Guns, violence and split second decisions

When the not guilty verdicts were announced in the Amadou Diallo case, a friend called me to ask what I thought.  He assumed I would be outraged at the miscarriage of justice.  Perhaps something in my 60s past, or my known antipathy to guns, caused him to assume I would react this way.

But I didn’t. I had followed the case closely enough to have some serious doubts about it.  Most of all, though, I found the words “split second” going through my mind again and again. Under some pretty tough conditions, in a society obsessed with guns, on streets where violence is a way of life, four cops had a split second to make a decision. They made the wrong one.  Yet how can we sit in the comfort and safety of our homes and second-guess them?

A split second. That’s how long the average cop on the street has to decide whether he or she has to pull a gun and shoot. Literally in the blink of an eye you must make a life or death decision.  And you make that decision not only for yourself, not only for other officers who may be there with you, but basically for every man, woman and child who ever uses those streets.

What happened to Amadou Diallo is a tragedy, a classic Greek tragedy.  There will never be any winners in this case. Only losers.  The mother and father who lost their son. The cops who lost their careers. That section of the public that lost what little trust it may have had in our criminal justice system and its ability to protect them no matter what the color of their skin.  The list of losers in this tragedy is enormous.

And yet those words come back again and again to haunt me – a split second.  A split second to decide if someone is reaching for a gun. A split second to decide if your life is in danger. A split second to decide if your partner’s life is in danger. A split second to decide if that person could kill not only you but anyone else who might enter the lobby or be walking down the street.  The time it takes to blink your eyes.

I’m not trying to claim that all cops are good or blameless.  Some went in to policing because they were bullies to begin with and now society has authorized them to be official bullies with guns. Some cops shoot too quickly. Some don’t shoot quickly enough. They’re the ones we bury. The bad cops should be stopped. The bullies should be neutralized.  Minorities should feel as safe in this country as any other citizen. Those are all ideals for which we must constantly strive.

When you consider the job that police officers accept, when you consider the prevalence of violent crimes in this country, when you look at the ease with which guns are available, it should come as no surprise that cops occasionally make the wrong decision, occasionally pull their guns on the wrong person.  Violence begets violence and we are a very violent nation. In such an atmosphere, mistakes will be made.

Should we accept this situation as a given – absolutely not. The scene unfolding daily in Los Angeles is proof enough that we should never stop demanding only the best from those we empower to protect us, from those we authorize to use deadly force for that protection. Bad cops are bad people.  It’s that simple. They should be held accountable for crimes they commit while purporting to uphold the principle of governance by law.

But we should also remember those words that haunt me – a split second.  That’s all they had. Not every cop who shoots and kills someone is a criminal.  Neither are they always heroes. Sometimes, they are just people trying to do a hard job where mistakes are often tragic.  When we judge the results of their efforts, we should repeat again and again the words – just a split second.