An unarmed black man was shot and killed by the police. I guess I could write that as an opening for an article every day. This one occurred on 2 April when 73 year old “reserve deputy” Robert Charles Bates mistook his gun for his taser and killed 44 year old Eric Harris. Bates is a rich insurance executive who apparently gets to ride around with the real officers just like a kid from the Make a Wish Foundation. It’s not my intention to be mean, but it seems to me that Bates could spend his twilight years doing something more appropriate and positive than playing cops and robbers.
I don’t doubt that Bates did sincerely mistake his gun for his taser. But I know from my own life that as I’ve gotten older, these are precisely the kinds of errors that I increasingly make. So maybe having a 73-year old who is, after all not a professional, carrying a loaded death cannon is not the smartest thing in world. Of course, these mix-ups happen all the time with professional officers. They are doubtless the result of high anxiety situations. People don’t make the best decisions when under pressure and I think that law enforcement officers should be given more training with regard to this. Drawing a gun means there is a high likelihood of death. Roughly the same thing can be said about drawing a taser.
More important in this situation is why Bates felt the need to use his taser anyway. As you can see in the video, Harris was fleeing from the police. They caught him and tackled him. He was on the ground with various officers on top of him. They were, as usual, spewing out profanities as fast as they could because apparently that is what they learn at professional crime fighting school. (That, or they are just a bunch of thugs in uniform.) It was in this context that Bates saved the day by attempting to tase Harris.
Once he realized what he had done, Bates said, “I shot him; I’m sorry.” Harris complained, saying, “Oh man, he shot me!” One of the officers responded by showing his humanity, yelling, “You fucking ran! Shut the fuck up!” At that point, the video cuts out. According to the officials, it was not turned off by the officer, but I seriously doubt that. There is just way too much of this sort of thing. Police officers know that if there is no video, judges and juries will believe whatever they say.
Later, Tulsa County Sheriff’s Major Shannon Clark claimed that the officers did not hear the gun shot and so didn’t know that Harris had been shot. This is why they acted so abominably toward Harris. This absolutely can’t be the case. Guns are extremely loud and this one went off just a couple of feet from them. What’s more, I’m pretty sure I see blood on Harris’ shirt. I’m sure that they were pumped up on adrenaline and had all their attention focused on the “bad guy” who they probably would have summarily executed if they had been able to get away with it.
Yesterday, German Lopez reported, Tulsa Reserve Deputy Charged With Manslaughter for Shooting Eric Harris. I doubt very seriously that he will be convicted. For on thing, he is nominally a police officer. In that regard, it is shocking that he was even charged. For another thing, he’s rich. So he will get the best representation available. And finally, there will be an endless line of officers who will testify in court that he’s a great guy. What? You gonna destroy his life for one little mistake? On the other side of things, they will vilify Harris. In The Los Angeles Times article on the shooting, a whole paragraph was spent painting a picture of Harris as only slightly less terrible than Al Capone.
To me, none of it matters. The problem is not Bates. The problem is our policing. As it was, I don’t see the need for the big chase. But police officers love these kinds of adrenaline fueled confrontations. This is why we now have SWAT teams used for regulatory inspections. And none of this is going to change just because some doddering old fool who likes to play cops and robbers gets charged with manslaughter.
For the record, I don’t think that Robert Charles Bates ought to be convicted of this crime. The problem is systemic. I don’t doubt for a moment that this was an honest error and that Bates feels terrible about it. Our society has a habit of using the punishment of people like Bates as a way of not dealing with the larger problems that are literally killing us.