I happened to catch the news conference the other day in which it was announced that there would be no charges brought against the Chicago police officer who shot and killed Ronald Johnson. I watched the twenty minute or so power point and video presentation. I listened to the tone of the announcement, before the actual words were spoken. It was obvious from the start of the press conference that Officer George Hernandez would not be brought up on charges by the Cook County State Attorney. Then something surprising happened. The announcement was made…and I agreed.
Police use of force is a topic that is simply not understood by the vast majority of people affected by it. And trust me when I tell you that everyone is affected by it. Police shootings happen every day but we only hear about the controversial ones. The vast majority of police shootings are justified, usually without question. When you look at global statistics and see just how many Americans are killed by police every year, it would seem that our statistics are way out of proportion, and they are. The flip side of that coin is that America is a fucked up place to live and there are a lot of people who act violently. It is ingrained in our culture. It is a sad truth, but America is riddled with sensationalized violence, mental illness and a slew of other self inflicted ailments which do inevitably lead to incidents of violence involving police.
In the case of Ronald Johnson, he was shot in the back while fleeing police. The shot in the back part should raise some red flags. This, unfortunately, became the focal point of the controversy. Unfortunate because in this case, the fact that he was shot in the back was highlighted out of context. It is true, that under Tennessee v. Garner, it became illegal to shoot a fleeing felon, regardless of circumstance. Case law over the years ironed out Garner and clarified that if an armed subject was fleeing and there was potential for harm to the public, it is lawful to shoot the subject as he fled. This is one of the rare times that shooting a fleeing subject in the back is legally justified. The justification being that shooting the subject eliminated the greater risk to the public. This is standard operating procedure in every police department in the nation.
Fast forward to Ronald Johnson. What we thought we knew before is now irrelevant. The facts are as follows: There were numerous 911 calls stating that there was ongoing gunfire. When police arrived on scene, Ronald Johnson took off running and refused to obey all lawful commands to stop and drop his weapon. As it turned out, Johnson WAS armed, as was proved by the dash cam video. Here is where there is a gray area. Johnson ran into a public park at night. Police could not see if there was anyone in the park. If Johnson had fled during the day and there was even just one person in the park, Johnson would have been shot and we never would have heard about this case. Not knowing if there was anyone in the park, the officer made the decision to shoot. I cannot in good conscience sit here and write that he did anything wrong. I could sit here and write several other options that Office Hernandez could have chosen, but I wasn’t there. I have been in many high stress situations that could have easily gone wrong, when I was a cop. I love to second guess the douche bags who indiscriminately murder people when they had a slew of other options. I can’t do that here. This was as high of a stress situation that police will ever find themselves in. Chasing armed subjects after it was verified there was a shootout.
One final point I will make which applies to all police shootings, is that if police show up to a ‘man with a gun’ call, and they see a man with a gun, they are green lit to shoot that guy without warning. I’ll repeat, if police see an armed subject, they are legally justified to shoot that person with basically no questions asked, regardless of whether or not they were threatening anyone. This becomes legally vital in a large portion of police shooting reviews.
So, police shoots man in back never makes a good headline. This case is no different. The only thing different about this case is that whether or not you agree with the legal justification, the shooting was legally justified. Situations like this really bring to light the nuts and bolts of use of force and use of force policy. This was one of the rarely seen yet legally justified shootings that typically happen every day. The controversy over Ronald Johnson was a good thing in as far as it really exposed the other side of police shootings and showed that some of them are more than they seem.