Charles Kinsey: Is This The Villain In The War On Cops?
July 22, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Paul Cassell and Heather MacDonald are in agreement: There is no problem with officer violence in this country. We know this because when we ask a police officer to write a report of what happened after he shot someone, he usually says that the suspect was reaching for his weapon.
What’s worse, all this scrutiny of officer behavior is making us less safe, since officers encounter “virulent hostility and resistance to their lawful authority” on a regular basis. This is the “Ferguson Effect” in action—paralyzing officers who might have their actions recorded on film.
It’s a shame, then, that a police officer had to shoot Charles Kinsey. Kinsey, a behavioral therapist, saw an autistic man sitting cross-legged in the street, playing with a toy truck. He went to help.
Unfortunately, according to police, someone in the neighborhood had reported that there was a man with a gun threatening suicide. Officers also wanted to help, but in a more action-packed way. When the police arrived, carrying rifles, they pointed their weapons at the two men, demanding that they lie down. Kinsey complied with commands, lying on his back with his hands in the air, and telling the autistic man to lie down as well.
But the autistic man was, well, autistic. He had wandered away from the group home where he was a patient. He didn’t want to lie down on his stomach. He wanted to play with his toy truck. This made the officers increasingly panicky. Kinsey repeatedly tried to defuse the situation, telling police that he was an occupational therapist, that the man holding the toy truck was autistic, and begging them not to shoot.
All he has is a toy truck in his hand. A toy truck. I am a behavioral therapist at a group home… that’s all it is. That’s all it is. There is no need for guns.
I’d like to describe what happened next. But it wouldn’t have the beautiful poetry of a press release from the police department:
In a prepared statement, North Miami police spokeswoman Natalie Buissereth said “arriving officers attempted to negotiate with the two men on the scene, one of whom was later identified as suffering from autism… At some point during the on-scene negotiation, one of the responding officers discharged his weapon.”
This is actually remarkably straightforward for a shooting—the spokeswoman managed to avoid the passive voice. Still, you’d hardly know from her description that the weapon discharged actually shot a bullet into someone.
Thankfully for Kinsey, the police were as good at marksmanship as they were at de-escalation. Despite firing three shots at an immobile target, and despite the fact that US officers are trained to shoot to kill, Kinsey was struck only in the leg. At which point, of course, officers ran over and arrested him, presumably for the theft of ammunition. According to Kinsey, when he asked why he’d been shot, the officer said, “I don’t know.”
This is one of those classic “but for video” cases. Ten or fifteen years ago, an officer probably could have said that the autistic man raised the toy truck in a threatening manner and gotten off with a week of paid leave and some extra paperwork. As is, the city of North Miami is already trying to reach a settlement agreement to resolve the situation.
In a strange way, the city is proving itself exemplary. After the shooting, no one tried to lie about Kinsey doing something threatening. No one tried to offer a lame excuse for the officer’s conduct. They acted like responsible adults who had made a mistake. And that confers legitimacy.
What Heather MacDonald and Paul Cassel call a “War on Cops” isn’t just a piling on of accusations of racism from people in highly policed communities. It is the justified belief that when police officers mess up, or even deliberately break the law, they won’t face the same consequences as the rest of us. That rather than trying to make amends for the mistake, the police are likely instead to find reasons to blame us.
So yes, MacDonald is right that most people who are murdered or shot, aren’t murdered or shot by police officers. She’s right that people in high crime areas often cry out for better policing. But even if, as she argues, only nine of the two thousand people shot in Chicago this year were shot by police officers, the problem is that those nine people are the least likely to get compensated if the officers acted wrongfully.
This country started with a bunch of quaint ideals. For instance, warrants were required to make sure that officials had a good reason to look for something, and specific stuff to look for. But they also existed to provide legitimacy—to shield public officials against violence because the people being searched felt confident that the law was being followed.
Every few years, there’s a story about some judge, normally a hardass, who breaks a rule of decorum in his own courtroom and holds himself in contempt. Why do people love these stories? Because when powerful people hold themselves to the same rules that the rest of us live by, it creates a powerful perception of fairness.
By contrast, when we hear about officers breaking into a convenience store to steal a surveillance tape of a shooting, about states passing laws to restrict access to video of police shootings, it’s hard to see that legitimacy. If police want to be as respected and as safe as they’d like to be, they’ll have to show the public that they won’t hide from consequences when they break the rules the rest of us live by.
 Strangely enough, the Department of Corrections does not use a similar method to determine if it is holding any innocent prisoners.