How redefining the role of a police officer is the only way to get true justice in police shootings

The most egregious police shooting video in recent history was released this week, just after the shooter—Arizona police officer Philip Mitchell Brailsford—was acquitted of second-degree murder.

The video shows Daniel Shaver, a white, unarmed man, walk out of a hotel room, confused, with his hands up. He got onto the ground as instructed, crawled on the floor, and begged through tears for the police not to shoot him. As Brailsford screamed instructions, threatening to kill Shaver if he made one wrong move, Shaver did the best he could to comply.

At one point, perhaps out of instinct, Shaver—still crawling, with his legs crossed and face down—pulled up one arm, possibly to pull up his pants. Brailsford fired immediately, sending what sounded like five shots straight into a hunched over, non-threatening person.

If you can, you should watch the video to get a sense of the injustice.

Brailsford was acquitted following the standard police defense. He said he feared for his life when Shaver raised his arm and made a “split-second” decision. There are a lot of problems with that defense:

  • Shaver was clearly trying to comply from the beginning, and it never needed to get to that point.
  • Even if Shaver did have a gun, Brailsford could have waited far longer to actually find out, considering he was at point-blank range and had an AR-15-style rifle. Shaver simply raising his arm did not constitute a clear and present danger of any kind.
  • Police were called to the hotel room in the first place because someone called to say they saw a man pointing a rifle at the highway. (Shaver had pellet guns in his room that he used for his job). If Shaver were carrying a rifle, Brailsford would have noticed.
  • Brailsford never even checked to see if Shaver actually had a gun at all.

Daniel Shaver should not be dead, and if we’re going to have murder and manslaughter laws, it’s unclear how that shooting does not suffice. Brailsford should, in some way, have to repay society and Shaver’s family for this crime. And at the very least, he should be forced to reckon with why he was wrong. It appears he has not, and that’s why the lack of a guilty verdict is infuriating.

But in our quest for justice, we have to remember what justice is. Justice for Daniel Shaver isn’t sending Brailsford or all the other “bad apples” to rot in jail. Society is not better off with corrective justice against Brailsford alone—that’s not the remedy we need. Rather, justice for Daniel Shaver is ensuring this does not happen again, and that means asking why anyone was in this situation in the first place.

There are two theories about Brailsford’s actions: That he was legitimately scared for his life, and that he showed up intent on shooting someone. There is ample evidence for the latter. He had “You’re Fucked” etched into the scope of his police-issued gun, and he told Shaver he was not there to be “tactful or diplomatic with you.” If you arrive at a situation with that mindset, it’s a problem.

However, I don’t completely disregard the theory that Brailsford was legitimately scared for his life. Because even if he wasn’t, it doesn’t really matter in the bigger picture—there are plenty of unjust police shootings in which that was actually the case. The reasons vary from racism to fragility.

But this is immaterial, because in either situation, it’s clear that Brailsford should not have been a police officer. And the only reason he was accepted as one is because of (mostly white) society’s determination of what a police officer should be.

We accept and often embrace the sad fact that police departments have essentially turned into a domestic military force, ready to go on the offensive at any time. But that’s the complete antithesis of the simple job description we often give the police: “keep the community safe.”

If Brailsford went to that hotel wanting to kill someone or get into a firefight, he wasn’t keeping the community safe. If he was too scared to use his gun properly, he wasn’t keeping the community safe. Even under his own justification, Brailsford should not have been a police officer.

Justice isn’t putting Brailsford in prison for decades; it’s becoming a society that doesn’t allow Brailsford to become a police officer in the first place. But that cannot happen until we stop seeing police as badass minor league military members, and instead see them as peace officers who accompany a humanitarian force.

That job description illustrates what else was wrong with the shooting of Daniel Shaver: who wasn’t there.

Brailsford very clearly had no idea how to handle this situation, and it’s doubtful many police officers would. They aren’t experts in psychology, mediation or mental health. No matter how much training someone undergoes, if they show up to a situation with an AR-15, their subconscious assumption is that the gun is their negotiating tool. That doesn’t keep anyone safe.

But unfortunately, we have this idea that we need guns to diffuse any potentially dangerous situation, even though that’s not the case. And when you think about it at a higher level, beyond what we’ve come to expect from police, how we deal with these situations makes no sense. Splinter’s Emma Roller explained this well in her excellent essay on prison abolition:

The answer to violence is not more violence. The answer to violence — as the abolitionist author and activist Mariame Kaba has written extensively — is achieved through collective organizing.

There are already organizations doing the hard work. One such organization is Critical Resistance, a grassroots organization based in Oakland that works on resisting jail construction and expansion, while chipping away at communities’ reliance on policing. Mohamed Shehk, an activist with Critical Resistance, told the story of Kayla Moore, a transgender woman who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and who died in police custody in 2013 while experiencing a “psychiatric emergency.”

“What if, instead of police showing up, in Kayla Moore’s case, you had mental health professionals, or people who knew how to handle that situation?” Shehk says. “This is what we talk about when we talk about alternatives to these systems, and it’s not that far-fetched.”

Given the nature of the 911 call, there would be no problem with police officers arriving at Shaver’s hotel with weapons as a back-up. But the police shouldn’t have been the ones instructing or negotiating with Shaver. That should have been the job of someone trained in dealing with volatile situations that can trigger a litany of unexpected human emotions and mental health issues.

The common defense of police—and, in turn, the way we do policing right now—is that if you just comply, you won’t be shot. While that’s not true in itself, consider for a second how that lack of nuance would affect you.

Listen to the convoluted instructions given to Daniel Shaver and wonder if maybe you would have been so shocked and out of sorts that you could have instinctively failed to follow just one command. I’d like to think I would comply, but I also know that in my one confrontation with police—as a straight-laced middle schooler who knew I should comply—I ran out of instinct. Now think about if you had a mental illness that would almost certainly cause you to disobey. Would you deserve to die?

This comply or die mentality is absurd on its face. When you consider that most people who don’t comply are simply mentally overwhelmed and that their “refusal” to comply isn’t inherently dangerous, you start to realize how few of these situations are justified. If we sent the right people to deal them, few would happen.

These shootings will not stop until the most powerful group in the country—well-off, white Americans—stops seeing police as our own personal military defense force, and instead sees them peace keepers that simply protect a humanitarian force that is best-trained to deal with volatile situations.

Recognition of Philip Mitchell Brailsford’s mistakes would have been a step in the right direction, but even when the courts do finally find that such a shooting contradicts society’s job description of a police officer, that verdict will only be a band-aid on America’s most dangerous broken system.