I have strong doubts about any efforts towards prosecution in the death of Jonathan Ferrell. A former FAMU student, Ferrell crashed his car, crawled out the back window looking for help, and then knocked on the door of the first house he saw. A woman, thinking it was her husband knocking, answered. When she saw Ferrell she shut the door, hit her alarm and called the police. What happened once the police arrive is not clear. There evidently is dashcam video, but it hasn't been released. Lawyers have seen it and I think this reaction is important:
"(Ferrell) advanced toward the officers. His hands were not in the air," said George Laughrun, attorney for Officer Randall Kerrick, speaking to reporters about what he saw in footage from a police cruiser's dashboard camera.
"You see one of his hands partially behind his back, concealed as he ... continued to advance. He was given three commands to 'Get on the ground. Get on the ground.' He did not. And Officer Kerrick backed up and then felt the need to deploy his service weapon."
Later in the story the police chief makes the obvious point that not complying is not a good reason to try and kill someone. People do not comply for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they mean harm. But they also might not clearly hear you. They might be mentally disabled. Or--having just emerged from a car crash--they might be totally disoriented.
Having said that, it's important to understand that, in America, it is broadly believed that police can--and perhaps should--kill people who do not comply with them. Roy Middleton was shot in his own driveway after a neighbor called the police on him, thinking he was a burglar breaking into a car. The car was Middleton's. When the police arrived, they claim to have given Middleton orders to which he did not comply. Middleton thought it was neighbors playing a joke. The police claim he "lunged" at them."It was like a firing squad," Middleton told PNJ from his bed at Baptist Hospital. "Bullets were flying everywhere." The local sheriff
doesn't believe the police did anything wrong.
There's been some rage directed at the woman who called the police. I think this is wrong. You may believe racism is an actual force in our interactions--I certainly do--but you don't know whether it was an actual force in this one. It's important to recognize that this is both a woman and an individual. You might speculate about what she thinks of black people. I might speculate about whether she'd been a victim of sexual assault, or any other kind of violence. That also happens in America. But it would be better to speculate about nothing, since all we actually know is that this was a woman who was home with a young child, opened the door in the middle of the night, and found a dude standing outside.
Her reaction may not have been your reaction. But this woman is not paid by the State to keep the peace. Police officers are trained to deal with situations like this. In too many cases that training does not emphasize de-escalation, but killing people who make them jumpy. Miscommunication is not an excuse. Mental illness is not an excuse. Confusion is not an excuse. If the officer believes you are a threat to their life, they have the right to shoot you--and anyone standing near you
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power