By David Underhill –
MOBILE, Ala. – Mobile may soon appear on the list that already includes Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and less famous places lately in the news, because their people were slain in the streets by police sworn to serve and protect the community. Or Mobile may miss the list.
Much depends on the next twists in the case of Michael Moore, a black teen killed by white officer Harold Hurst during a traffic stop here last week.
Hurst fired four shots at Moore when he reached for a gun inside the car, according to the initial report by the police department. A later version said Moore’s gun was recovered “from the scene” rather than from the car. Then the police chief James Barber admitted at a news conference that neither of these accounts was true. The gun was actually retrieved from Moore’s body in the emergency room of a nearby hospital where paramedics had taken him.
If this latest version is accurate it means the police failed to disarm somebody they had just shot because they regarded him, presumably, as a deadly threat. Yet they left the wounded (he was going first to the ER, not the morgue) young man in possession of his weapon. To the police chief this was a violation of the department’s protocol.
To the family and supporters of the deceased the situation was far worse than that. They are openly skeptical – if not contemptuous – of the department’s wavering accounts of Moore’s death. Some doubt whether he had a gun at all or whether one was even in the car.
They also question the police assertion that his supposed gun had been stolen. If he truly had a stolen weapon, where is the report of its theft?
The car he was in had been stolen too, according to the police. If so, ask Moore’s defenders, where is the report of auto theft? Instead, they suggest, the car belonged to a friend or relative and he was using it with permission. This view circulated so widely that the chief disputed it during his media conference. He said the car’s owner had been interviewed and denied knowing the deceased.
Investigations continue, rumors swirl, prayer vigils and protests occur.
The body cameras becoming standard police equipment will not help answer any lingering questions about Moore’s death. Officer Hurst was allegedly on his way to work when the deadly incident happened and so had not yet picked up his camera at the precinct.
Whether this case will remain mostly a local matter or assume larger dimensions is unclear, but judging from the course so far additional turns of the tale would not be a surprise.
Theft Death Penalty
Chief Barber himself provided one during a TV interview several days after the killing. While lamenting a rash of deadly gunfire among the city’s teens, the chief added that “had Michael Moore not been out there in a stolen car and carrying a stolen weapon, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
True. It’s also true that no complaints or questions would arise about police conduct if everybody behaved in accord with all laws at all times – because nobody would have any encounters with the police. There would be nothing for them to do. Then, too, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We wouldn’t even have police forces.
But we do have them. And when they are guided by an attitude like that spoken by the Mobile chief, they are liable to become a menace to the people they are tasked to serve and protect.
On the day he died Michael Moore was not the only misbehaving Mobilian (assuming he really was carrying a stolen gun in a stolen car, as the chief claimed). Speeding is illegal because it is dangerous, potentially lethal. Yet this violation is built into the daily schedule of ordinary commuters. They won’t get to work on time without breaking the law. But they are rarely pulled over.
If a cop shot and killed a speeding commuter he had stopped, would the chief say this person would still be alive if he hadn’t been speeding? Not if the chief wanted to keep his job.
Countless violations of the law are routinely ignored or overlooked. And it’s good that this is so. Otherwise we would all be either convicts or wardens, since nobody is perfectly innocent.
And this doesn’t apply only to minor infractions. Torture is a major felony under U.S. and international law, and vice president Cheney admitted – indeed, boasted about – his role in ordering torture of prisoners during the War on Terror. But one of Obama’s first presidential acts was a decision not to prosecute Cheney or any other high officials of the Bush administration for their crimes.
Enforcement Rules of Engagement
Thus are lessons taught about who can expect leniency. And those knowing they are likely exempt from the full, concentrated wrath of the law will not notice the threat conveyed by Mobile police chief Barber’s remarks.
Michael Moore is dead because he was a law breaker. That’s the meaning of the chief’s words: “had (he) not been out there in a stolen car and carrying a stolen weapon we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
By this standard who is safe when approached by the cops? The answer will be colored by experience. In relaxed, leafy suburbs and rural Mayberrys friction and suspicion between people and police will generally be less than in loud, crowded, jostling cities. And when history and ethnicity create further divides between the two urban groups, the tension ratchets up.
In such a setting what’s the probable effect of a police chief saying a citizen killed by the department would still be alive if he hadn’t been a thief? Soldiers on battlefields receive “rules of engagement” about when to use lethal force – or not. By words and example police leaders also issue what amount to rules of engagement.
Everybody becomes a prospective target when the chief says citizens’ lives will be secure unless they break the law. Could individual cops conclude this means that, since all are lawbreakers in some fashion, you have the department’s permission to kill anybody you encounter on your patrol?
Most won’t take it this way. Some might, especially if the department gives them reason to believe they will be defended and protected regardless of their behavior.
Two years ago Harold Hurst, the officer in the news now for killing Michael Moore, was newsworthy under other troubling, though non-lethal, circumstances. On a residential street he intercepted a man performing his daily routine of walking his dogs and picking up litter around the neighborhood. A burglar had been active in the area, and the officer treated this resident Tom Herder like a suspect. A verbal confrontation ensued. The garbage gatherer confesses he talked some trash to the cop (as the constitution allows) but also believes the policeman behaved in an aggressive and belligerent manner, displaying himself as flagrantly unsuited for having a badge, a gun and authority. This scene resulted in the Herder’s arrest for disorderly conduct (charges eventually dropped).
The litter picking perp’s status as a person of some consequence around town generated news reports of his arrest, a flurry of social media posts, intervention by the mayor, an internal police department investigation (with no sanctions against the officer), and finally a press conference by the chief addressing the entire matter. He praised the cop’s conduct and condemned the resident’s.
But at his recent press conference about the death of Michael Moore, chief Barber said the officer had not been involved in any previous shootings, although there “may have been some minor misconduct violations.” The locally notable episode from two years ago becomes merely a trivial incident that perhaps happened.
The signal sent by this casual dismissal of that event: No matter what an officer does, the police department will serve as his shield.
Combine this signal with the chief’s statement that Michael Moore would still be alive if he hadn’t been in possession of stolen property. The combination raises questions that need to be included in the ongoing investigations of his death:
Do the police have an official okay to presume – especially when patrolling certain areas – that citizens are criminals who can be shot on the streets?
If the cops kill you, are you to blame because you have broken some law?
Does the city have a police department or does it have an army?
Are officers on patrol serving and protecting — or are they hunting?
Are they allowed to shoot suspects before they officially go on duty and pick up their required body cams?
The Washington Post previously published a list of the 990 people shot dead by police just in 2015.
© 2016, David Underhill. All rights reserved.