But Do They Have to Shoot Them in the Back?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The Allegheny County Police Department said immediately after a video went viral that showed 17-year old Antwan Rose, Jr. being shot in the back by Officer Michael Rosfeld that there is a policy that allows for shooting fleeing felons, even in the back. As always in these all too familiar killings of an unarmed suspect, the familiar pattern unfolded. There was heated outrage from some community residents. Police officials scrambled fast. There was the somber press conference. There was the promise to thoroughly investigate the circumstances of the killing. There was the announcement that Rosfeld was put on leave pending the outcome of the investigation. There was a brief flurry of press attention to the killing. There were the ubiquitous “five fast facts about Rose” that told about Rose and his brief life.

But the Rose slaying demanded more this time. He was not just unarmed. He was not just a teenager. He was shot in the back. The slaying of suspects from back shots has been certain to spark the most intense anger and outrage. In recent years, the list of unarmed Blacks who have been shot in the back during police encounters has grown and become instant national flashpoints. Stephon Clark, Walter Scott, Ezell Ford, and now Rose. The statement from the Allegheny County Police tried to give at least some by the legal book rationale for it. But he was still shot in the back. And the statement alone didn’t answer the tormenting question why it was necessary to shoot him in the back? The even larger question is: Why is it necessary to shoot any unarmed suspect in the back?

Up until thirty-three years ago, police could and did routinely shoot more than a few suspects in the back. They had legal license to do it with almost no questions asked. All they needed to say was that they shot to prevent a suspect from fleeing. In a ruling in a Tennessee case in 1985, the Supreme Court in part put a stop to the open and unrestricted use of deadly force to bring down a fleeing suspect. Now, police had to justify their shots in the back. The justification was that the fleeing suspect posed an imminent danger either to the officers or the public by their attempted escape. However, even this might not be enough to justify a back shooting. There were obvious alternatives.  They could continue the pursuit, call for back-up in the pursuit, or try to get the residence or a location where the suspect was likely to be found.  Police have used these and variations of these tactics in a lot of cases involving fleeing suspects and have in almost all of these cases taken the suspect alive.

The fact that there are other ways to nab a fleeing suspect without resorting to lethal force, and that seemingly the ones most likely to die in a hail of bullets to the back are Black suspects deepens anger and suspicion that this is just another example of police being the judge, jury and executioner of unarmed Blacks. The furor over this has at times resulted in an officer being charged and prosecuted. This was the case with Charleston, South Carolina officer Michael T. Slager, charged with shooting Scott in the back. That case, and other cases where officers have been charged in the overuse of deadly force, often after shooting a suspect in the back, has done little to clarify whether the shots in the back were justified.

The police agencies that are on the hot seat for a dubious shooting or another act that results in the death of a civilian investigate themselves. There is almost never an independent, outside agency that will conduct a truly impartial investigation. And when the cops are hauled into a court docket for overuse of deadly force, it’s near impossible to convict. Their defense lawyers are top guns, with lots of experience defending police officers accused of misconduct. Police unions bankroll their defense and spare no expense. Cops rarely serve any pre-trial jail time and are released on ridiculously low bail.

If the cops are tried by a jury, police defense attorneys seek to get as many middle-class people, whites and even Blacks and Latinos, on the jury as possible. The presumption is that they are much more likely to believe the testimony of police and prosecution witnesses than Black witnesses, defendants, or even the victims.

There is no ironclad standard of what is or isn’t an acceptable use of force in police misconduct cases. It often comes down to a judgment call by the officer. In the Rodney King beating case in 1992 in which four LAPD officers stood trial, defense attorneys painted King as the aggressor and claimed that the level of force used against him was justified.

Based on past practice, there’s little reason to think that Rosfeld will be prosecuted. There’s even less reason to think that this case as the other cases where fleeing suspects were shot in the back, will answer the question,” Why do they have to shoot them in the back?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.


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