Michael Brown, Kajieme Powell, Tamir Rice — all young, all African American, all shot dead by police.
And there’s something else that binds these three — the deaths of these three — together.
On Wednesday, the Cleveland Police released a surveillance video showing the last minutes in the life of Tamir Rice. Rice was a 12-year-old boy playing by himself outside a West Cleveland recreation center on Saturday when a bystander spotted him and called 911 to report a “juvenile” with what the caller repeatedly told the dispatcher was probably a fake gun. (The gun was indeed a toy, albeit a fairly realistic-looking one — an “Airsoft” pellet gun with the orange tip that is supposed to indicate its nonlethal status removed.)
The bystander left, and soon after, a police squad car pulls up on the grass near where Rice was sitting ... and seconds later, Rice was shot.
One-and-a-half to two seconds later.
The boy died of his wound the next day.
The speed of the incident, the time from when the cop car pulls into frame and Rice falls to the ground after being shot, is stunning. But just as remarkable is the distance. The police vehicle speeds across the grass, stopping within yards of Rice. When Rice was hit by the single shot from the officer’s sidearm, he was roughly 10 feet from the car.
Back on August 21, 25-year-old Kajieme Powell was reported to have shoplifted some junk food before being seen walking around outside the store, acting erratically and “grabbing his waistband,” according to a 911 caller.
Two St. Louis Police officers arrive on the scene, pulling their squad car up within 12 feet of Powell. Both officers exit the car, guns drawn, and approach Powell, who can be heard yelling “Shoot me now. Kill me now.”
The cops obliged. Less than thirty seconds after the police car arrived, Powell was shot and killed.
Twelve days earlier, in the most infamous of these cases, Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson pulled his squad car up to two young, black men walking in the street and told them in what was likely an indelicate way to move to the sidewalk. We know Wilson brought his car very close to the teenagers because, depending on which version of the story you believe, the car door hit 19-year-old Michael Brown when Wilson tried to open it (or Brown slammed it shut on Wilson), and Wilson was able to reach out and grab Brown (or Brown was able to reach in and grab Wilson).
Within seconds, a scuffle ensued through the driver’s side window. Shots were fired from inside the car, with at least one hitting Brown. Brown ran away but didn’t get very far as Wilson exited the car and continued to shoot. Within 90 seconds of the start of the interaction, Wilson put a bullet in Brown’s skull, killing him.
The distance between Wilson and Brown at the point of the fatal shot is in some dispute — as it has now been revealed that Wilson left the scene after the shooting, returning later, that the crime scene investigator never took measurements, that no incident report was filed, and that the post-shooting interview with Wilson was not recorded — but there is little dispute that the conflict began but an arm’s length apart.
Here is something else that is not really in dispute: all of these responding officers were too close. Much too close.
In defense of the cops in each of these shootings, you will hear pundits and police and even some of the offending officers tell you they had little time to react. They will say that it was a split-second decision on whether to shoot; that they had to react quickly or risk being hurt or killed themselves.
But the reason the cops felt this pressure, the reason they feared for their safety, be it from a toy gun, an unseen knife, or a fist full of cigarillos, is because they were too close to properly assess the situation or react in a more measured and considered manner.
This shouldn’t come as a revelation to those officers or outside observers. It has been documented in a number of reports over a number of years that police tactics when it comes to deescalating confrontations with scared, angry, threatening or mentally ill citizens — or not even “suspects,” just subjects — are desperately lacking. By those studies, the officers in the three incidents recounted here did pretty much everything wrong.
But because these events are so documented and demonstrated, they should also be correctable. Surely, “start x kind of interaction y feet away” is not that hard to teach, especially when the benefits convey just as much to the officer as they do to any potential victim.
Maybe there was more intent behind some of these shootings, maybe these were all just profoundly terrible errors in judgment. But wouldn’t everyone be better off if the margin for error weren’t such a narrow one?
The space could be gained in part by an expansion of the most literal of margins. Stepping back, expanding the physical distance between officer and subject, could be a first step in bridging the gap between the police and the people.