter Scott for a nonfunctioning taillight. Slager politely approached Scott, took his information and returned to his car to check it. Scott then bolted from his car. Slager, thinking Scott guilty of something serious, pursued the heavy-set man. The alcohol and cocaine in Scott’s system may have impaired his judgment.

An amateur video picks up Scott and Slager wrestling on the ground some distance from the patrol car. Scott appears to have grabbed Slager’s Taser. As Scott begins to run away, Slager shoots him from behind and kills him. Three days later, Slager is arrested for murder and placed in solitary confinement without bail for the next nine months. He is now under house arrest awaiting trial.

According to the courts, a cop cannot shoot a fleeing suspect unless he “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” Slager believed Scott did pose such a threat. Scott had taken his Taser. Said Scott, “I did what I had to do to save my life.” A young Toronto computer geek, who had intended to use his video skills to confirm Slager’s guilt, found himself supporting Slager’s contention after a close analysis of the video. 

Slager, alas, has no more chance of getting a fair trial than the Scottsboro boys did in Depression-era Alabama. Let us say, though, the evidence shows he did shoot Scott unnecessarily, and the judge condemns him to life in prison. Out of fear or self-love, the media and most of the political class would publicly applaud.

The fact that a military veteran left his pregnant wife that morning to a do a thankless job, made a polite and appropriate stop of an obviously guilty black man, and shot him in a moment of panic and desperation would trouble none of them enough to say the obvious: There is no more reason ordinary cops should be tried as common criminals for making a fatal mistake than soldiers or sailors or surgeons.

Jack Cashill is the son, nephew, and cousin several times over of ordinary cops.

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