Last Thursday, 21-year-old Dylann Roof was arrested on suspicion that he perpetrated the heinous slaughter of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a night earlier. Authorities caught up with him in the small town of Shelby, North Carolina.
Shelby cops drew criticism online almost immediately for the way they treated Roof, but in contrast to many conversations Americans have these days about police conduct, social media denizens don't think police showed too little concern for his wellbeing. Instead, they seem frustrated that the alleged mass murderer was being treated so nicely.
When Roof was led outside the Shelby Police Department on Thursday, he was photographed in a bulletproof vest. He was shown in the vest again later that day when he was being ushered onto a plane for extradition back to South Carolina. DeRay McKesson, a key Black Lives Matter organizer, was among those expressing frustration with the steps being taken to protect the suspect from Jack Ruby–style assassination.
(Others online were quick to point out that the cops occasionally give high-profile suspects bulletproof vests, as they did in the case of Lee Boyd Malvo after the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks.)
But in all the furor over Roof's treatment, no detail was quite as provocative as the news that police in Shelby gave the unemployed former landscaper a meal from Burger King shortly after taking him into custody. The Charlotte Observer mentioned the meal in a piece that ran Friday—Shelby Police Chief Jeff Ledford mentioned to the press that after Roof complained that he hadn't had a meal in a while, the cops got him some BK—but as often happens in an age when the internet is actually impossible to keep up with, the nugget wasn't seized upon by social media activists until days later.
Dylann Roof got Burger King after his arrest SO HIS SENTENCE STARTED EARLY, THAT FOOD IS TERRIBLE HAHAHA JK WE LIVE IN A RACIST NIGHTMARE.
— Caitlin Gill (@ROBOTCAITLIN)June 22, 2015
It does sound like a generous meal for a guy who, the previous night, had reportedly waited until the parishioners of Emanuel AME bowed their heads in prayer to pull out his gun and say something along the lines of, "I'll give you something to pray about!" as he opened fire on them.
On Tuesday, possibly in response to the uproar, Shelby police released the footage of Roof's arrest as captured by the dash cams mounted inside their officers' cruisers:
It's clear the 21-year-old is not exactly being treated roughly. The three-and-a-half minute video begins with a handful of cops approaching the car with their guns drawn. The first officer walks up to the driver's side window with caution, but when there's no apparent conflict, the other officers holster their weapons and seem to chill out in a matter of seconds.
Roof exits his car willingly, and cooperates as officers cuff him and give him a quick pat down. Then he's walked over to a police cruiser, and the most forceful moment comes starting around the 2:10 mark, when he's pressed up against a cruiser with authority, and subjected to a more forceful and thorough search.
None of this could be described as "brutal"—which is to say, anything that even remotely resembles police brutality.
I called the Shelby Police Department to ask them about Roof's treatment, and they declined to comment, instead directing me to City Attorney Bob Yelton, who said he didn't know anything about Burger King, and would only tell me that officers "did a fine job" of bringing Roof into custody.
But the question remains: Did Shelby police do anything wrong?
"The important question is whether the deputies acted according to established procedure and policy, or if they made an exception for Mr. Roof," Jeffrey Fagan, an expert on policing and criminal justice at Columbia Law School, said in an email. "If it's an exception, this smells, and smells badly, of racial preference."
Of course, it's not that anyone—or anyone sane, at least—is asking for Roof to be mistreated. In fact, according to Fagan, "As odious as Mr. Roof's murders may be, his humane treatment is laudable." But, the professor added, "It's unlikely, from what we know of the racial disparities in treatment from the moment of arrest through sentencing and incarceration, that any non-white fugitive from a murder charge would be given that treatment in Shelby, North Carolina, or in any other place in the South."
"Most places would let him enjoy a standard-issue jail bologna sandwich," Fagan said.
It's worth pausing to note that starving a suspect is an established, and legally invalid, tactic for coaxing a false confession out of someone. Confessions have been ruled inadmissible when suspects like Harold Hall, who wrongly spent nearly two decades in prison for murder, were denied food during their interrogations. Moreover, Roof's first official interrogation was conducted by the FBI, and Shelby's small police force might have simply been minding its p's and q's while the feds were around.
Yahoo News talked to the authorities at length shortly after the arrest, and got a more complete picture of the process of taking Roof into custody, one that contradicts the idea that he was taken to Burger King. More accurately, "They bought him a hamburger," Strickland Maddox, a local pastor, told Yahoo News, suggesting that they sent out for it.
Chief Ledford added that Roof remained in cuffs the entire time he ate.
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