In Police Shootings, Perception Matters As Much As Justification
December 6, 2016 (Fault Lines) – On August 19, 2015, in the Chattanooga suburb of East Ridge, Police Lieutenant Daniel Stephenson, using a patrol rifle, shot and killed Todd Browning, 54, in front of Browning’s home. Stephenson’s dash cam video was recently released when the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office ruled that the shooting was justified under Tennessee law, and announced that they had cleared Stephenson. That’s not doing anything to change the perception of many that Stephenson executed Browning.
Chattanooga is dominated by two terrain features that Civil War historians will easily recognize. To the south of the city is Lookout Mountain, and to the east of the city is Missionary Ridge. East Ridge, unsurprisingly, is east of Missionary Ridge, on the opposite side of the ridge from the city of Chattanooga. Confederate General Braxton Bragg felt that his positions on those two ridges was unassailable, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant agreed. Bragg was wrong, as Union soldiers took both terrain features in bitter fighting, and routed the Confederate Army.
In my mind, that’s similar to what’s happening in regard to police shootings. Like Bragg, police officers perceive themselves to be in unassailable positions. They become attached to the idea that they are in the right, that they cannot be dislodged from their position. But facts and perception don’t always agree.
Browning first drew police attention at the Auto Zone, a couple of blocks away from his home, where witnesses said that he was waiving a knife around. Stephenson was the first on the scene and did not engage Browning at that time. According to Stephenson’s attorney, Brian Hoss, Browning yelled at the officer to shoot him, and charged at the officer. Stephenson showed considerable restraint, holstering his pistol and pushing Browning away.
Browning then fled to his home, and Stephenson followed, arming himself with a patrol rifle. The attorney said that Stephenson, who had SWAT experience, intended to set up a perimeter and wait Browning out, but Browning approached Stephenson with a water meter key (pictured).
Getting hit with a water meter key is about like being beaten with a piece of steel rebar. It can easily kill you, and if someone is bent on making you shoot them, it would do the trick. If someone was coming at me with one and I believed that they intended to hit me with it, I would be justified in shooting the person.
The problem here is the way that it is presented. It’s clear from the witnesses that Stephenson was justified in shooting. Browning kept advancing, striking at the ground with the key, two said that Browning lunged, and one said that Browning had closed to about 20 feet when Stephenson shot him. The problem is that the narrative doesn’t exactly match the video.
First, while you can hear Stephenson repeatedly telling Browning to stop, you can’t see Browning until just before the shots are fired. Hoss said:
When the suspect reached the point at which he could hit Lt. Stephenson with his metal weapon, Lt. Stephenson believed that his life was in jeopardy and had no other choice but to fire.
The problem is that Browning never reached the point at which he could strike Stephenson. He had reached the 21-foot reactionary gap where if he charged, Stephenson would not be able to stop him before he reached striking range. But he was not in striking range.
Hoss also said:
After hitting the suspect, other officers arrived. EMS was called immediately and the officers attempted what medical treatment they could on the suspect.
Again, the problem is that the tape doesn’t show this. Instead, it shows Stephenson calling in the “shots fired” and holding his position. Indeed, it shows him backing up somewhat. It does not show him immediately attempting medical treatment.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression here either: Nothing that Stephenson did was wrong. This was a clearly justifiable shooting, regardless of how it may look to the layperson. Here, the Hamilton County DA, Neal Pinkston said that:
Lt. Stephenson acted well within the law and, as a result, should not face any charges.
Pinkston’s right. But he’s not real transparent, either. You are expected to take his word for it. Pinkston’s spokesman, Melydia Clewell, when questioned about Auto Zone security camera footage, replied that the Tennessee Open Records Act “does not require” that it be produced, and that even if the DA was willing to produce it, the DA could require the requestor produce a Tennessee Driver’s License to receive the information. Legally, Pinkston is in an unassailable position.
But in today’s world, with video and the internet, you cannot depend on being in an unassailable position. If, like General Bragg, you depend on your positions on Missionary Ridge being so dominant that they can’t be taken, you run the same risk that he did. Because when General Grant sent General George H. Thomas against Rebel rifle pits at the base of the ridge. Thomas’s men were successful, but immediately came under deadly fire from Confederate positions on the top of the hill.
The only way that the men could have a chance to survive was to attack, which they did, and they took the ridge. Had the Confederates eased up, not put such deadly fire on the positions at the base, the Yankees would not have attacked the ridgeline.
You see, Thomas had orders to take the base and go no further, and he complied with those orders. His men, however were being slaughtered by the fire from the ridge, and decided that they had to press forward. So they did.
The various movements about police involved shootings are in the same position. They are at the base of the ridge, after having won the initial skirmishes. They should not be able to take the ridge, especially with some of the mistakes made by their members. But if the people at the top of the ridge had eased up, had not caused such a situation where those at the bottom had to attack, Bragg would not have been routed.
When police and the DA take the positions that they have taken here, they are doing so with the knowledge that, like Bragg, they are unassailable. But like Bragg, they have a choice. They can continue to do things the old way, raining deadly fire on those at the base of the ridge, or they can ease up. They can release information that is consistent with what the video shows, not from the cop perspective, but from the perspective of the public. You take the time to explain why it is justifiable, why it was required. Or you can believe that you’re in an unassailable position.
Except you’re not.
 Common in cases of suicide by cop.