Wait a Second Before Cheering a Police Shooting

Early reports suggested that a gunman, maybe even a terrorist, was attacking the Capitol in Washington, DC—but it turned out to be an unarmed, possibly disturbed woman who was killed by cops with her daughter in the back seat.

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Oct 7 2013, 4:53pm

Screenshot of Miriam Carey's car surrounded by cops via Alhurra TV.

When police officers in Washington, DC, shot 34-year-old Miriam Carey after she took them on a short, frantic car chase from the White House to the Capitol, the initial consensus was that cops performed heroically, that they saved lives from a gunman who might even have been a terrorist. But the first reports, as is often the case, were wrong. Though the spontaneous hustle for news of Twitter first used the hashtag #capitolshooting, the only shots fired were by the police, and Carey was unarmed—in fact, she never left her car. But even after all of that was public knowledge, the widespread assumption was that the cops and secret service officers were justified in shooting at a woman who was recklessly and aggressively driving toward potential targets for terrorism and who refused to surrender to them.

On Thursday afternoon Carey, a resident of Stamford, Connecticut, drove up to a security barrier around the White House. When the Secret Service approached she turned around quickly, hitting the barrier and then speeding towards the Capitol building. In the course of this chase, two police officers were injured and a cop car crashed into a barrier. When the dust settled, Carey was dead and her now-motherless one-year-old child, in the back seat of the car, was put into protective custody by DC family services.

Now Carey’s two sisters—one of whom is a former New York City cop—are criticizing the cops, claiming they didn’t have to use lethal force on a woman who was probably terrified. There are certainly indications that, in hindsight, Carey was more of a danger to herself than anyone else. She may have suffered from postpartum depression with psychosis—there are reports that medications for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which she may have stopped taking, were found in her apartment. Carey apparently expressed various paranoid theories to police in December, including her belief that Barack Obama was spying on her. (Carey’s sisters dispute her ex-boyfriend’s claim that she suffered from delusions about communicating with Obama.)

Police say they are investigating the use of force, and the FBI is investigating Carey. Odds are the shooting will be ruled entirely justified even if it turns out the cops killed a woman who was merely confused and frightened. Carey’s driving would have been dangerous outside of DC, a town that just went through the Navy Yards shooting and is a ripe target for terrorists of all stripes.

It’s still alarming how quickly the situation escalated. What if Carey hadn’t meant to drive up to that first barrier outside the White House? What if she was freaked out by the Secret Service and sped away in hopes of avoiding a confrontation, and what if when she stopped long enough to have multiple guns pulled on her—seen in this video—she panicked?

None of that is clear, but what isn’t disputed is that the cops were firing at her moving vehicle, a dangerous tactic that is discouraged by many police departments, including DC's, as noted by The New Republic’s Alec MacGills.

MacGillis’s piece highlights perhaps the most disquieting part about the story, which is the ease the story fell into the “disturbed, dangerous woman shot by cops, thank God they keep her safe, if she didn’t want to be killed she shouldn’t have been doing etc.” narrative category. The day of the shooting, the House thanked the cops with a standing ovation. Senate staffers passed out buttons reading “THANK YOU, CAPITOL POLICE.” Meanwhile, when The Guardian attempted to get a comment from the different agencies involved in the shooting, it found that official spokespeople “declined to provide any explanation of their officers' actions, beyond praising them in glowing terms.”

Is it so much to ask to to just hold off the accolades for a little while after an unarmed woman is shot in front of her infant daughter? At best, this was the justified—or, at least understandable—shooting of a mentally ill woman. But it’s not the time to cheer and then move on.

Now for the rest of this week’s bad cops:

- No matter what Carey’s mental state was at the time of her death, it’s clear that cops need to learn better tactics for engaging with the mentally ill and the mentally handicapped. In Salon, Emily Shire recently highlighted the case of Robert Saylor, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome who was asphyxiated during a struggle with Maryland police in January. The officers were trying to remove him from a movie theater after he tried to stay and watch a second film without paying. Saylor’s aide said her requests to have officer stand aside and let her try to calm him were ignored. Shire notes that Saylor’s impairment should have been immediately apparent, but when it comes to those with autism or other less visible conditions, the cops don’t have any idea what they’re dealing with, and treat those people as threats when they don’t respond to their commands. Training programs for cops are sorely needed. A quote by John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and autism activist James Mulvaney sums up the whole frustrating problem: “When there’s a new drug, we train officers. Every cop in the country knows about molly, but we’re not training them about disabilities.”

- Details on this are scarce, but in what already sounds like an awful story an as-yet-unnamed homeless man was killed by Los Angeles County deputies over the weekend. The man was armed with what is being described a “wooden stick.”

- A wrongful death lawsuit filed on September 19 alleges that Hoover, Alabama, police took an hour and a half to to enter the home of Virginia P. Jamison even though she told them her 39-year-old daughter, Kelly Jamison Ozburn, was being menaced by an armed assailant. Their home was broken into on March 19 by a man named Jimmy Lee Frizzell, who was wielding a gun and a knife; it’s unclear whether or how well Frizzell knew the two women, but he immediately tried to shoot Ozburn. His gun jammed, so he took her hostage at knifepoint while Jamison managed to flee and call 911. Only minutes after the home invasion, police arrived on the scene—but for the next 90 minutes, they simply called Ozburn’s cell phone, tried to open the locked front door, and allegedly ignored Jamison’s pleas to go in through a side entrance. By the time police entered the home, Frizzell and Ozburn were both dead. Sadly for Jamison’s case, police are generally shielded by “qualified immunity”—meaning they have a lot of leeway in how to do their jobs as long as they aren’t knowingly breaking the law. The courts make it very difficult to sue the police for for failing to protect you, which is illustrated by—among other cases—1981’s Warren v. District of Columbia, a lawsuit brought by several women who were imprisoned and raped for 14 hours in a boarding house while waiting for the police to show. The eventual ruling there reaffirmed that cops have an obligation towards society and some special individuals (like informants), but not toward any particular individual, even if she has requested help in an emergency.

- According to a Department of Justice audit, between 2006 and 2011, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) misspent part of the $162 million it made through illegal cigarette sale stings. The troubled bureau also apparently lost 420 million illicit seized cigarettes, though its brand new director, B. Todd Jones, says that they’re doing a better job now.

- On Tuesday, US district court judge Susan Illston refused to dismiss a suit filed against Pittsburg, California, officers officers by the parents of the late Timothy Mitchell Jr., a 29-year-old who died during a 2011 drug raid. The police, who had a warrant relating to charges of marijuana dealing, forced their way into Mitchell’s apartment at 7 AM, where officer Les Galer fatally shot him. Galer claims that Mitchell grabbed at his arm, but by Galer’s own account he didn’t offer Mitchell a routine "get on the ground or I'll shoot!"-type warning before he fired. The judge also believed an expert who said the apartment’s door was undamaged, suggesting that Mitchell opened it for the cops himself. This means the suit against Galer and four other officers who were present for the raid will go ahead, but the commander of the of narcotics team, Norman Wielsch, is already serving 14 years in prison for dealing drugs and stealing evidence. Another officer who was there is serving three years on similar charges.

- On September 28 in Kansas City, Sergeant Steven Griswold was informed while on his way to help a stranded motorist that the guy was actually looking to commit suicide by jumping off a 60-foot overpass. Dashcam footage from that night shows that just seconds after Griswold arrived on the scene, the man on the bridge started to jump. Griswold reacted with impressive speed and grabbed the man by the ankles and pulled him back up to safety. Griswold is our Good Cop of the Week, and the proof is in the footage and the endearingly chill mannerisms of the cop. If just doing your job as a cop meant stuff like this, this column wouldn’t need to exist.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag

Previously: The DEA Thinks Medical Records Don’t Count as “Private”

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