Mimesis Law
19 September 2019

Joseph Ponder’s Death Adds Nothing To The Narrative

Sept. 16, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — After Kentucky State Trooper Joseph Ponder was shot and killed, NBC News wrote that “Kentucky Trooper Was Trying to Help the Man Who Killed Him: Police.” It explained:

The Kentucky state trooper who was fatally shot after a traffic stop on Sunday night was trying to help the man who allegedly killed him, Kentucky State Police spokesman Jay Thomas said in a news conference.

The trooper, Joseph Ponder, 31, pulled over Joseph Johnson-Shanks, 25, on an interstate just after 10 p.m. It was unclear why the trooper conducted the traffic stop, Thomas said, though Ponder quickly discovered that Johnson-Shanks’ driver’s license was suspended.

Two women who were also in the car — one was 18, the other was 22 — didn’t have licenses either, Thomas said, so Ponder tried to arrange for a hotel for everyone — there were also two young children in the vehicle, police said.

“So he wouldn’t have to take the driver to jail,” Thomas said, “he was trying to help them out.”

Ponder surely wasn’t being a bad guy, but whether he was actually helping is up for debate. He was stopping Johnson-Shanks for purportedly doing something wrong. Maybe it was legitimate. Maybe it was racially motivated. Who knows?

Regardless, it wasn’t like Ponder was helping him change a flat tire on the side of the road. He probably didn’t stop him to let him know his gas cap was hanging off. Nothing suggests Ponder didn’t intend to issue Johnson-Shanks a citation for whatever he supposedly did to get stopped, or that he didn’t intend to pursue charges against him for driving on a suspended license. It’s a criminal charge that can lead to some substantial fines and even jail. Ponder was probably going to do something that would make Johnson-Shanks’s life much worse.

There’s no telling why Johnson-Shanks’s license might have been suspended. It could be something serious. It could be for failure to pay an unreasonable fine for some other case he might not have deserved. It could be for something like child support. Whatever it was, Johnson-Shanks wasn’t going to get to drive. Neither were the other occupants. His car would probably be impounded, and then he would have to pay fees to get it back.

Helping Johnson-Shanks get a hotel doesn’t exactly make Ponder a knight in shining armor. He was a cop doing his job. He was trying to mitigate the damage his work was going to do to someone. It’s admirable, but it’s hardly “helping” in any reasonable sense of the word.

Then, “for an unknown reason,” Thomas said, Johnson-Shanks fled the scene, leading Ponder on a 9-mile chase. Johnson-Shanks slammed on the brakes, Johnson said, and Ponder “positioned” his car against the fleeing suspect’s vehicle.

“At that point, Mr. Johnson-Shanks leaned out the driver’s side window and fired several rounds into the trooper’s car, hitting the hood and windshield and trooper Ponder,” Thomas said.

From what little the article explains, it’s hard to know what Ponder could have done differently. If all he had to go on when Johnson-Shanks began shooting was that he had a suspended license, fled, and later leaned out the window after stopping, the only solution to avoid a situation like this in the future may be to have a broad police policy against pursuing suspects.

No doubt, however, police use-of-force experts will soon start to come forward with highly aggressive suggestions to avoid such tragedies in the future. Sadly, no reasonable police policy is going to balance an officer’s safety with the potential for police abuse in a situation where the suspect secretly intends to murder the officer. It’s troubling that it isn’t taken for granted that a certain amount of risk is simply part of the job. Short of not following Johnson-Shanks after he fled, it seems that Ponder’s only other option would have been firing into a car with women and children because the driver leaned out the window, with nothing more to suggest that he was at risk.

A later article at the Daily News adds that Ponder was a Navy veteran who had just joined the police force this year, adding that investigators started searching for Johnson-Shanks in May to question him about the suspected theft of lottery tickets. Ponder’s situation is tragic, and he will surely serve as a rallying figure in what some seem intent on calling the War on Cops. The fact investigators only wanted to question Johnson-Shanks about what seems to be a non-violent property offense, however, makes it even harder to tell based on the limited information available whether any of this could have been prevented. It isn’t a record that screams cop-killer.

The way the hunt for Johnson-Shanks ended is hardly surprising:

Cops spotted him in a wooded area off I-24 around 7 a.m. Monday, and ordered him to drop a weapon he held. When Johnson-Shanks refused and aimed his gun at police, an officer shot him. He died in a hospital at 8:23 a.m., police said.

There may be a lot more to this, and reports will surely surface about Johnson-Shanks’s supposed motive and background. It’ll probably be next to impossible to figure out what really happened, however. Obviously, Johnson-Shanks isn’t available to offer his story.

It isn’t surprising that a man who just murdered a cop might aim his gun at other cops when cornered, but on some level, it’s almost taken granted that police take some liberties when emotions run high. Whether it’s a rough takedown after a car chase gets the blood pumping or a group of cops pumping lead into a guy who killed one of their brothers, people tend to react to such stories of force with a bit of a smirk. They know what’s going on, but mentioning it would somehow be inappropriate.

Yet another Daily News article wastes no time tying Johnson-Shanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, further complicating the situation. Unsurprisingly, though, it may also end up being a Rorschach test for people’s pre-existing views about a very touchy subject. Ponder could’ve been the best cop that ever lived. Or he could’ve been pulling over Johnson-Shanks for DWB.

And it’s certainly possible that a cop-killer would identify with people who want to make changes to current state of policing in this country, but it doesn’t necessarily have any real impact on the validity of the movement or the other people involved. He could be a bad guy seeing good guys standing up for something in his best interest. For many, he will just confirm their belief that the movement is rotten to the core and dangerous to law enforcement.

Whatever you see right now, you’ll be able to find plenty to support your opinion. There’s a good chance there will be even more information coming out to “prove” how right your beliefs are. Ultimately, the inapt narrative about Johnson-Shanks killing a man who was trying to help him is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about anything. And we can never be confidant that we know the real story anyway.

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