Point/Counterpoint: Officer Involved Shooting


“To be 12 years old, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Police, they know what they’re doing.”
-Gregory Henderson, close friend of Tamir Rice’s family.

I had a cap gun, like any other cool kid in the 90s (or ever). It was silver and had pink grips and faux-pearl accents, complete with a white holster. The blaze-orange safety indicator on the end did not match, and was throwing off the feng shui of my cops-and-robbers scenario. I asked my dad about taking it off and he told me we couldn’t do that, because that’s how people know it’s not a real weapon. I was also told on multiple occasions that it would be taken away if I was seen intentionally pointing it at any person or structure.

It’s been 17 years since I last remember playing with that cap gun. Since then, my understanding of firearms has been expanded shockingly little for someone growing up in the area I did. But at seven years old, I still knew better than to wave a toy gun around in a threatening fashion, or make it look like anything more than a toy. It’s possible that Cleveland’s 12-year old Tamir Rice really didn’t know better, but the lack of parental guidance does not nullify the fact that he was brandishing what appeared to be a real weapon around a public park on Nov. 22, 2014. The person who called the incident in to 911 told the dispatcher that it was likely a juvenile and probably a fake gun, but it was missing the orange plug. This information was not relayed to the responding officers, who shot Rice in the torso when he pulled the facsimile gun from the waistband of his pants. He died as a result of his wounds.

Henderson also posed the question, “Why not tase him? You shot him twice, not once, and at the end of the day you all don’t shoot for the legs, you shoot for the upper body.”

Do you know what happens to the body when it’s hit with an electrical pulse 19 times per second, for approximately five seconds? The muscles contract. Repeatedly. According to official statements, Rice had the airsoft gun in his hand when he was shot. So to be clear, zapping someone holding what may be a gun about 100 times in five seconds is what you’d call “a bad idea.” If he had been holding a real firearm, there was a real possibility for an accidental discharge. So why not wound him?

“Prosecutors have another term for warning shots: attempted felonious assault, improper discharge of a firearm etc. Shooting someone in the leg rather than center mass is similarly misguided and will not evade serious felony charges.”
-The Ohio Guide to Firearm Laws, Fourth Edition

When it is suggested that one could aim to wound rather than to kill, it is suggested that attempting to hit a moving target about half the size of the center-mass area is somehow “safer.” In addition to the fact that the femoral artery is located in the leg and that you will bleed to death within minutes of a gunshot to the artery, the concept is statistically ridiculous. One of the cardinal rules, of shooting anything is to know your target and what lies beyond it. Shooting to wound, at a target that is smaller and in more fluid motion, makes knowing what lays behind it a near-impossibility.

A 2008 analysis of data collected over ten years from the NYPD, regarding firearms discharge, showed that officers in the field hit their target about 34% of the time. While these are trained men and women who know their way around a gun and a bullet, their targets in real-world situations are usually moving and unpredictable. Low-light situations and incidents where the target is, or may begin, returning fire have significant effects on accuracy as well. Attempting to shoot a target in the leg is just piling on additional deficits to an already dangerous situation.

In case you still aren’t convinced, take this into account: if a civilian shoots another civilian in the leg and they die, it is the same charge as if the assailant had shot the victim in the head. If they live, it is the same as if the assailant had shot them in the head, and they lived. The law does not recognize your intent to “wound” someone with a deadly force weapon like a gun any more than they would recognize your intent to “wound” someone with a nuke. Of course, this is an argument based on self-defense. And we’re not talking about self-defense, are we?

No. We’re talking about public defense. We’re talking about men and women who put on a uniform and go to work just like you and I do, but they’re out there to be the buffer between us and the bad guys. We’re talking about people who were trained to make rapid-paced assessments of danger and risk to keep as many people safe as possible at one time. They have very little time to make decisions which will affect large groups of people, and we have all the time in the world to analyze and judge those decisions once they’re made.

The death of this boy is a tragic event, and my heart goes out to his family. I have a brother his age, and in the same circumstances, I’m certain I’d feel much the same way they do. I also feel for the family of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was recently shot by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri, albeit under significantly different circumstances. No life is disposable, and I’m not suggesting their deaths are anything short of heartbreaking. Sure, there’s a good chance that this could have been handled in a way that didn’t result in the death of a pre-teen boy. And yes, officer-involved shootings should be investigated.

However, treating the officers as if they had a personal vendetta is not solving anything, and it’s certainly not bringing back the dead. The existence of armed law enforcement is not going to disappear, so why are we escalating the situation? The fact of the matter is that Tamir Rice appeared to be waving a gun around in a public area, to the point that a citizen called 911 and said, “It’s probably fake but he’s scaring the shit out of me.”

Here’s an idea: teach your kids about the gravity of a weapon, even if it’s a toy. Know where they are and what they’re doing. Instill a healthy respect for authority. Be proactive.

Protests in Cleveland thus far have been mostly peaceful and appropriate under the first amendment right to peaceably assemble; protests in Ferguson over the grand jury’s decision not to charge the officer who shot Michael Brown have evolved into riots and looting. Each time a parallel situation occurs, the repercussions are increasingly brutal. Because responding to perceived violence with more violence, exacted largely on other community members and businesses, makes perfect sense. I mean, the fire department uses water to fight fires, but fire should work even better, right?

As always, I encourage you to do your own digging. Here are some of the articles I read while I was writing this post.

Gregory Henderson’s quotes:
(for the record, Henderson initially misidentified himself as Tamir’s father)

Some light, shed on the parenting problems:

A fair counterpoint to the previous link:

How Tasers work and effect the body:

The 10-year study on hit ratios by the NYPD:

The article about warning shots and shooting to wound: