Time Frame and Police Shootings

Yesterday CNN published my new essay on the shooting of a black, homeless, disabled man by the LAPD. I argue that the focus on whether of not “Africa,” as the man was known, was reaching for a gun, is the wrong question. Instead, use-of-force incidents should be assessed by taking a broad time frame, looking at the decisions that led up to the violence.

I am writing a longer piece on the upcoming Supreme Court case for Al Jazeera, out sometime in the next few weeks, and so have been thinking about that specific issue a lot, and learning from Seth Stoughton, a law professor at South Carolina. After the Africa shooting, I reached back out to him for more information.

According to Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in police regulation, there are two ways to look at use-of-force incidents. One position advocates for a narrow time frame in which we only examine the moment in which the trigger was pulled. The other argues for a broad time frame, in which the whole chain of decisions leading up to the moment of force is part of the assessment.

In fact, Stoughton notes that the Supreme Court may well rule on this matter in Sheehan vs San Francisco, a case also involving police violence and mental illness. On March 23, the court will hear whether San Francisco police should have considered Teresa Sheehan’s disability before entering her room, and whether their failure to accommodate her disability violates the Fourth Amendment. Sheehan was shot, but survived, and is trying to keep her lawsuit from being thrown out. As with most Supreme Court cases, the decision will likely have broad implications.

In an email, Seth wrote me to clarify slightly. “The failure to accommodate Ms. Sheehan’s disability isn’t the basis of the Fourth Amendment claim. The Fourth Amendment claim is for an unreasonable seizure (and one reason this seizure was arguably unreasonable is because officers knew of her disability).”

That’s my fault for trying to compress the whole case into a single sentence, and I appreciate Seth clarifying.

One criticism of every piece critical of police violence is the argument that the suspect should have just complied with commands and he or she would have been fine. Therefore, the failure to not comply justifies the death or violence.

I need your help pushing back against that when you see the argument and have the energy to do so. To make it clear that for people with disabilities, failure to comply may not be a choice, and best practices offer other ways to approach such situations. There will always be moments in which police need to use deadly force. It may even be true that there was no way to approach Africa without violence resulting, though I am skeptical of this. I believe he was another victim of the cult of compliance, and there will be more. Probably within a few days.

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