One night last year, two Sacramento cops were chasing Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man, through his grandmother’s back yard when he stopped, turned around and took what appeared to be a shooting stance. Clark refused to obey several shouts by the cops to show them his hands. Suddenly the officers observed a flash of light coming from Clark’s hand which they thought was a gun being fired. The two officers opened fire, striking him seven times, including three times in the back. The object in his hand turned out to be a cellphone.
Clark’s death led to protests and some rioting throughout the country. Blacks and white liberals were outraged over another killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of the police.
What the protesters didn’t know was that several days before the shooting Clark had a fight with the mother of his two children and that he researched ways of committing suicide. Furthermore, a toxicology report revealed that at the time of his death he was loaded with alcohol, Xanax, codeine, hydrocodone, marijuana and cocaine in his system. When he took that shooting stance with a cellphone in his hand, was Clark committing ‘suicide by cop’?
On Saturday, Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert announced that the two officers did not act unlawfully when they shot Clark and that no charges would be filed against them. “We must recognize that they are often forced to make split-second decisions,” she said, “and we must recognize that they are under tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving circumstances.”
The Clark shooting is not the first time police have mistaken a cellphone for a gun. Several other unarmed people have been shot by cops under circumstances similar to those in this case. And in those cases the police did not observe a flash of light.
Even a bible has been mistaken for a gun. Quite a few years ago, two Houston cops on patrol at night observed a black man acting irrationally in the middle of the street. They got out of their police car and started to approach the man. Suddenly he reached into his back pocket and whipped out an object while shouting, “Here, I’ve got something for you!” The cops believing it was a gun, opened fire and killed the man. The man had whipped a bible out of his back pocket. No charges were filed against the officers.
Now you might ask, do cellphones or bibles for that matter, justify the use of deadly force? The answer to that question is: Yes, if the officer believes the cellphone or bible pointed at him is a gun. In an officer’s mind that is a shoot or get killed situation.
Cops are on edge because there’s hardly a day goes by without a police officer being shot somewhere in this country. If a cop wants to return to his family after his shift, he cannot afford to wait and ask a suspect if the object he is holding is a gun. This is not the movies or a TV show in which the hero stands in front of a man pointing a pistol at him and tries to sweet-talk him into giving up the gun.
When I was a cop, I would not have hesitated to shoot someone I believed was pointing a gun at me. I would have felt terrible had I found out it was a cellphone or worse, a bible. But if it had been a gun, better him dead than me.