Never an excuse for shooting unarmed suspects, former police chief says

By Joseph D. McNamara
August 19, 2014

A police officer points a spotlight at a more vocal and confrontational group of demonstrators during further protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, near FergusonI was the police chief in Kansas City, Missouri, when an unarmed African-American teenager was shot by a cop for a non-violent issue. The result was a peaceful and constructive public dialogue — the opposite of what is happening now in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old.

I was then the youngest big-city police chief in America, having just arrived from New York City, where I had been a deputy inspector in the New York Police Department during a high-crime period. But I had no real honeymoon in Missouri.

Just a few days after I took charge, on a crystal clear day in 1973, a uniformed officer responded to a daylight break-in of a home. The officer raised his shotgun and fired at a youth running away. He killed Rory Lark, age 15, unarmed and slight, at 115 pounds.

Police officers monitor a group of rowdy demonstrators during further protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown near Ferguson, MissouriThe Kansas City Star filled its entire front page with an image of Lark, an angelic school photo of the youngster who looked to be a skinny 10-year-old. If you had a heart, you had to be touched.

If Lark had received any punishment, it would likely have been a week in juvenile hall. As a gesture of sympathy to the black community, I attended his funeral in civilian clothes. The officer was reprimanded and transferred.

Reasonable people, black and white, didn’t want to hear how the law was complicated, or how a new chief was not responsible for the boy’s death. So we waited through the night to see if the city would burn. It didn’t. The next day, however, pickets appeared in front of police headquarters demanding, in none-too-polite language, that I should go back to New York.

Kansas City’s black community wanted to know, Why had this boy died for a nonviolent crime? My police department responded  quickly: He should not have been fired upon.

I reminded the media that I had announced in my first news conference as chief that I didn’t believe officers should use their firearms unless there was imminent danger to human life. I planned to rewrite the firearms policy, I had declared, so that officers were officially ordered not to fire except under those circumstances.

Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, MissouriAs soon as possible, we announced the official new policy. It prohibited police officers from firing at unarmed suspects. We cut back on all police use of military gear. We invited local community leaders to help shape police responses.

In the wake of the new policy, police shootings fell dramatically, and crime declined as local leadership joined with police in speaking out against crime.

The Lark shooting, remarkably similar to Ferguson today, offers lessons we can learn..

First, except for highly unusual circumstances, police have no excuse for killing unarmed people.

Second, it is in Americans’ national DNA that we be policed by civil, not military, institutions. So television and social media pictures of heavily armed police in military gear and armored vehicles are no way to gather public support. In Ferguson and across the nation, police need to recalibrate the use of deadly force — and return to traditional strategies of professional police forces working with the public to win support against criminals.

Demonstrators hold hands as they listen to speakers during a peaceful march in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown near Ferguson, MissouriBody cameras, better training and discipline, new police leadership and other strategies are crucial. But it is clear that U.S. police must recalibrate current militarization policies, in which officer safety is paramount.

The fundamental police duty is protection of life. Officer safety should never supersede democratic policing, where police officers adhere to their role as public servants willing to take reasonable risks to protect and serve.

As Kansas City chief, I was responsible for maintaining order within my city, releasing to the public all legally permissible information through the media, the mayor and state and local officials.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, a self-appointed spokesman for an investigation of which he was not part, held frequent press conferences that only created more confusion. For example, when Jackson released the name of the officer involved in the shooting, he also released security camera stills of a convenience store robbery that he said are of Brown. Even though the Justice Department had asked the Ferguson Police Department not to do this.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announces the name of the officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown as officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, MissouriJackson also did not coordinate with Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, whom Governor Jay Nixon had put in charge to help defuse the situation.

Jackson seems to have foolishly tried to walk through a legal minefield, possibly releasing information that could hinder the prosecution of involved officers. This may also lead to charges of a police cover-up.

Yet, all the remedial steps now being debated focus on actions to take after a tragic death — not the deep-rooted causes that must be part of real reform.

Yes, the heat is now on Ferguson police. The real challenge, however, is to all U.S. policing. Police nationwide have drifted into the militarization of attitude and equipment as a strategy for controlling street demonstrations such as Occupy Wall Street, youth violence, heavy crime zones and drug searches.

This sort of militarization was intended for extremely rare hostage situations. The arrest of journalists and the use of tear gas in Ferguson is zany.

The major issue, though, still is the unanswered question: What justification do the police have for killing an unarmed suspect?

The answer is always: None.

PHOTO (TOP): A police officer points a spotlight at a more vocal and confrontational group of demonstrators during further protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, near Ferguson, Missouri, August 18, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Police officers monitor a group of rowdy demonstrators during further protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown near Ferguson, Missouri, August 18, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Demonstrators hold hands as they listen to speakers during a peaceful march in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown near Ferguson, Missouri, August 18, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

PHOTO (INSERT 4): Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announces the name of the officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown as officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri, August 15, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

27 comments

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A dash-cam and a stun-gun would’ve been worth their weight in plutonium in this and many other situations. The Jacksonville, Florida Sherriff’s Office has both and is notorious for killing violent criminals. 10 times out of 10, the dash-cam proves he officer’s justification in use of deadly force.

Posted by DavidLogan | Report as abusive

Your story, Joseph D. McNamara, is so simple and unlike the Ferguson mess. We still don’t even know what occurred between “Mike” and “the cop”. Please tell us. Have you had a 6’2″ 230 lb “kid” try to take your gun? Yeah, you can shut up now.

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive

Thank You, Mr. McNamara. Hiring retired military in local police departments might not be the best policy and the use of military equipment is not. A tiny minority of our population are aggressors, trouble makers and criminals and there is no need for such overkill by law enforcement.

Posted by njglea | Report as abusive

Reuters can’t post my comment? It wasn’t derogatory or anything.

Posted by PCCorruption | Report as abusive

Unless of course the unarmed suspect is REACHING FOR MY GUN.

Posted by deerecub1977 | Report as abusive

I have three comments:

First — The difference between “military” and “civil” is in the mission, the rules of engagement, and the structure of the chain of command. It is not in the color of the uniform, the configuration of the firearms, or the durability of the vehicles.

Second — A journalist is also a person in the crowd. When the police perceive that looting and vandalism are going on or that a tumultuous mob is forming and that public safety requires that they take control of the scene, then people who refuse to comply must be controlled and maybe even taken into custody, at least temporarily. Working for the AP doesn’t change that. Freedom of the press does not entail license to break other civil laws.

Third — A cop can make a tragic mistake, but in the moment of engagement, someone who began as a suspect can become an attacker or otherwise a public menace; then there is justification for the police to shoot.

Posted by Whats-his-name | Report as abusive

Certainly, in the minds of some the ‘theory’ of using deadly-force is, as in Chief McNamara thinking, just a never-to-be-used-theory. Don’t know McNamara’s career history or whether he is a political, academic, PR or poster-child recruiting kind of Police Officer. What is clear, however, the Chief has NEVER been an Officer who experienced the unpredictable and often violent and died with the event. I’ve had Officers like the Chief who honestly were great Administrators but absolutely worthless in the field.

Posted by NPeril | Report as abusive

As all the conjecture about what happened continues to feed the drama, I’d like to know if that “witness” (i.e. Brown’s friend) was arrested for the convenience store theft yet, and, if he’s been told if he was lying about what he saw between Brown & the officer he’s going to jail for a very, very long time due to all the destruction his witness account has unleashed. We know he was lying about one thing: Brown wasn’t running away from the officer. So, what else was he lying about?

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

“We know he was lying about one thing: Brown wasn’t running away from the officer. So, what else was he lying about?

Posted by hometown”

Well, for one thing we know Brown wasn’t close enough to the officer to reach for his weapon, because there is no gunpowder residue on Brown.

That means he was not within reach of the officer.

Brown also has wounds to his arms and hands, indicating a defensive posture, and most likely that his hands were up.

The same round that pierced his hand is also most likely the one that entered his skull, through his eye, as a common fear reaction is to put your hands up in front of your face, but your hands will not stop that bullet.

The six rounds fired by the officer, are indicative of disregard for common sense, and training, an act of anger, and uncontrolled violence on the part of the shooter.

Will the officer be subject to drug testing, specifically for the steroids that are running rampant through the rank and file now?

Or, will his paid vacation of administrative leave be his only punishment?

Posted by Celebrindan | Report as abusive

I agree that if a suspect does not pose a serious threat to the police or other people, or has stopped being a threat, killing is not justified. By killing a suspect, the police is carrying out a judgement and an execution all by himself/herself.

Posted by JoeAtLowell | Report as abusive

oh dear. another Democratic in a blue uniform.

indeed he must have been a chief. sitting somewhere comfy barking orders to cops on the front line being assaulted by large individuals.

when a citizen rejects the authority of their parents, their teachers, their police force, yup – you’re gonna get shot. better the rejector dies than the dude duly appointed to maintain order and uphold the law.

“the eye witness” said he was shot in the back. the family’s own autopsy fails to mention that wound.

let the riots and looting and the hounds of hell loose. they are not protesting, they have zero concern with “the cause” – they’re just there to steal as much as they can. shoot dead on sight – works for me.

Posted by Breadie | Report as abusive

” the police is carrying out a judgement and an execution all by himself/herself.”

nothing could be farther from the truth.
a suspect refuses to comply. here’s the options:
“gee, I’m sorry. have a nice day!”
or
“comply or force will be used”

go get a big guy charging you with clear intent to beat your brains out and see when you stop firing the gun.

Posted by Breadie | Report as abusive

Your words: “The officer raised his shotgun and fired at a youth running away. He killed Rory Lark, age 15, unarmed and slight, at 115 pounds. Why had this boy died for a nonviolent crime? My police department responded quickly: He should not have been fired upon.”

If that is the case – why was the officer not tried for murder or manslaughter? Reprimanded? That’s justice? It is no wonder that people are fed up with what the police do, and what they get away with (and they do have a tough job).

Posted by RB6129 | Report as abusive

Just remember you yourself could be considered as a suspect by some police as well – or another police if you happen to be a police yourself. If you want that police to do whatever he thinks is ok to you, go ahead.

Posted by JoeAtLowell | Report as abusive

“”"”Brown also has wounds to his arms and hands, indicating a defensive posture, and most likely that his hands were up.”"”" Not true! The bullet pattern suggests Brown was most likely charging towards the officer and the officer began shooting at center mass (torso) and was slightly of to the officers left (Browns right side). Furthermore, the pattern suggests the officers shots rose higher as he discharged his weapon. That is common with handguns. The shot in the head would be possible due to Brown falling towards the ground after several hits and the top of his head would have been exposed. Please explain your theory, because if Brown had his hands above his head and the officer truy wanted to simply kill him, why would the officer aim at Browns arms and not his torso (they are taught to shoot torso)? You arms are a very small target when they are above your head. Common sense check: are you saying the officer simply waited for Brown to put his hands up and then executed him, starting with shooting his arms? Please explain.

Posted by PCCorruption | Report as abusive

Was there chances that the officer could just disable the suspect? Why 6 bullets? Now that the other side is dead, we should just take what the officer said as truth? Do you want yourself to be treated like that?

Posted by JoeAtLowell | Report as abusive

I am 50 years old from a very poor family in Chula Vista CA and yet I have never sat in a police car for any reason. Putting yourself in that position suggests you broke the law, were with someone who broke the law, or did something for the police to take notice. Stay out of trouble and obey the law. Nuff said!

Posted by PCCorruption | Report as abusive

Never? NEVER?? Hmmmmm, I’m a 70 year old guy walking down a dark street and a Mike Tyson doppelganger says to me, “I’m going to rob and beat you to death”. I have a gun. I guess I don’t shoot, aye?

Posted by archangel3133 | Report as abusive

JoeAtLowell
Celebrindan and any others who may want a glimpse from the cop’s perspective.

I’m not usually a big fan of CNN, but his is a good read.

http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/19/opinion/ha berfeld-why-six-bullets-fired/index.html  ?hpt=hp_t3

Posted by BeRealistic | Report as abusive

I see a couple of posters claiming to know about “bullet patterns.” Care to share the source of your forensic evidence via link?

Posted by RexMax46 | Report as abusive

I did some research, i.e. Google search, and found the preliminary autopsy reports. I gotta say, PCCorruption, you’re making a lot of stretches in logic. First, a trained shooter won’t have his shots “walk up.” That’s a rookie mistake that comes from firing in too quickly, like in a double tap. Or in Wilson’s case, a sextuple tap. Furthermore, that kind of shot is wildly erratic, yet Wilson managed to hit a human sized target at least six times from 10+ yards away without emptying his clip. While that’s a possibility, “spraying and praying” isn’t a good look for an officer.

Secondly, let me ask you to put your hands up right now. Are they “above your head?” Of course they aren’t. They’re at the same height of your head, elbows at your sides. Your assumption that Brown had his hands “above” his head is a deliberate misinterpretation to reach a predetermined conclusion. In fact, if Mike Brown raised his hands like a normal person would, you’d see the shot pattern shows a decent amount of clustering, with all shots being within a 1 ft. radius circle.

Finally, I’d like to call attention to the wounds on Brown’s hand, forearm, lower bicep, and upper bicep. Those wounds strongly suggest Brown’s palm was facing the officer, much like the sample illustration from the autopsy itself. This means that if Brown was facing Wilson when he was shot, Brown’s right hand was either in a submissive/defensive position or in grasping/attacking position. I’ll once again bring up the distance and point out that the 10+ yards gap between Brown and Wilson makes an attack from that distance VERY unlikely. Can you please explain how the wounds on Mike Brown’s arm would occur in a charge, considering the areas hit would be pressed against Brown’s side if he were running?

Posted by RexMax46 | Report as abusive

It’s easy for J.D. McNamara to say ” never an excuse to shoot an unarmed
person” when you never have been in a situation where a person is about to do bodily harm to you, more so when that person is twice your size. Few people can make perfect shots with a pistol when adrenalin kicks in, save combat people.

Posted by grg32 | Report as abusive

wow… I wonder what the members of his police force though about working for this…flower child… if your life was threatened…. and you used your weapon… would he back you up… most likely…no..

Posted by TRUETH | Report as abusive

Why some of the readers do not read before ridicule others? This article and some comments clearly indicated “IF… NOT THREAT/unarmed, then not justified to kill”.

Posted by JoeAtLowell | Report as abusive

TRUETH, ellipses do not mean what you think they mean…

Posted by RexMax46 | Report as abusive

ALL the police posters here should pipe down and take advice from one of your own. I stand by what ex Seattle police chief Norm Stamper said in his book: When in danger immediately call for backup and If you do not have the personal courage to fight a bigger man than you, you should leave the force.

Police are trained to take on big angry men hand-to-hand. That is no excuse for grabbing your gun like a coward. Even the taser would work fine.

This is not the military, this is where we live, and the citizens – even the criminals – that a policeman faces are not “enemies” on the battlefield to be killed when danger is perceived. If a police cannot comply with this because of fear or panic, then they should be removed. The problem is this notion that an officer’s life is worth more than a citizen’s life. That attitude is fine behind closed doors, perhaps at the union hall, but any officer or admin official who says this in public is factually in dereliction of duty. Sometimes police get killed in the line of duty. If you want a job where there is no risk then do not become a police officer.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

[…] recurrent expression of outrage by critics and the mainstream media about the use of deadly force by police officers against unarmed individuals fails to recognize […]

[…] recurrent expression of outrage by critics and the mainstream media about the use of deadly force by police officers against unarmed individuals fails to recognize […]

[…] recurrent expression of outrage by critics and the mainstream media about the use of deadly force by police officers against unarmed individuals fails to recognize […]

[…] recurrent expression of outrage by critics and the mainstream media about the use of deadly force by police officers against unarmed individuals fails to recognize […]

[…] recurrent expression of outrage by critics and the mainstream media about the use of deadly force by police officers against unarmed individuals fails to recognize […]

[…] then the youngest big-city police chief in America,” he wrote in his last essay before his death, an op-ed for Reuters on the events in Ferguson, Mo., in which an unarmed, young black man was shot dead by police. In […]

[…] recurrent expression of outrage by critics and the mainstream media about the use of deadly force by police officers against unarmed individuals fails to recognize […]

In 2009, McNamara wrote a letter to the San Jose Mercury News defending several of his own officers involved in a use of force controversy, and then cited several instances where San Jose officers were murdered by “unarmed” and “previously docile” suspects who were able to disarm the officers and kill them with their own firearm.

Sounds pretty hypocritical to me, but I guess where you stand is where you sit. Defending officers who shoot “unarmed” suspects might not be a popular position these days, even if it’s the right thing to do.

http://progunfighter.com/never-an-excuse  /

Posted by Longmire | Report as abusive

[…] recurrent expression of outrage by critics and the mainstream media about the use of deadly force by police officers against unarmed individuals fails to recognize […]