Whenever the subject of police criticism arises in the United States, a familiar refrain usually comes up: “Cops have some of the most difficult jobs in the country. You don’t know what it’s like to be a cop, so you shouldn’t criticize them.” This show-stopper of a point is often made most eagerly by police officers themselves, who seem to believe their professional performances are more or less beyond reproach, as if every cop were le Roi Soleil above even the merest whiff of even the most constructive criticism.
This is odd, because police officers are human beings, and as human beings they have the capacity to be, and often are, viciously stupid, inept, incompetent, hateful, spiteful and woefully unfit for their jobs. Such was the case with the police officers who last year were responsible for the death of unarmed Daniel Shaver, one of whom was recently declared not guilty of second-degree murder.
The video of this shooting is markedly infuriating, though maybe, to the average cop, it looks perfectly reasonable. Several police officers responded to reports of an individual pointing a gun out of a motel room window; having descended upon the hotel room of the alleged gunman, they shout for the inhabitants of the room to exit. Charles Lagnley, another police officer on the scene who has all the poise and professional tact of a pro-wrestling villain on literal steroids, barks and occasionally shrieks a succession of baffling directions at the two individuals who come out, alternately telling them to keep their legs crossed while at the same time ordering them to crawl toward the police officers. ” If you move,” he tells Shaver at one point, “we are going to consider that a threat and we are going to deal with it and you may not survive it.” Later he screams at Shaver: “DO NOT PUT YOUR HANDS DOWN FOR ANY REASON! YOU THINK YOU’RE GONNA FALL – YOU BETTER FALL ON YOUR FACE! YOUR HANDS GO BACK INTO THE SMALL OF YOUR BACK OR WE ARE GOING TO SHOOT YOU!” Eventually directed to crawl, Shaver—sobbing, drunk, obviously confused and terrified—appears to reach around to his waistband, likely to pull his pants up. He is then shot five times by officer Philip Brailsford. Shaver was unarmed.
Before the days of body cams, it was doubtlessly easier for police officers to wave away shootings like this: just describe the victim as having acted “erratically,” sit through a perfunctory inquest and maybe a slapdash internal review, and you’re good to go. Technology allows us to exert a measure of accountability over our law enforcement, though plainly it is often still insufficient: Daniel Shaver was killed for no reason, and his juice box trigger-happy killers will suffer no punishment for it. Indeed the only person who suffered for it was Daniel Shaver, who is dead.
There was no reason for this to happen: it would have been entirely possible, and rather more appropriate from a practical perspective, to have the suspects in this case simply lay face down on the floor and have the officers approach them rather than screaming a series of orders at them. Why did that not happen? Maybe Lagnley simply likes giving orders to people; it is entirely possible that he regularly feels powerless in his personal and professional lives and relishes the chance to bellow at people. We’ve all been there, of course—we’ve all taken out our aggressions and insecurities on unfair targets from time to time—but then again the average person’s lashing out doesn’t generally, as a rule, lead to a young father getting shot.
Daniel Shaver is dead, and apparently there is nobody on the planet who is legally culpable for his death—in the eyes of our punitive justice system, he just vanished into thin air, through the fault of nobody at all. This is a terrible thing, but it is also, in its own terrible way, fascinating. You can sort of understand the shooting death of Shaver, if only in the context of the vicious incompetence and professional malice of the police officers who killed him. But what about the eight men and women who looked at the profoundly compelling evidence and said, “Eh, oh well?” What is it about police officers that leads us to imbue them with both a superhuman aura of majesty and exceptionally little responsibility for their own actions? Why are we comfortable with this kind of society?