For those who may have thought the use of body cameras would frame any action by police — particularly the shooting of a civilian — into cut-and-dried, good-or-bad, right-or-wrong decision-making, we give you the Baltimore Police Department's first official release of such footage. In it, a knife-wielding 48-year-old man with a history of mental illness and at least one suicide attempt is shot by police in what seems a chaotic scene.
Was the shooting justified or was it not? Under the recently revised BPD "use of force" policy, it's not immediately clear. The police are instructed to look for "de-escalation" when possible under the 14-page order issued in July, and whether barking commands to drop a weapon at a clearly agitated suspect dressed entirely in black and waving knives around meets that criteria is subject to interpretation — and perhaps a great deal of speculation.
That's not to conclude that police acted unreasonably in this case, which thankfully proved non-fatal to the suspect, but there are certainly a lot of questions to be answered. The most basic may be whether the officers were sufficiently invested in using their Tasers, the electroshock weapon meant to disable but not kill its target. In the video, at least one police officer can be seen firing a Taser — while another is simultaneously discharging his firearm. Whether the Taser strikes the suspect is unclear — but also likely irrelevant given the subsequent gunfire.
Police say they are reviewing the circumstances and police policies, and they certainly deserve credit for sharing the body camera data so quickly — within days of the Waverly episode. That kind of transparency is precisely what city residents have been seeking since before Freddie Gray's death. Even the most critical viewer will acknowledge that police faced a challenging situation in attempting to subdue someone who was not acting rationally and spouting what may have been suicidal language: "I have one life to live, and I'm ready to give it."
One more high mark for the officers — they rendered first aid to the victim immediately. "Keep breathing, buddy," is what one officer tells the injured man repeatedly as he tries to clear his air passages and keep his lungs working, a haunting reminder of both the frailty of life and the police officer's own humanity.
In releasing the video, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis lamented how his officers must deal with mentally ill individuals. "How is someone who is apparently suffering from a mental health crisis out like that?" He asked. And we certainly share his concerns that the behavioral health safety net in Baltimore and throughout the rest of the country is not what it should be. Advocacy groups estimate that at least 2 million Americans suffering from mental illness are booked in jails each year — making up 15 percent to 30 percent of the incoming incarcerated.
Unfortunately, that's nothing new, and no matter what health care reforms may soon present themselves — and frankly, under President Donald Trump, it seems likely health care for the poor will be headed in the opposite direction — police are still going to confront mentally ill people who pose a threat to themselves or others. There are not cracks in our nation's continuum of care, there are broad gorges of neglect, ignorance and indifference, as well as a distinct lack of resources for treatment and follow-up care.
Still, people are going to find the video difficult to watch, not only because a man is shot and lies bleeding on the sidewalk but because it's impossible to tell how any of us would react under similar circumstances. Would we be scared and run? Would we feel compassion for the man? Would we "slow down" the situation as departmental policy recommends or instinctively fire our weapons before an apparently psychotic individual hurts himself or others on the busy street?
It's a tough call, but thanks to technology, it's now a teaching moment. If the video proves anything, it's the need to train officers in crisis intervention and response, policies the Baltimore Police Department has already pursued. Not every agitated person can be talked down, not all can be Tasered or otherwise subdued by nonlethal force, but officers can at least be trained to pursue such strategies first and fire their weapons later.