Don’t Create False Villains To Serve a Greater Good

The available evidence indicates a Columbus police officer acted with remarkable professionalism and poise. 

Rarely have we seen more blatant public vitriol and reckless irresponsibility from significant public figures than in the reactions to two separate police-related events that occurred the same day this week. I’m speaking, of course, about the conviction of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis and the police shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus. 

First, I’d like to say I’m not surprised by much today, but I was taken aback by the rage in some parts of the right at the conviction of Derek Chauvin. Here’s Tucker Carlson (the most-watched host in cable news) and Candace Owens (one of the most-followed right-wing personalities on social media) in an appalling extended segment on Fox News:

To say, as Owens does, that “this was not a trial about George Floyd and Derek Chauvin,” that it was instead a trial about “whether the media was powerful enough to create a simulation and decide upon a narrative absent any facts,” is to completely disconnect from reality. 

At trial, the prosecution entered powerful evidence that our eyes did not deceive us—Chauvin departed from proper procedure, he kept Floyd in a dangerous position even when he was not a threat, and the pressure Chauvin and other officers placed on Floyd caused his death. This was evidence the jury heard. 

And then this moment from Tucker was just strange. The laugh was unprofessional. So was his treatment of respectful disagreement. 

I could fill an entire newsletter with strange and dangerous reactions from prominent right-wing voices after the Chauvin verdict. The pathologies of right-wing infotainment are one reason why I have so little patience for most of the right’s relentless criticism of the mainstream media. Somehow, in all their rage and fury, they’ve created a competing media ecosystem that’s actually worse than the institutions they hate. Take the log out of your own eye. 

But then, over in Ohio, many of the biggest public figures and news outlets in America got busy reminding us exactly why so many in the right feel such deep frustration. They reminded us why it’s often accurate to critique left-wing media narratives, especially when it’s obvious that those narratives will force people to deny or to ignore the witness of their eyes just as thoroughly as the far-right ignored the witness of their own eyes in the Chauvin trial. 

The police shooting of 15-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was tragic and deeply, deeply sad. It was also nothing like the police murder of George Floyd. Yet immediately important voices tied the deaths together. For example, here’s the ACLU of Ohio:

This is a civil liberties organization rushing to judgment, imposing guilt. Twitter exploded with rumors. Early news reports raised concerns. Did the police actually kill the girl who called for help?

The Columbus police acted quickly to release body camera footage of the incident. I’m not going to embed it in this newsletter, because it shows the killing of a teenage girl, but you can watch it if you follow the link. 

At the news conference, the interim chief of police stated that they received a 911 call in which a “female caller” said that someone was trying to “stab them” and “put their hands on them.” The key body camera footage shows a roughly 20-second span of time. The officer gets out of his car, and for the first few seconds things seem relatively calm. Then—suddenly—a girl shoves another girl to the ground, a man appears to kick the girl on the ground, and then the camera pivots to the very brief shot of Bryant attempting to stab a girl wearing pink.

The officer yells “get down” multiple times, opens fire, and obviously hits Bryant. She falls to the ground, and the girl in the pink runs away. Only when officers slowed down the video in the press conference was it abundantly clear that Bryant had a knife in her hand and was moving with a stabbing motion. 

To say that this video complicated the ACLU’s “murder” allegation was an understatement. All at once, the narrative didn’t just change. It potentially flipped entirely. The available evidence indicated not only that the cop wasn’t a villain, he may be a hero. He may have stopped a murder. 

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But that didn’t stop a veritable avalanche of downright bizarre and sometimes misleading news coverage and commentary. For example, look at this tweet from Valerie Jarrett, who was a very senior adviser to President Obama:

This is surpassing strange. A knife attack isn’t some schoolyard scrap. It’s attempted murder. Other news outlets kept downplaying or ignoring key facts. The New York Times tweeted (and later deleted) a 30-second video of protesters that completely omitted any mention of the attempted stabbing.

A segment on CNN referred to the girl in the pink, who faced the prospect of imminent, brutal death, merely as “the girl who was close to Ma’Khia when she was shot.” No, she was the girl Bryant appeared to be trying to kill. In the same segment, prominent “antiracism” scholar/advocate Ibram X. Kendi asks: “What would have happened” if the attacker had been rich and white? 

I could go on and on with examples of public figures who ignored or minimized the actual facts of the case to jam the Columbus shooting into the George Floyd/police brutality frame. LeBron James tweeted (and later deleted) a picture of the officer who shot Bryant with “YOU’RE NEXT” and “#ACCOUNTABILITY” in all-caps. 

But then even more video emerged that should solidify our opinion (absent compelling contrary evidence) that the police officer was not only legally justified in shooting Bryant (the minimum standard), but that he also acted with an incredible amount of situational awareness and professionalism. 

A wider angle video from across the street captured every key moment, from the instant the officer rolled up, to the fateful three seconds between the first visible violent act and the shooting. Bryant was clearly attacking. The officer was not aggressive in his approach. He was walking slowly and calmly. His gun didn’t even come out of its holster until Bryant lunged at her apparent intended victim. 

Why do I go beyond saying that it appears the officer acted with an incredible amount of situational awareness and professionalism? Simple. In a span of mere seconds, he not only identified a deadly threat in progress, he also fired his handgun precisely, hitting only his intended target, quite possibly saving the life of the girl in her grasp. 

All of that is hard to do. Very hard. He chose the best of bad options and saved a life.

No, he did not have time to rush up and grab Bryant before Bryant could plunge the knife into her victim. Had he tried to grapple Bryant, the victim and likely the officer could have been stabbed multiple times.

No, he shouldn’t have tried to use a taser. Tasers often fail, and failure is the last thing you need when an innocent life may be ending right in front of your eyes.

No, he shouldn’t have “aimed for the leg.” That’s a movie move. Officers (and soldiers) are taught to shoot for center mass in part because legs are hard to hit, and hitting center mass is most likely to bring down your target. 

Even hitting center mass, by the way, can be a challenge. People who are unfamiliar with guns often have no idea how hard it is to shoot a handgun accurately, especially under extreme stress. Police frequently hit bystanders when they open fire. In 2012, a volley of fire from two New York police officers hit nine bystanders, despite the fact that they reportedly opened fire from a distance less than ten feet from their target. 

No, he shouldn’t have fired just one shot, waited to see its effect, then fired another. When a person is less than a second away from being stabbed, you don’t have time to shoot/wait/shoot/wait. You shoot until the threat is over. Any other choice unacceptably risks the life of the potential murder victim.

Yes, all this sounds quite brutal. It is, and it’s terrible. But stabbings are unspeakably brutal as well, and we would be rightly outraged if an incompetent officer allowed a girl to kill another girl when he possessed the power to stop the crime. 

So given all the realities above, I’ll do my best to answer Kendi’s question. What would happen if a rich white girl was trying to stab another girl to death? I hope the exact same thing. I hope the officer would be as aware to spot the knife, as decisive, and as accurate as the officer who opened fire. He did his job. He deserves thanks, not to have his face displayed from coast to coast online as some kind of villain.

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Readers know that I wrote frequently about the need for police reform. There is too much police brutality in the United States of America. There are too many police shootings. But it is simply wrong to try to force every police shooting into the same narrative. It is very wrong to treat cops who stop murders the same as we treat cops who commit murders. And there is no better way to harm the cause of justice than by treating an innocent man as guilty for the sake of an alleged greater good. 

One more thing …

Like when Steve Jobs invented the iPad and provided the product you didn’t know you needed, one of my jobs is to provide you with content you didn’t know you craved. What do you know about the (relatively) nearby supermassive star Betelgeuse? Not enough, it turns out. Let’s fix that problem: