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Bad Cop Blotter

This NYPD Shooting Might Actually Have Been Justified

When cops or their supporters ask what an officer should do in a situation where someone appears to be armed, they should look at this confrontation in a Brooklyn synagogue.

by Lucy Steigerwald
Dec 15 2014, 3:32pm

Photo via Flickr user Dave Hosford

Last Tuesday, a 49-year-old man with a history of mental illness was fatally shot by a New York City cop. That sounds bad, especially in an environment where  ​people en masse are finally asking for some accountability from police officers. On the other hand, while it's early yet, this looks like a justified shooting—or at least an understandable one. 

​mentally disturbed man named Calvin Peters had a knife in his hand and had already allegedly stabbed a 22-year-old rabbinical student when he was killed by NYPD Officer Timothy Donahue. Video from part of the confrontation—which took place in a Brooklyn synagogue—shows at least ​one rabbi or student urging Donahue not to shoot Peters and telling Peters to put down the knife. Peters—who was reportedly bipolar but had not been taking his medicine—finally put down the knife, only to snatch it up again and rush toward Donahue. 

The video does not make it clear when, exactly, Donahue shoots, because the cameraman takes cover, but one thing is for certain: The officer could have done a lot worse here. For one thing he only fired one shot, rather than the usual multiple shots to bring down a suspect—and Peters was unquestionably armed and posing a threat to others.

From the fatal shooting of  Kaji​eme Powell in St. Louis this summer to the death of a woodcarver in Seattle in 2​010, American cops have a bad habit of firing at individuals armed with knives without confirming that they represent a threat. Donahue gave Peters a lot more of a chance than many suspects get from police. (Then again, one does have to wonder whether Donahue could have used a Taser or some other less-than-lethal method before firing the fatal shot.)

Maybe it was the religious setting, maybe it was being on video, or maybe it was the tremendous backlash against police lately—hell, maybe Donahue is just a little better at this than some cops—but he did his job pretty well. He tried to safely take a seemingly unhinged, definitely violent person into custody by talking him down, risking his own safety to do so. He didn't succeed, but he at least made an attempt before resorting to lethal force. That might seem like a tiny victory, but it should be encouraged and applauded—or at least recognized as the lowest acceptable standard for police behavior. 

This praise is not to sug​gest that policing and American law and order aren't in major need of reform, but just that Donahue appears to have done a decent job in a difficult circumstance. When cops or their supporters ask what an officer should do in a situation where someone is armed, they should look at the confrontation between Donahue and Peters. If cops want points for bravery, they need to wait before they shoot—even in the face of a demonstrably violent suspect.

Now for this week's bad cops:

–On Saturday, Congress approved the semi-terrible spending bill (stupid government), but at least it also included​ a ban on funding for messing with medical marijuana in states where it is legal. About damn time, but thanks to decades of idiocy in the war on drugs, we've got some bargain-basement standards for progress.

–Georgia resident David Hooks was killed during a n​arcotics raid on his home on September 24. Now his wife's attorney is saying that Hooks was shot in t​he back and the head by Laurens County deputies during the raid, making his death even more troubling. Hooks had a gun during the confrontation because he and the family had been burglarized recently, and the raid on the house was reportedly provoked by a tip from a man who stole Hooks's car. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is still looking into the shooting, which has not provoked as much attention as the high-profile deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Hooks has his supporters, however, who rallied at t​he county courthouse on Saturday.

–The plainclothes Oakland police officer who made himself a ​viral star when he pointed his gun at protesters on Wednesday acted appropriately, since he believed he was in mortal peril from the mob of protesters who noticed he was an undercover cop. Or at least that's ​what his supervisor, California Highway Patrol Golden Gate division Chief Avery Browne, said about the incident. The officer remains on duty.

–Apparently it's not just the St. Louis Poli​ce Officers Association that knows how to make waves by threatening football players' right to protest. On Sunday, Jeff Follmer, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman's Association, put out an indignant statement about Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wearing a shirt that said "Justice for Tamir Rice - John Crawford" during warmups before his team's game against their in-state rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals. 

Follmer wrote that the Browns owed the Cleveland Police Department an apology, since the cops help protect the stadium. He also wrote, "It's pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law. They should stick to what they know best on the field." Maybe so. But maybe cops should stick to law enforcement and stop opining on the conduct of professional athletes.

–The same goals for the skills of editorial car​toonists: The Bucks County Courier Times published this​ carto​on last week, which provoked another angry response, this one from the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). The cops think the cartoon was a "slur" and was "highly offensive," and the media are "parasites" who must apologize. 

There's something impressively bold about that letter. It's terrible PR—or it should be—yet the FOP still sent it, knowing it would be publicized in this climate of protest against police. The Philadelphia Police Department fireb​ombed a house in 1985, and these days has a $6-million-a-year civil asset forfei​ture racket going, but God forbid someone make a cartoon about them.

–Video of Beavercreek, Ohio, ​police detective Rodney Curd interviewing the girlfriend of John Crawford III was released on Sunday in response to a public records request, and hoo boy is it ugly. Crawford was fatally shot in a Walmart on August 5 after he picked up an Airsoft gun and fiddled with it for several minutes. A grand jury later declined to indict Officer Sean Williams for Crawford's death. During Curd's interrogation of Crawford's girlfriend Tasha Thomas, Curd threatened her with jail and other consequences if she was lying. After 90 minutes, during which Curd said such things as, "Have you been drinking? Drugs? Your eyes are kind of messed-up looking," to Thomas, the already-crying woman was finally told her boyfriend was dead.

–A Georgia woman has won a $100​,000 settlement over being jailed in 2012. Amy Barnes was riding her bike past some Cobb County, Georgia, police officers as they arrested someone. Barnes flipped off the cops and yelled "Fuck the police!" at them. She was promptly arrested for disorderly conduct, and jailed for 24 hours. A judge dismissed the charges, and Barnes sued. Take it away, N​WA.

–Oh hell, let's give our official Good Cop of the Week award t​o Utah Trooper Jeff Jones, who began a four-trooper relay to drive an 87-year-old woman 350 miles to the hospital just in time to see her dying son on Friday. Helen Smith was speeding when she passed Jones, and he pulled her over with a warning. When she was driving off, she crashed into Jones's cruiser. So he decided she could use an escort, which included troopers Jared Jensen, Chris Bishop, and Andrew Pollard over the course of the trip. Smith's son died Sunday, and one could easily imagine this story going a different way if the officers detained her instead of helping her say her goodbye. 

Follow Lucy Steigerwald on ​Twitter.