The Death of Daniel Shaver

In early 2016, pest-control specialist Daniel Shaver was a in a hotel drinking with two friends he’d picked up and showing off a pellet gun he used for his job. Someone saw him at the window and called the police. What resulted was a police officer shooting Shaver to death. The officer was acquitted last week and the judge released the body cam video of the shooting. If you can stomach it, here it is:

If you can’t watch — which I understand — I’ll tell you what happens. Shaver — drunk, scared, crying and begging the officers not to shoot him — is trying to comply with the barked orders of one of the officers, which are often contradictory and confusing. As he begins crawling toward the officers, he reaches back — possibly to pull up his pants. At that point, the officer with the camera shoots him five times, killing him. The officer who shot him was removed from the force at least in part for etching “You’re Fucked” in the barrel of his rifle.

Patterico, a prosecutor, gives as good a defense of the shooting as can be given here, citing videos that were often deceptive as to what was happening. It’s a fair analysis but I disagree with it. There were multiple officers at the scene; there was no indication of a second gunman; telling Shaver that if he moved the wrong way he’d get shot was a grossly unreasonable demand to make. Patterico’s analysis illustrates, once again, the underlying problem with police-civilian confrontations: untrained civilians are expected to react perfectly and not make a single mistake; trained police officers are allowed leeway for mistakes and errors. We’ll break down shootings like the Zapruder film to illustrate “mistakes” the victim made that justified the shooting; but we won’t hold officers to the same standard.

What we see in the video is the result of the aggressive training police officers have been getting in recent years (one of which is literally called “Bulletproof Warrior”). They are told to see every movement as a potential attack — this at a time when shooting of police officers and assaults on officers are at an all-time low. And they react accordingly.

The reason for the acquittal is that juries have been told, based on Supreme Court precedent, that a shooting is justified if the police are in fear of their lives. Note that there’s no requirement that the fear be reasonable. Or that the fear not be a result of their own previous actions. If police needlessly provoke a confrontation that results in a civilian getting shot, all the jury needs to consider is what was going on at the moment of the shooting, not all the mistakes that led up to that. In the Tamir Rice incident, for example, the fact that the police roared up in a car, jumped out and opened fire was considered irrelevant. All that mattered was that Rice made some motion that could possible be interpreted as dangerous (the avoidance of which would have required superhuman reflex control on his part).

This, again, is not a standard that applies to civilians. Had Daniel Shaver shot an officer under similar circumstances, he’d be on death row. Had Shafer needlessly provoked or confronted the officers, he’d be held responsible.

I don’t know what we can do to stop this. Over a thousand civilians are killed by police every year, accounting for one-third of the stranger killings in the US. Granted, sometimes those a unavoidable; there are people who decided to attack cops. But over and over again, we see avoidable shootings for which no one is held responsible.

(One rare exception was the Walter Scott shooting. Officer Slager was recently found guilty of murder and sent to prison. But this is hardly a vindication. Slager was caught on cell phone video shooting a fleeing unarmed man in the back. Before that video emerged, he was well on his way to acquittal, claiming that he shot Scott when the latter grabbed his taser (even falsely claiming to have performed CPR). Had it not been for the civilian taking video, I doubt he would have even been charged.)

We need a serious change in how we approach policing in this country. Our methods are designed to deal with crime rates of 30 years ago, which were double what they are now. No, scratch that. They were designed to deal with a supposed wave of superpredators and monsters that never emerged. Until things change, people will continue to die and distrust of the police will continue to grow.

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