Why you trying to second guess me?
I am tired of second guessing.
—R.E.M., Second Guessing
Here’s a story that may not be getting much attention outside of Texas, but you may want to watch.
Last Wednesday, police in Brownsville—a city on the Texas/Mexico border—shot and killed 15 year old Jaime Gonzalez in a middle school hallway. His godmother complained to the Brownsville Herald that “[i]t was not right . . . They didn’t give him a chance.”
I can only assume she was there and saw the whole thing to know that.
His parents, predictably, are already looking for a lawyer, and want to know “[w]hy was so much excess force used on a minor?” Civil rights groups are demanding an investigation. I assume it’s only a matter of time before we have Quanell X, Al Sharpton, and the other usual spotlight vultures showing up to decry once again The Man’s police brutality against people of color.
Excess force. Didn’t give him a chance. Hmm.
Here’s the thing. Jaime Gonzalez was carrying a gun. In a school. That alone really ought to end the discussion, but there’s more. The incident began when Jaime beat up another student, prompting school officials to call the police. The 911 tape reveals that officers repeatedly—repeatedly—ordered Jaime to drop the gun, and he didn’t do it. He then pointed the gun at the police, who immediately opened fire.
What makes this a little more complicated is that the gun young Jaime was carrying turned out to be a .177 caliber CO2 pellet pistol. So between the victim’s age and the nature of the weapon, the narrative quickly becomes an anti-police tale of Cops Kill Boy Holding Toy. But take a quick look at the photos at the top. One of these is the pellet gun carried by Jaime Gonzalez. The other is a 9mm Glock 17, a weapon used by police and militaries around the world. The pellet gun probably won’t kill you, but the Glock most certainly will (yes, I know, guns don’t kill people, people do—try to keep up). And I challenge you to give them just a brief glance and see if you can distinguish between the two.
Now try it under life-and-death duress.
It’s a funny thing about cops: when you point a gun at them, they’re not inclined to ask you what it is. They don’t have time to study it. They don’t get the opportunity to have you drop the magazine so they can inspect the ammunition, or measure the bore diameter. They react to defend themselves and those around them, and they do so with deadly force. They shoot center mass, because it’s easier to hit under duress, and far more likely to stop an assailant than a shot to the arm or leg. And if there’s more than one cop around when you point that gun, all of them are going to fire. It’s called “suicide by cop.”
They have to be this way. In 2011 alone, 177 police officers were killed in the line of duty in the U.S., 71 of them by being shot. That’s up from 153 in 2010. It’s a dangerous business, and it’s why they carry weapons in the first place. And a gunman in a school is no laughing matter, either. Since 1996, there have been 80 school shooting incidents in the U.S., resulting in 164 dead. What’s more disturbing is the trajectory: the period between 1996 and 2005 averaged 2.8 such incidents per year, while the period between 2006 and 2011 has seen a sharp uptick to 8.7 per year, a threefold increase.
Jaime Gonzalez’ death is tragic, as is the loss of any young person, under any circumstances. One can understand his parents’ grief. But to them, and to the civil rights zealots who are so quick to throw the police under the bus (or set up their lawsuit—I note Mrs. Gonzalez had the presence of mind to take photos of her dead son with her cell phone “to document the bullet wounds”) let me ask a couple of questions. First, what the hell was Jaime Gonzalez doing at school with any gun, toy or otherwise? His parents swear they didn’t know he had it and have no idea how he got it, answers that will no doubt be very convenient for their lawyer. I’ll bet you dollars-to-donuts the truth is that gun was a Christmas present; of course, they’ll never admit that now. But giving them the benefit of the doubt, I’ll respond with the same query I noted Bill Cosby posing to the black community the other day: why don’t you know that?
My second question is more important: what would you have had the police do in that situation? Better yet: what would you do when a person you don’t know refuses multiple commands to drop what as best you can tell is a gun and then points it at you? The police have a right to protect themselves, and a duty to protect others. I don’t know the range at which the police shot Gonzalez, but the maximum reach of a Taser is only about 35 feet; one doubts they were that close. Obviously, batons, pepper spray, and compliance techniques require reducing that range much closer, not exactly practical against someone potentially wielding a gun. That doesn’t leave the police with many options. Gonzalez’ death is a tragedy, but how much more tragic would it have been had he been about to take a real gun on a Virginia Tech-style rampage, and the police failed to stop him? What would we be saying to the parents of however many innocent victims? What would we be saying to the wife and children of a slain officer had the police delayed their reaction long enough to permit Jaime to open fire first? The police can’t take that chance.
The job of the police is difficult under the best of circumstances, but it gets harder and harder when every move is handicapped with worrying about who’s going to question their actions, and how they’re going to explain them when they get sued. It’s very easy to play quarterback from your sofa with instant replay and slow motion; it’s very, very difficult when life-and-death decisions have to be made in a nanosecond. The fact of the matter is if Jaime Gonzalez doesn’t bring a gun—of whatever sort—to school, if he doesn’t beat up a classmate, if he simply complies when the police tell him—again, repeatedly—to drop the gun, the police aren’t put in that situation and this never happens.
My heart goes out to Mr. and Mrs. Gonzalez; I wouldn’t wish the loss of a child on anyone. But it also must go out to the officers involved, who did what they had to do in a situation that afforded no time for contemplation, and no margin for error; they will have to live with Wednesday’s events for the rest of their lives.