Black lives …

Two incredible additions to the BLM file.



Washington Post, September 12 [the incident dates to May 6]

I’m too flabbergasted to comment intelligently. Can readers help me understand wtf is going on? By “going on”, I mean the clear pattern of American police shooting African-American men and boys who do not in fact pose a significant threat to their lives or those of third parties. Not bad judgement calls, but massive and egregious errors. The police chief’s firing of Steven Mader implies that killing armed African-American men is his firm SOP, whether or not they represent a deadly threat.

European cops kill people by mistake too. London cops killed the harmless Brazilian turnstile-jumper de Menezes in the panicky aftermath of the bus bombings. French cops have been known to shoot young Arabs who don’t stop at roadside checkpoints, and suspects “fleeing the scene of the crime”. British cops run over pedestrians in high-speed car chases. These bavures (French: “droolings”) are not regarded as SOP and get investigated.

A suggestion for Barack Obama. The fired officer in West Virginia, ex-Marine Steven Mader, read a dangerous situation correctly – Ronald Williams had a gun at his side which was in fact unloaded. (He was sadly killed by the backup officers who followed Mader to the scene). He looks the kind of level-headed person the Secret Service or FBI could use. A phone call would send a good message.

Help me out here.

[Note: an earlier version of this post included a second headline claiming police shot a young black mother in Atlanta in an altercation over her breastfeeding her baby. This story, according to Snopes, is a fabrication. I thank my commenter to letting me know, and apologise for my credulity. This is also shocking in a different way. Made-up stories apparently reinforcing a true narrative tend to discredit it, and objectively reinforce denial. The truth is quite bad enough.]

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

31 thoughts on “Black lives …”

    1. Thanks. The lack of a date should have been a warning. I'll remove the headline – readers can find the link here if they want. The other story is from WaPo and I reckon trustworthy.

  1. I read WaPo and generally trust it. As much as I want to trust Radley Balko (because I agree with his stance on civil liberties), I have learned to take a skeptical eye to his writing. He’s not an academic or a legal scholar. He’s a journalist with an opinion, and that opinion tends to get in the way of his objectivity.

    So let’s look at the situation. Mader, the West Virginia police officer in question, did not shoot because he had a gut feeling that the citizen was not a threat. The citizen had a firearm (which turned out to be unloaded) and was feigning like he might shoot. This meets the definition of what an officer should perceive as an imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death to the officer and others. The proper reaction is to neutralize the threat. A gut feeling is not the appropriate standard.

    Compare this to the Tulsa shooting. Officer Shelby had a gut feeling that the citizen she shot was a threat. If Mader is right about his gut feeling, then we must also concede Shelby is right about her gut feeling. That would be an injustice. The standard is whether the citizen in Tulsa could reasonably be perceived as an imminent threat to cause serious bodily harm or death to the officer or others. The citizen in Tulsa posed no such threat. That makes charging Shelby with manslaughter a justifiable response.

    Having dealt with the “gut feeling” argument, another argument that I anticipate is the actual facts. In the case in West Virginia, the actual fact is that the citizen’s weapon was unloaded. The problem with this standard is that it is not the legal standard, and it would lead to chaos. How could an officer defend himself or herself from weapons if the officer had to know in advance whether the weapon was real and dangerous? How could ordinary citizens defend themselves from assailants if they had to know for sure whether their attackers were holding functioning weapons?

    Or consider this: what if the assailant was holding a malfunctioning weapon? The police officer and the assailant would both believe that the weapon was dangerous, but the officer would be guilty of a crime in defending himself if a subsequent investigation of the weapon revealed it to be defective.

    So Mader had a duty as a police officer to neutralize a lethal threat. The definition of how an officer should perceive something as a lethal threat had been satisfied. Mader’s actions could have endangered the lives of his fellow officers, and disciplinary action is appropriate.

    There is no doubt many instances of police brutality and instances of racism within law enforcement and criminal corrections. However, this is not an example of improper policing. Arguably, one of the major problems with police reform advocates is that they keep using these bad examples. Opponents of reform seize upon these bad examples to remain entrenched in their unproductive philosophy.

    1. Joshua, you used the expression "gut feeling" six times in your comment. In the same comment, I looked in vain for any neutral terminology involving the facts actually reported in the post by Radley Balko. Ignoring any comments he made regarding his opinions, he stated pretty much detail about the facts reported in the case. You have pretty much ignored them.

      I did not read that Officer Mader based his judgment on "gut feeling." In fact, in the article the expression "gut feeling" did not appear even once. Instead, here's what I read about Officer Mader and how he made his judgment:

      a. He had undergone training in the Marine Corps in evaluation of terrorist threats; he was trained to look at the "whole person."
      b. He had undergone training in the police academy in "situational response."
      c. Officer Mader saw the gun, but it wasn't pointed at him (or anybody else); rather it was pointed at the ground.
      d. Officer Mader told the suspect to put the gun down, and the suspect replied "just shoot me."
      e. That last statement seems to correspond exactly to the report by the suspect's girlfriend, the report that brought Officer Mader to the scene in the first place, that the suspect was threatening to kill himself, not anybody else.

      Officer Mader had (apparently correctly) evaluated the situation as an attempted "suicide by cop." So what you term "gut feeling" was, in this case, what I term "good judgment backed by careful observation of available evidence." I think Officer Mader acted with good judgment and might well have disarmed the situation by his calm demeanor and calm action. Unfortunately, the suspect achieved his objective when the other police showed up on the scene.

      Sadly, the suspect's objective probably did not include getting Officer Mader fired. That, apparently, was an unfortunate side effect of the suspects success in his primary objective.

      1. RhodesKen,

        "Gut feeling" is a common phrase used in law enforcement to refer to proof that falls below legal standards such as probable cause and reasonable suspicion. In this case, the threat posed by the citizen met the legal threshold necessary to respond with deadly force. We can use a more neutral term than “gut feeling” to refer to Mader’s justification, but that does not change the fact that his justification fell below the legal standard.

        As for Balko’s bias, it’s pretty obvious from a paragraph like this: “Give the Weirton, W.Va., police chief some credit. He’s come up with a new spin on the the same problem. He just fired a cop for not killing someone.”

        Of course, Mader was not fired for “not killing someone”. If the facts as we know them are true, Mader was fired for, among other things, endangering the lives of his fellow officers. It was Mader’s responsibility to deescalate the situation and, if necessary, neutralize the threat. While these series of actions could have led to the citizen’s death, it is simply not accurate to say Mader was fired for not killing someone. The distinction may seem minor, but it is a distinction of both legal and rhetorical consequence.

        Consider Mader’s other alleged misdeeds. “In addition, city officials reported an incident in which they say Mader searched a vehicle without probable cause or a search warrant, leading to a man being arrested for disorderly conduct.” <a href="http://(” target=”_blank”>( That description is consistent with an officer who uses his “gut feeling” instead of the higher legal standard. That makes the officer a detriment to prosecutorial goals and to the safety of both his fellow officers and the public.

        That Mader was actually correct in these situations is immaterial. Officers have been actually correct for decades when they have searched or shot citizens. Being actually correct does not absolve officers of their actions, so it also cannot absolve them of their inactions.

        That’s the failure of the internal logic of trying to claim Mader exercised good judgment. If Mader exercised good judgment in not firing, then every officer who has searched a citizen or shot a citizen without meeting the legal standard, only to subsequently find the necessary evidence, also becomes justified now.

        1. The life Mader was risking was his own. It's surely not the job of the backup team to second-guess the officer first on the scene. Are you seriously suggesting Mader had a legal or moral duty to kill Williams?

          1. You ask: “Are you seriously suggesting Mader had a legal or moral duty to kill Williams?” Yet as I stated, “It was Mader’s responsibility to deescalate the situation and, if necessary, neutralize the threat. While these series of actions could have led to the citizen’s death, it is simply not accurate to say Mader was fired for not killing someone.” When law enforcement officers assume their duties, they typically agree to a statement saying that they are willing to carry a firearm on duty and are willing to use that firearm.

            Your statement, “It's surely not the job of the backup team to second-guess the officer first on the scene,” is not the proper analysis of the situation. Backup officers are not exempt from assessing a situation simply because a responding officer has already assessed it. In no profession that I can think of does one person’s recklessness entitle others in the profession to engage in the same recklessness.

            While the thought of an officer allowing himself to be harmed before harming an armed citizen may seem noble, it’s simply not the role of police to engage in such behavior. Mader was responding to a domestic incident. As a society, we don’t want police officers responding to domestic incidents if they are not willing to use the proper methods to attempt to deescalate the situation and, if necessary, neutralize a threat.

          2. You originally posted, “The police chief’s firing of Steven Mader implies that killing armed African-American men is his firm SOP, whether or not they represent a deadly threat.” I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and not assume that you were intentionally engaging in intellectual dishonesty. After all, your statement was nearly libelous.

            Yet now you seem unwilling or unable to understand that there is a difference between (1) a duty to kill someone, and (2) a duty to attempt to remove a possibly lethal threat to one’s self and others through the appropriate legal means, whether it is de-escalation or force.

            This is now a second statement in which you have decided to go an indefensible route. I don’t know why you’re setting up these straw men. I never attempted to insult you, and I tried to interpret your statements in the light most favorable to your position. Maybe I should have taken you literally at your word when you said, “I’m too flabbergasted to comment intelligently.”

          3. That's not what "straw man" means.

            Uncomfortable questions are uncomfortable, but that doesn't necessarily make them unfair.

          4. Now you're creating straw men. The police chief is not advocating the killing of armed black men regardless of whether they are a threat, and I'm not saying that Mader had a duty to kill someone. I was willing to assume good faith the first time, but now I see that they are simply straw men. James Wimberley would rather knock down false versions of other people's reasoning rather than deal with reality.

            The questions here cause me no discomfort. They actually cause me alarm. I expected evidence-based reasoning from the group here. Instead, I'm just seeing people stick to the left-wing story regardless of the facts. It's sad. It damages the cause of progress because the opponents of progress will see through the deceptions and become more entrenched in their dangerous ideas.

          5. "I'm not saying that Mader had a duty to kill someone."

            Good. So your answer to the question "Are you seriously suggesting Mader had a legal or moral duty to kill Williams?" is a straightforward "No."

            Was that so hard?

          6. RonGibson,

            The problem isn't the answer. The problem is the question. The chief never said there was such a duty. I never said there was such a duty. The question itself reveals much more about the questioner. I didn't ask anyone, "So you're saying police officers have a duty to let armed thugs shoot them?" I (hopefully) know the correct answer to that question, so I need not act like I don't. Asking such questions shows either intellectual sloppiness or a lack of commitment to intellectual honesty — or perhaps some combination of the two.

            Your shotgun approach to the conversation, moving from talking about straw men to talking about the moral duty question without referencing your previously failed line of thought also shows more of a desire to score a quick sparring point rather than understand the big picture. None of your posts directed to me so far have been especially productive.

            Now please, if there are no substantive issues, let's enjoy our respective weekends. No one here has made a serious case that the officer's firing was wrong, and such a case does not seem to be forthcoming. If, however, you or anyone else actually wants to seriously discuss what is an important issue, I will make an effort to respond.

  2. It bothers me that the police follow the military in considering "force protection" the highest priority.
    This is equivalent to regarding civilians as the enemy.
    In reality, a police officer should regard the life of a civilian as being of equal value to his/her own.

    1. While the militarization of the police is a legitimate issue, it is a completely unsubstantiated piece of speculation to assume what has happened here is that the police are following the military’s force protection rules. This is a case of the defense of self and the defense of others, both of which are criminal law concepts going back for centuries.

      The monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is a defining characteristic of the state. Your statement that “…a police officer should regard the life of a civilian as being of equal value to his/her own” robs police of the use of force that political and legal philosophers for centuries have permitted to the agents of the state.

      We could rewrite everything we know about policing, the legitimacy of the state, and self-defense. Or we could accept that it’s morally wrong to challenge a police officer with a firearm, and it’s morally wrong for a police officer not to take the legal and reasonable steps necessary to protect others from imminent danger.

      1. You're denying the existence of a large gray area.

        Suppose a mental patient is waving a knife.

        Suppose a black man is trying to get away in a car.

        Since the business of the police is to protect all of us (by enforcing the legitimate rule of law) they should also protect those people mentioned above, as far as they possibly can.

        Instead, in so many of these recent stories, they seem to open fire whenever there is any concern for their own safety.

        1. The_Wesson,

          You are conflating far too many issues for me to respond. I can't speak to "so many of these recent stories" where officers open fire. Not all of those shootings are justifiable, nor have I attempted to justify them here. And saying that I am "denying the existence of a large gray area" is an almost meaningless statement without any context. Within the context of the case here, the action that protects as many people as possible as far as possible is to shoot the armed citizen. That satisfies Kantian ethics (the duty to protect others) and utilitarian ethics (protecting the greater number of people).

      2. In that case, can we at least stop hearing about how cops "put their life on the line every day" for our protection? If they feel justified in killing anyone they perceive as a possible threat, that kind of talk is farcical. And the fact is that policing is not all that high on the list of dangerous careers.

        1. aajaxx —

          We'll take each of these sentences one at a time.

          First, police do put their lives on the line every day for our protection. While enforcing laws designed for our safety, they are always at risk from violent attacks. This is nothing new about policing. Hopefully, we don't need police to actually die to prove they risk their lives.

          Secondly, they don't feel justified in killing anyone they perceive as a possible threat. They feel justified in attempting to deescalate potentially violent situations, and if necessary, neutralizing immediate threats to their lives and the lives of others. They don't kill anyone they perceive as a threat, and they're not taught to kill all threats, either. (Other people here have been upset that I keep saying that, and yet here I am having to say it again.) Once again, I am trying very hard to assume good faith on the part of people who disagree, but it is hard for me to accept that you think police believe they are justified in killing all threats. Police deal with threats all over this country every single day. Very few of those encounters result in fatalities.

          Thirdly, policing is safer these days than it has been in the past. Just as the population is also generally safer these days than they have been in the past. Violent crime has thankfully been for the most part on the decline since the early 1990s. So we might quibble over the best way to word that sentence, but we generally agree about its truthfulness.

          Not to beat you up, aajaxx, but there is still nothing here that suggests Mader's supervisors did anything wrong. Nor have I read any better solutions here. I hope that makes sense. We can be upset that a citizen died in a police encounter. We shouldn't ever let even one death be inconsequential. But in the absence of a better policing policy and the absence of any showing of injustice on the part of Mader's police department, it's simply improper to smear his department for following this policy.

  3. I was having a conversation with a visiting British couple last night. We were watching the nightly news. She works as a police dispatcher. She kept saying over and over that she simply couldn't fathom why all of these officers are so damn quick to shoot.

  4. I was going to stay out of this one because I wasn't there to observe what actually happened, we don't have video (which might or might not help in any case), and our information is in all respects woefully incomplete, I was in some sympathy with the points JoshuaPosner was making until he said two things: (a) that it is "morally wrong to challenge a police officer with a firearm" and (b) "the action that protects as many people as possible as far as possible is to shoot the armed citizen."

    To take the second point first, West Virginia is an open carry state. When voters choose to make their state open carry, they are making a decision that an armed citizen is no more automatically under suspicion than, let us say, I am for carrying a briefcase with a ticking clock in it or Aunt Matilda for carrying her pressure cooker down the street with the turkey chili in it for the bridge meet-up. Guns in an open carry state have been determined by the citizens to be in some sense unremarkable. So that's for starters.

    I do take issue, however, with the claim that it is "morally wrong" to challenge a police officer at all. It's not. It may under certain circumstances be illegal, as when you are directed to disperse and respond by not only not dispersing but arguing the point with the LEO. But it is not morally wrong. And the use of a term like "challenge" is a problem here: it's not a description of behavior but an interpretation of what type of interaction is happening.

    And that brings me to my point, which is that in a lot of the cases we're reading about, the police seem often to be doing a very poor job of reading what's going on. This may or may not be the case here, since when the two other officers showed up, Williams walked between them and Mader; on the other hand, Mader's behavior would likely have suggested to anyone who took the time to observe that he was engaging with Williams rather than in fear for his life. The officer(s) who shot did not at the time know whether Mader had established that the gun was unloaded.

    In the case of the three off-duty cops whose actions resulted in the death of Robert Ethan Saylor, who had Downs, the caregiver had provided information about Saylor's condition and was handling the situation. She was apparently ignored, and the officers evidently didn't read Saylor's behavior or know how to interact with someone with his issues. The officer in the Tulsa, OK, shooting of Terence Crutcher appears to have misread his behavior, as well.

    Not unrelated, I think, is the fact that police officers seem often to be unaware of the problem of processing–or at least to behave as if they are. An utterance produced by a new voice may take a moment for comprehension in any case, and police commands are often "screamed," i.e., produced with added vocal "noise," making processing/comprehension more difficult.

    1. lcoleman6,

      I can't say that I agree with the wisdom of open carry, but it nonetheless exists. That said, openly carrying a firearm and challenging someone with a firearm are not the same thing. So you really haven't addressed the issue at hand.

      To reach your conclusion, you also had to add "at all." Since I never said it is morally wrong to challenge a police officer at all, you've merely created a straw man.

      As for the other cases involving shootings you mentioned, each has to be judged on its own merits. The police are not always without blame.

      At this point I'm perhaps beating a dead horse, but no one has yet to make a convincing argument that it was wrong for Mader to be fired. Nor has anyone suggested a realistic alternative policy. All of this is a crushing disappointment. I originally found this blog because I had read two books authored or co-authored by Mark A. R. Kleiman. I consider When Brute Force Fails to be mandatory reading for people interested in criminal justice. I expected the same kind of nuanced and persuasive commentary here from each of the bloggers. Instead, far too many of the posts and comments are just the typical uninspired political rants that can be found on hundreds of websites by authors of far less ability.

      1. Thank you for your comment. As I said above, I don't have the background information to make a judgment about the administrative decision to fire Mader, but I'm glad for the opportunity to clarify what I apparently left ambiguous.

        My use of "at all" was meant exactly as you understood it–as a way of taking the question beyond the immediate case of Mader's firing. That is, I was questioning whether morality is the field on which discussion of civilian engagement with LEOs belongs. My point is that obedience to authority is best discussed in other terms. Granted, St. Paul seems to think otherwise if Romans 13 is any indication, but I see no reason to accept his argument.

        Along those lines, one problem with treating the question of obedience to law enforcement as a matter of morality is that it quickly gets us into authoritarian territory, in which we are considered to have a specifically moral obligation to do what we're told by whatever authority is in place.

        My second point was an effort to get away from the use of "challenge" to identify what Williams was doing, since "challenge" isn't a description of action (like, e.g., "take out gun," "wave gun") but an interpretation of intent. To identify behavior as a challenge requires some fairly deep contextual knowledge, as well as an awareness that something identified as a challenge by one of three parties (the two directly involved in the interaction, as well as third-parties) may be otherwise identified by another of the parties.

        I understand, however, that you are focusing on the very specific question of whether Mader's firing was appropriate. I have no basis for deciding that either way. What I hoped my contribution would do was pull back a bit to note some general patterns that are worth taking into account in a broader discussion of interaction between LEOs and civilians.

        (By the way, since posting my earlier comment, I have been informed that a sudden and rapidly uttered shouted (technically "screamed," i.e., with vocal noise) command is sometimes intentionally used as a sort of verbal flash-bang to get the person of interest to freeze.)

  5. lcoleman6,

    Addressing your last paragraph first, yes, police officers are taught to be "authoritative" when speaking, especially in tense situations.

    I find the discussion of morality to be well within the mainstream here. Police ethics is a subject that conservative, feminist, liberal, libertarian, etc. scholars all engage in. University criminal justice departments offer courses in the ethics of policing. I'm not sure in what other terms than morality you would like to discuss this. I chose morality instead of legality, the only other immediately obvious prism, because the case is too easy for me to make in terms of legality. What the citizen did to Mader is definitely illegal. There's simply no way around that. Nor is there any way around that responding with lethal force was legal. Nor is there any way around that firing Mader was legally justified.

    I also do not find that not "challenging" (more on that word in a moment) an officer with a firearm is too much of an authoritarian issue. It is also morally wrong (or if you prefer, legally wrong) to challenge a private citizen with a firearm. Status as a police officer is not what creates the wrong. The threat of immediate violence is what creates the wrong.

    As for the specific word of "challenge", we can change it to a legal word such as threaten. Threatening behavior is behavior that causes a reasonable fear of harm to another person. I used the word "challenge" because it is a word that specifically fit the Mader situation according to Mader himself: ("… he starts flicking his wrist to get me to react to it.") Among the definitions for challenge are "a call to fight, as a battle, a duel, etc." and "to invite or summon (someone to do something, esp to take part in a contest)".

    1. Thank you for your reply. There is in fact a difference between ethics and morals, and the distinction is one we could have a discussion about, but it would take us far afield from the point we are circling around.

      I gladly accept your suggestion of replacing "challenge" with "threaten." The former is about what the actor intended; the latter is generally about what the recipient felt or understood. That is, to say "X challenged Y," one must know that X intended her behavior as a challenge. To say "X threatened Y," one only needs to know that Y felt threatened, or perhaps that Z felt X was threatening Y. It is also possible to threaten someone unintentionally.

      (As for my last/your first paragraph, if police officers are being taught that screaming rapidly repeated commands sounds authoritative, they are being misled.)

      1. My use of the word "moral" in this discussion is relatively uncontroversial. To quote the first sentence of the preface to the 5th edition of Souryal’s Ethics in Criminal Justice, “Despite advances in the legal and technological aspects of criminal justice, practitioners continue to face difficult moral choices.” Only one sentence inside a book about criminal justice ethics, and we see that ethics and morality, although not the same thing, are related concepts. On page 17, Souryal says “moral” can be defined as “…a behavior that is consistent with ethical principles.” This is the context in which I have used the term here.

        On the issue of police sounding authoritative, I never used the word “rapidly”, and you had not previously used the word “rapidly” until now. Police are not taught to speak rapidly when being authoritative.

        This has perhaps gone far enough. You are free to respond, and I will try to get around to reading it, but I may not offer a response in return. The wrongfulness of Mader’s actions and the propriety of his dismissal still have not been seriously contested here. Nor has any serious alternative been proposed. At this point, I’m just having to correct errors with respect to the rudiments of police ethics and police tactics.

Comments are closed.