The shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant by a Columbus police officer has met with less widespread condemnation than many other recent high-profile killings by police. This is because, unlike in the cases of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Eric Garner, Bryant was seen in body cam footage lunging at someone with a knife in the moments before she was shot four times by officer Nicholas Reardon. The Democratic mayor of Columbus defended the officer’s actions, saying that “based on this footage, the officer took action to protect another young girl in our community.” Democratic congresswoman Val Demings, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said “it appears that the officer responded as he was trained to do with the main thought of preventing a tragedy and a loss of life of the person who was about to be assaulted.” Joe Concha, media columnist for the Hill, condemned news outlets as “reprehensible” for headlines reporting simply that a Black teenage girl had been killed by police, voicing his disgust that an officer who “may have saved an unarmed young Black girl’s life by preventing her from being stabbed… is immediately portrayed in these headlines as another Derek Chauvin.” Leftist YouTuber Vaush pleaded with viewers: “Can we please, please, please, not make the shooting of that 16-year-old girl the hinge of our next big civil rights anti-cop push?” and suggested that we should instead focus on “way worse” shootings.
I suspect, though I cannot find polling data, that public opinion is more divided on this shooting than others. Anecdotally, in a New Orleans cafe this morning I overheard an argument between three people about the shooting; all were critical of the police in general but two insisted that this case in particular was different because the officer was neutralizing a real threat. A police officer in Idaho recorded a viral TikTok video mocking LeBron James’ outrage over the incident. In the video, the officer pretends to be responding to a stabbing in progress, asking “James” on the phone how he should respond. “Could you put the knife down please?” he asks, to show how supposedly impotent he would be without the ability to fire his weapon. “Deadly force is completely justified,” he tells James, but apparently James “[doesn’t] care if a Black person kills another Black person” but only if a white police officer kills a Black person. (A GoFundMe for the officer, based on the possibly untrue news that he had faced job consequences for the video, has raised over $350,000 so far.)
The Associated Press (AP) has even published an explainer showing that the officer in this case was following best practices among American law enforcement and did not violate his training. In response to the question of why the officer didn’t use a taser on Bryant instead of shooting four times, it says:
Columbus policy allows officers to use deadly force, such as a gun, when faced with someone with a weapon or employing another form of deadly force. That could be someone aiming a gun at the officer or at a third person in a confrontation witnessed by the officer. “If there’s not deadly force being perpetrated on someone else at that time, an officer may have the opportunity to have cover, distance and time to use a Taser,” Woods said. “But if those things aren’t present, and there is an active assault going on in which someone could lose their life, the officer can use their firearm to protect that third person.” Officers are trained not to use “less deadly force” on individuals using deadly force themselves, said Andrew Scott, a former Boca Raton, Florida, police chief who now testifies as an expert witness in use-of-force cases. [emphasis mine]
Likewise, expert Scott also says officers could not have tried to restrain her, because “trying to disarm an armed person without using force can have deadly consequences, even in the case of someone with a knife, who could easily slash an officer.” The AP explainer also dispenses with the suggestion that Bryant could have been shot non-fatally. Officers are trained to “stop the threat.” This doesn’t mean they’re trained to “shoot and kill,” but “neutralizing the threat” means “focus[ing[ on center mass,” the “largest part of a person’s body.” Okay, but why did he shoot her four times? The AP quotes Scott saying that this, too, was a tragic necessity. “If that officer had to shoot her another time because the threat was still prevalent, he would have been justified based on the law and I imagine on his policy.” (Notably, the neutral explainer does not quote critics.)
The narrative here can be seen in the AP headline: “EXPLAINER: Training limits officer’s choice for deadly force.” The officer didn’t really have a choice. We may lament Bryant’s death, but she was trying to stab someone and the officer was trying to save that person’s life. He followed his training, and nobody got stabbed. Tragic as it may be, we cannot place Bryant in the category of Black people unjustly killed by police. She may have been killed, but it was justifiable.
Before we think about some of the assumptions here, I want to show you a couple of videos from another country. In the United Kingdom, ordinary police officers are not armed with guns. But they still have to respond to situations in which angry knife-wielding people are trying to stab others. What, then, do they do? Well, it’s interesting. Have a look at a few situations:
As you can see, in each of these situations the British police successfully stop a knife-wielding attacker without anybody losing their life. It’s not easy for them to do this. In one of the situations they use a taser. But sometimes they don’t even need the taser. Sometimes they manage to surround the person, and do an extremely tense kind of dance in which the attacker lunges for officers and they are constantly backing away. Sometimes they swarm the attacker and tackle them. But even when the knife-wielder comes directly at officers with a giant machete, their weapons are: words, shields, and clever movements.
I am no fan of the police in general, but I consider these British cops brave. They are clearly putting themselves at risk. And they care about preserving the life of someone who wants to kill them. (Note: this does not mean that there are not still serious systemic problems with British policing too, which has had its own long history of racism. There are deep dysfunctions in the U.K. criminal punishment system, which the lack of armed officers mitigates but does not solve.)
In the United States, if officers followed their training exactly as outlined in the AP article, all of the attackers in the videos would be dead. Think about that for a second: we know for a fact that the rules American police are using will result in situations where people are killed totally unnecessarily, because we have clear examples showing that situations like these can be resolved without deadly force. We also have obvious examples of American situations where someone died who would be alive if they’d been dealt with by British police. Here, for example, is a 2014 video from Brooklyn in which a Black man with a knife was killed in a Brooklyn synagogue. An onlooker pleads with police not to shoot him, but they do anyway after he lunges at them with the knife. As we can see from the British videos, unarmed police would take evasive action when this happens, and then develop a strategy to surprise him and take him down. American police have no need to do this. They can simply “neutralize” the threat by shooting it (i.e., him) in the Center Mass.
It’s very easy to justify shooting someone who is trying to stab a police officer. The assailant is using “deadly force,” so “deadly force” is justified in response. Case closed. But when it comes to taking human lives, we should be wary of easy justifications. The question is not: “can the use of deadly force be defended?” but “can the use of deadly force be avoided?”
It may take a lot of work to develop effective methods of “neutralizing a threat” that do not involve putting a bullet in a 16-year-old. But police should begin from the assumption that they are charged with solving a puzzle: how can I resolve this problem without anyone dying? Might that require a whole team of unarmed officers rather than a single armed one? It might. But the police should see it as their responsibility to do whatever it takes to avoid using deadly force. This is because even people who attack others have lives that should matter.
A major problem with policing, and part of why I respect the British police officers more, is that American police seem to operate with the attitude that they should incur as little risk as possible. Trying to achieve “zero risk” can produce horrifying results in many different situations. In Vietnam, for instance, the slogan “expend shells, not men” was followed. This meant that if firing indiscriminately into a village could marginally reduce the risk to U.S. troops, or if murdering an approaching civilian would eliminate the risk they could be preparing to throw a grenade, it was justifiable in the name of protecting the troops. But the philosophy presumes that only certain lives matter.
The problem with the policing approach that took Ma’Khia Bryant’s life is that it does not presume her life matters much. As the AP explains, it is formulaic: if a person is using deadly force, officers should not use “less deadly force.” That formula does not ask questions like: is the increased risk worth the possibility that a life will be saved? Even if someone might get hurt by the knife, someone will definitely be seriously injured if the officer succeeds in shooting them in the center mass. Remember: knife wounds are much less deadly than gunshot wounds. Ma’Khia Bryant was extremely unlikely to fatally stab the other girl before officers could have intervened, but the officer’s methods were extremely likely to kill Ma’Khia Bryant. Was there a risk that Ma’Khia Bryant could have done serious harm? Yes. But the “zero risk” mentality produces insanity. It’s why the risk that the object in a person’s hand could be a gun leads officers to shoot before they figure out what it actually is. Better safe than sorry, they figure, even if “safe” involves taking a life.
I don’t think this kind of risk calculus is acceptable, and I think it has the tendency to make officers lazily default to killing people instead of having to innovate. Was there a way Ma’Khia Bryant could have been distracted? How could non-deadly force have been used? These are questions a sensible police force would spend endless time deliberating. They would be constantly studying methods of reducing the need for deadly force, rather than rationalizing its use. They would have skill, understanding, and tactics rather than firepower. What we see in American officers is that they become stupid: look at the cop with the TikTok video. He thinks the only response to a psychopath with a knife that does not involve shooting him is “asking him politely not to stab someone.” This is not a thoughtful police officer who has studied de-escalation methods. This is a person who thinks of a gun as an all-purpose tool for avoiding having to use his brain.
When we put constraints on ourselves, we are forced to come up with new ideas. The British do not generally ask whether deadly force is necessary, because in most everyday police encounters it is off the table. (Not all, however. British police still kill, and the subset that are armed can end up producing the same deadly outcomes as American police.) When you take it off the table, you are forced to think differently. If the question is: “How can I end this conflict between two people?” one answer is always “You could kill one of the people.” But this is an insane option, and should almost always be placed out of bounds. “How can I end this conflict without killing one of the people?” is the question unarmed officers must then come up with innovative solutions to. This is also the way we should think about prisons, and why I think prison abolitionists are important to listen to. An easy answer to the question of violent crime is: “you could throw perpetrators in a cage for 30 years.” The other answers are difficult. How can you solve violent crime without the use of caging? Some people think you can’t. But I think you only come up with new ideas if you’re committed to finding them. Seeing prison as a legitimate solution makes it easier for us to lazily apply cages and avoid the incredibly difficult and resource-intensive challenge of ending crime without using prisons.
American police are unlikely to be completely unarmed anytime soon, because this is such a violent country overflowing with guns. Even the British police are occasionally forced to call for weaponry. But I think it’s clear that shooting people is often considered legitimate in circumstances where it shouldn’t be. Look at the debate around the killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, for instance. Initially, the police insisted he had come at them with a knife, and that the shooting was therefore justified. Later, it turned out that McDonald had been walking away from the police and did not try to stab them, which made it obviously a murder. But I don’t think the police’s initial story should have been convincing either. He came at you with a knife: so why weren’t you prepared to deal with a man with a knife? You’re the police. You have stockpiles of heavy military equipment. You can surround the guy with tanks if you choose. How on Earth is a Black teenager with a switchblade a threat to the Chicago Police Department that he can only be stopped with a gun, even if he comes running at you? Give your officers shields and teach them to use them. Train officers so well that someone would have to be a world-champion knife thrower to successfully get a blade into a Chicago police officer, rather than training them on how to press the big Kill button that solves all problems by exterminating people.
Police racism is made more deadly by the fact that the police see themselves as constantly at risk, and have a “siege mentality.” It’s easy to see how this mentality could reduce the likelihood that an officer will think carefully about how to resolve situations without violence. If you are at war, you do not try to “calm people down”—this is why the officer in the TikTok video mocks the idea of responding to a knife-wielding man nonviolently. We know this can be done, but it can’t be done under the current American policing paradigm. It’s helpful, actually, to have the AP explain that the officer who killed Bryant was following his training. Instead of justifying the shooting, it actually indicts the training, and shows that we are not dealing with a “bad apples” problem in which a few crazy officers use too much force, but a set of rules that lead inexorably to needless deaths. They are told to meet force with force. They are told not to use non-deadly methods. This is why looking for the ultimate source of policing’s racist dysfunctions in the individual officer’s conscience is a mistake. This is a problem of how police are taught and how they think about what their job is. We will not fix it until public safety is built on the bedrock principle that Black Lives Matter, which means that Ma’Khia Bryant’s life should have mattered enough for officers to try to prevent her from doing harm without killing her. In fact, not only is Bryant not a “less” important case, she is a centrally important case, because her case illuminates what is so wrong with American policing. Just as it’s easier to fight for the rights of the innocent than the rights of the guilty, we cannot just care about the people who “did not deserve” to be shot under the prevailing logic. We must challenge the reasoning that leads to people like Bryant being classified as “deserving” of extrajudicial execution. The burden of proof should be on police to show that they could not have solved this situation without killing, and that burden should be heavy indeed, because we know that the example of police officers elsewhere have proven that deaths like Bryant’s are avoidable.