Should Noncompliance be a Capital Offense?

This really is the heart of the issue.

As we watch yet another case of a black man being shot by the police and the commensurate public reactions, there are two main themes that keep repeating themselves and that if they do not stop, this cycle will continue.

First, as long as we decide, as a country, that noncompliance with the police (broadly defined) is worthy of summary execution, then we are going to continue to have this type of outcome.

And let’s not mince words–if the police are allowed to use deadly force simply because a person does not comply (especially when running away) then what else are we going to call this than allowing the police to execute a suspect?

If one’s view is:  “he should have complied!” is enough to justify summary execution without trial, then that is what you are supporting.

Recognizing that there are moments in which law enforcement will have to use force, even deadly force, the reality is that we are at a place where simple noncompliance brings escalation to deadly force far too quickly and easily, especially when black males are involved.

Second, if we are going to accept the notion that if the person is a criminal then it mitigates, if not excuses, the use of deadly force, then we are also accepting a norm that states “it is okay to execute someone without a trial because they are a criminal.”

By this, I mean that an inevitable part of these narratives is that the victim of the shooting (or other violence, such as a knee to the neck) had a record or may have been involved in a crime at the time of the shooting, so it is okay that they were shot, if not killed. They are one of the “bad guys” and the bad guys don’t deserve to be treated like us “good guys.” It is a norm that states that “criminals aren’t fully human” at least not like us law-abiding types.

It is common (and we are seeing it with Jacob Blake) for those who wish to defend police shootings to resort to pointing out that the victim had a record. But, again, should having a record justify summary execution?

Throw in the fact that our society has a real, documented tendency to assume that blacks are criminals, especially black males, the math is pretty straightforward and chilling:  black male=likely criminal=less than fully human=deadly force is justified.

And before anyone argue that it is not justified by broader society, all we have to see is that the normal result of these shootings is for the officer to suffer only some time on administrative leave–actual consequences commensurate to the action is practically nonexistent.  Yes, there has been some increased pressure to fire and prosecute, but this has not been the norm, and it is unclear as to whether change is really coming in this arena.

It is justified for selling individual cigarettes.

It is justified for jogging in the wrong neighborhood.

It is justified for maybe passing a counterfeit bill.

It is justified for being drunk.

And so on, and so on (and on and on).

I think that we have to acknowledge that execution is the ultimate sanction and if we are structuring law enforcement procedures in a way that gives permission for summary execution (and, sadly, we are) then we have to either straightforwardly admit this is what we have done (and it is what we want as a society) or reform these procedures.

Do we want “law and order” to mean that the police have the right to kill citizens solely for noncompliance?

Moreover, do we think this principle should be applied primarily to a specific subset of our population?

If we continue down this path, we probably shouldn’t be surprised when that subset’s anger boils over into the streets.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Police, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Bill says:

    Why are we worried about non-compliance? Calling for Roadside Assistance is cause for a policeman to pull up and shoot y0u without even identifying themselves.

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  2. Kathy says:

    There’s something really wrong in a country where this question even needs to be asked.

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  3. Moosebreath says:

    Great post, Steven. Also, note on the issue of the person attacked by police having a criminal record is that this is often something the police officer would not have known, as the police officer had not checked the ID of the person attacked.

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  4. Jen says:

    Kathy makes the important point.

    That this is even being asked means we’ve lost our collective soul.

    20
  5. gVOR08 says:

    Honestly, Dr. Taylor, I think you’re overthinking this. The attitude at the core of this is not that it’s OK for cops to shoot people for non-compliance. It’s that it’s OK, if push comes to shove, for cops to shoot “them” as part of their overall mission to keep “them” in line. It’s a fine line, and maybe a bit strained, but the trigger isn’t quite non-compliance so much as this ni*clang* ain’t respectin’ mah authoritah. (to be fair, they apply the same to ‘white trash”.) In the mind of, say, the Kenosha Police Chief, being out after curfew is the stated rationale for it being kind of OK for those people got shot, but the real reason in his mind is that those people, by joining the protest, became “them“. They were on the wrong side of the blue line on the flag. I think a defining difference between liberals and conservatives is that we draw the boundary of “us” a lot more generously.

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  6. EddieInCA says:

    https://www.rawstory.com/2020/08/florida-cop-caused-92-year-old-woman-to-bleed-when-he-handcuffed-her-for-rolling-a-stop-sign/

    Florida cop caused 92-year-old woman to bleed when he handcuffed her for rolling a stop sign

    Not “The Onion”

    Was this one of the “decent Policemen?”

    10
  7. Scott F. says:

    Good post, Steven. But, even non-compliance may be over generous. In too many cases, failure to bow and scrape can be enough to get you killed.

    10
  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    At this moment the only thing I might add to this discussion could get me banned, so I am just going to say, “Well said, Steven.” and STFU.

    7
  9. DrDaveT says:

    The other red herring that gets waved all the time is The Weapon. “He had a knife on the floor of his car.” “He had a gun in the glove compartment.” Etc.

    Possession of a weapon — even brandishing a weapon — is clearly irrelevant for white men. We’ve seen that over and over. Somehow owning and carrying weapons is proper and manly for white men, but criminal and threatening for black men, actual behavior notwithstanding. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the mental processes involved on the police side.

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  10. Monala says:

    At the end of yesterday’s thread about the NBA boycotts, I shared a link to this article on Vox: What the police really believe: Inside the distinctive, largely unknown ideology of American policing — and how it justifies racist violence. It delves into research about the factors impacting the mindsets of many police officers and departments.

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  11. flat earth luddite says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    Well said, Ozark. Exactly my response. Thanks, Steven.

    1
  12. steve says:

    If it was just an issue of compliance wouldnt we have videos of police shootings unarmed white men not cooperating and getting shot? I think the issue of compliance is used by the right to justify shootings but the actual issue goes beyond that. (You can find older shootings where non-compliance was used to justify shooting white people. The murders at Kent State were justified by conservatives because people didnt fully comply. Watch the Netflix documentary on this and you will hear the conservatives saying they should have killed all of the protestors. Still, there just isn’t the steady, yearly killings of white people for compliance. )

    Steve

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  13. DrDaveT says:

    @Bill:

    Why are we worried about non-compliance? Calling for Roadside Assistance is cause for a policeman to pull up and shoot y0u without even identifying themselves.

    Heck, playing with a toy gun as a 12-year-old is cause for a policeman to pull up and shoot you without even identifying himself. It’s also apparently cause for him to physically assault your little sister and stand around watching you die instead of calling for medical assistance. None of which turns out to be a crime on his part.

    10
  14. DrDaveT says:

    @DrDaveT: Following up to my own comment because I was too slow to edit it:
    I think the most telling behavior often comes after the actual murder. The stupid scared adrenaline reaction that might cause a cop to shoot a Tamir Rice is sort of explicable even in a “decent person”; the behavior in the wake of the shooting is not. There is no hint of recognition of error; there is doubling down even while covering up.

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  15. @steve:

    If it was just an issue of compliance wouldnt we have videos of police shootings unarmed white men not cooperating and getting shot?

    Indeed, it is not just compliance.

    In fairness, that is why I said:

    Throw in the fact that our society has a real, documented tendency to assume that blacks are criminals, especially black males, the math is pretty straightforward and chilling: black male=likely criminal=less than fully human=deadly force is justified.

    And to other points above: I concur that it goes beyond compliance.

    2
  16. Jon says:

    @steve:

    Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit:

    There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

    (source)

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  17. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT: Exactly. “He reached for his waistband” is sufficient. Hell, “He was a big black guy and I (checks back of hand) feared for my life.” is sufficient.

    A few years ago there was some discussion online about German cops. I can’t find the original articles, but in the subject year they’d fired like 40 rounds in anger, killing maybe 6 or 10 and wounding 20 plus. The usual takeaways were that German cops are much better trained to avoid violence (I believe also much better paid) and they had an environment in which they didn’t have to consider that everyone they met might be armed. But something that went unremarked is their remarkable efficiency when they did decide to shoot.

    The German police were apparently making a considered decision to shoot, picking a target, hitting it, and waiting to see effect before firing again. There doesn’t seem to have been, as is common in the U. S., panicky jerking the trigger til the gun stops going bang. Our cops seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on firearms training, but not much on how to stay calm and properly handle a potential shooting situation.

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  18. Monala says:

    White vigilantes and far-right actors have shown up to oppose Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. at least 497 times this year, according to data collected by Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right. He started gathering data on May 27, two days after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, and continued through this week.

    The dataset, which Ross shared with HuffPost, documents a staggering amount of violence directed at protesters by the far-right, including 64 cases of simple assault, 38 incidents of vigilantes driving cars into demonstrators, and nine times shots were fired at protesters.

    All told, six protesters were hit by vigilante bullets in this summer’s violence. Three died from their wounds.

    Ross’ dataset also includes 387 incidents of intimidation, such as people using racist slurs, making threats and brandishing firearms.

    Link. The link includes a really good chart describing the various white paramilitary groups, their main targets, and how they interact with police.

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  19. Monala says:

    @EddieInCA: what?! A 92-yo woman is going to be very frail. What in the world would a make a cop think he needed to handcuff her? For a traffic violation?!

    From the Vox article I linked above:

    The ideology holds that the world is a profoundly dangerous place: Officers are conditioned to see themselves as constantly in danger and that the only way to guarantee survival is to dominate the citizens they’re supposed to protect.

    Yeah, she’s a danger even if she’s 92, so you gotta show her who’s boss! WTF!! Or the recent case where cops detained a black family, handcuffing them and making them lie on hot asphalt, even the 6-yo.

    Unless they’re armed militia. Then they’re “armed friendlies.” ( From the second article I linked)

    3
  20. Monala says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: on Twitter someone posted a thread listing the stories of all the unarmed white people shot by police in 2019, to prove it’s not about race. Of course the usual suspects showed up to say, “they should have complied!” But I noticed that for the vast majority of the stories, non-compliance greatly exceeded what happens with black victims: usual the white unarmed victim was physically fighting the cop or trying to grab their weapon.

    1
  21. Michael Cain says:

    @Monala:

    Unless they’re armed militia. Then they’re “armed friendlies.” ( From the second article I linked)

    That can’t last. If someone who looks like the kid in Kenosha is going to be allowed to wonder around loose, it will not be long before some of the seriously anti-cop people figure out that it’s a way to get close enough to kill many cops.

    2
  22. gVOR08 says:

    Another corrupt cop shop. It ain’t just violence.

  23. dazedandconfused says:

    https://www.police1.com/police-products/firearms/training/videos/

    Therein you will find police shoot/don’t shoot scenarios. They are exposed to videos of people getting pulled over and instantly dragging a gun out and shooting at ya. Lots of lectures about 20 feet being a kill-distance for a guy with a knife. There are other programs, like Grossman’s, which admonish young men that it’s better to be tried by 13 than carried by 6.

    This is the heart of the issue IMO.

    People are going to get killed every once in awhile resisting arrest. It’s inevitable. I believe the thought it’s mainly due to malice is wrong though. If negotiating with police on a fix with that as one’s starting position it will be counter-productive.

  24. DrDaveT says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    People are going to get killed every once in awhile resisting arrest. It’s inevitable.

    Sure. But there is no reason for them to be killed NOT resisting arrest, or no longer able to resist arrest, or peacefully and passively resisting arrest. “Not obeying all of my commands instantly” is NOT “resisting arrest”, though the police would like to believe that it is and make that law. Similarly, being brown is not automatically resisting arrest, though the outcome patterns suggest that the police treat it as such.

    Once again, when I was a kid it was taken for granted that the police would never shoot first. This did not lead to wholesale slaughter of police officers. Any suggestion that an arbitrary number of innocent deaths would be acceptable to prevent the death of one police officer would have been laughed out of the room — and yet here we are…

    3
  25. @dazedandconfused:

    I believe the thought it’s mainly due to malice is wrong though.

    I never said anything about malice, actually.

  26. gVOR08 says:

    At 17 in WI the kid should be tried as a juvenile. Which would be fine with me, emotional maturity should be the criteria. But I doubt it will be. Public outrage usually determines what kids get tried as adults. I expect he will be. And I expect he’ll be fairly old if he ever gets out.

    1
  27. gVOR08 says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    If negotiating with police on a fix with that (the shootings are motivated by malice) as one’s starting position it will be counter-productive.

    Somehow I don’t think negotiation with the cops is the route through which this will be fixed. If for no other reason than that there are thousands of cop shops.

    Conservatives keep telling me that as a liberal I believe people are perfectible. I have no idea where that comes from. If this is to be changed we have to change their environment and their incentives. Conditional immunity has to go and cops and their management are going to have to be exposed to financial, as well as legal, consequences.

    5
  28. DrDaveT says:

    @gVOR08:

    Conservatives keep telling me that as a liberal I believe people are perfectible. I have no idea where that comes from. If this is to be changed we have to change their environment and their incentives. Conditional immunity has to go and cops and their management are going to have to be exposed to financial, as well as legal, consequences.

    This.

    I’m not sure where that “perfectibility” thing comes from. To me, the distinguishing feature of liberalism beyond the general goals (e.g. justice, prosperity, and progress for all) is the subordination of moral criteria to practical criteria. If it’s going to give everyone a better quality of life in the long run, I don’t care that there will be free-riders and cheaters and undeserving beneficiaries, or that it rewards behaviors that those people over there think are immoral. Or that it fails to maximize freedumb, for that matter.

    As best I can tell, to the extent that conservatism is actually a political philosophy and not just a resistance to change it is based on a belief that there are times when you should trade away some quality of life for everyone in order to enforce a moral code or adhere to a libertarian or property rights principle.

    4
  29. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @gVOR08:

    To be honest, I think you should begin to position yourself regarding the likelihood that this kid will actually be convicted of premeditated murder for shooting protestors by a jury in conservative white bread Kenosha County. Prosecutors might have been hoping for a plea bargain, or they might have been engaging in a bit of theater to satisfy the masses & mitigate backlash protests, but the charges are a bit of a reach given the totality of the circumstances and the legal team standing behind the kid. IMO as a former prosecutor, if they refuse a deal there is a better than 50% chance the kid walks thanks to jury nullification. Combination of a muddled factual situation and a less than optimal jury pool if you’re seeking a conviction on these charges for these facts.

    2
  30. dazedandconfused says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Steve,
    My comment is partially in reference to many comments on the thread, but
    I assumed malice in the OP from the assumption the police view perps as subhuman. Certainly a few do, the bad apples, but on the main it’s not that they view them as subhuman, it’s because they have been encouraged to defend themselves first and foremost, and conditioned to believe any sudden move is justification.

    1
  31. dazedandconfused says:

    @gVOR08:

    I’m convinced negotiation is the way to go. That stems from my argument a great deal of this is due to bad training. I encourage a review of Grossman’s highly popular trainings, the videos are available on the web, along with a well done examination which questions the wisdom of it, IIRC, by PBS.
    Few wonder how some PDs which deal with mighty tough neighborhoods daily have somehow not been strongly represented in the ranks of cops shooting people unjustifiably, like Oakland. This is due to Oakland PD being big enough to run their own academy and having learned the hard lessons of the 60s.

    Conditional immunity will remain. Only a fools would be cops if the job of detaining people did not carry certain exceptions to the laws which civilians must obey.

  32. @dazedandconfused: The problem with both the “malice” and “bad apples” framing is that it ignores structural/systemic issues.

    And, unfortunately, people (including the police) see “criminals” as subhuman not out of malice, but simply because that is the prevalent cultural view and it ends up justifying very bad behavior.

    It would be nice if bad outcomes only occurred because specific people were evil (“bad apples”), but it far more complicated than that.

    1
  33. dazedandconfused says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I see it the same way and view the recent trends in training as one of the structural issues, a huge one. This is a use-of-force issue. How the young men are trained is key.

  34. grumpy realist says:

    I would also like to shift the burden of proof if the video recording isn’t available. Too many cases of “oops, we forgot to start recording” and then the police officer claims all sorts of supposedly culpable behaviour on the part of the victim which of course we only have the police officer’s word for.

  35. de stijl says:

    @gVOR08:

    One night when I lived in a downtown high rise I was out on my balcony enjoying the moon and stars and a cigarette and I saw about 3 dozen cop cars “chasing” one car running as hard as possible on four bare rims.

    The whole convoy pulled up behind another building so I could no longer see, but there were 10+ shots fired within 2 or 3 seconds.

    About 20 or 25 seconds later there were two distinct shots. Pop … pop. Roughly two seconds apart.

    I read in the local news the next day that he pulled over, jumped out and pointed a gun at the officers. That was how it was reported.

    That very well might be true, people do suicide by cop often. That part might be true.

    To a wide audience this seems like speculation, but those last two pops meant a dead guy was going to the morgue and a live guy was not gonna go to the ER.

    The latency of those last two pops was fucking eerie.

    I thought hard about what I had seen and heard. The next morning at 8:01 I called my city council member and recounted what I saw and heard without conjecture. Just the facts.

    Nothing happened.

    I am 100% certain I heard a guy getting executed – two pops in the head – that night.

    I cannot prove it. But I 100% believe it happened.

  36. ScarletNumber says:

    I don’t know why certain classes of people think you need their permission in order to arrest them. They’re the ones making it a capital offense by not complying. I don’t feel bad for St. Jacob. Also remember that the ball got rolling because his ex-girlfriend called the police on him. So cry me a river.