Officer-involved shootings often leave communities sorting through complicated nuance. Details and split-second decisions test gray areas of law and morality. Seldom are these conflicts black and white, even regarding questions of racial injustice.
Consider this case.
Two white Colorado police officers speak to an armed man charged with a sex crime involving a child. With a gun in his pants, the suspect turns from the police and runs.
As the man flees, police yell at him. After the man disobeys their order to stop, at least one officer shoots him more than once. The suspect falls to the ground, and officers remove a gun from his pants. The man dies of his gunshot wounds.
Early video footage, provided to a local newspaper by a private party, makes the shooting appear indefensible. Additional footage, acquired later, provides better context that might help reveal why officers fired. Based on the footage, officers cannot rule out the possibility of the man reaching for a gun. They cannot know he won’t harm the general public if he gets away.
The incident remains under investigation by the district attorney, who must determine whether police had legal justification to shoot a fleeing suspect.
This is not the police shooting of 19-year-old De’Von Bailey in Colorado Springs. It is the shooting of 57-year-old Alan George in Rifle. Bailey is young and black; George is mature and white.
Trouble begins when George stands on a bridge above the Colorado River on Aug. 5, as police prepare to arrest him on suspicion of sexual exploitation of a child for downloading porn into his smartphone.
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Outside the guardrail, George points a handgun at his chest for more than a minute. He never points the gun at police and eventually lowers it into his pocket. He turns to face the river and contemplates a suicide jump. Police try talking him out of it. One officer says “They’re going to miss you.” George responds, “No s—t. Even if I’m alive, they’re going to miss me.”
George faces the river for several minutes, then crosses to the inside of the guardrail. He turns from the police and runs north on the roadway. An officer yells twice, ordering George to stop. At least one officer fires. He dies at the scene of two gunshot wounds. Relatively few have heard about the shooting of George. We cannot find news coverage, aside from stories in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
By contrast, the Bailey shooting is a national controversy playing out in The Washington Post, USA Today, CBS News, ABC News, CNN and more.
Gov. Jared Polis interjected himself into the Bailey shooting, becoming the first governor in Colorado history to call for an independent investigation into an officer-involved shooting of a suspect. We’re waiting for a similar suggestion in the George “shot while fleeing” dilemma.
George and Bailey were each detained by white officers. Each was the suspect in a sex crime involving a minor, though Bailey was detained on suspicion of an armed robbery that had just taken place.
Each ran from police with a gun in his pants. Each was shot dead as he fled. Early private video footage, released to each respective local newspaper, gave limited detail of each shooting. In each case, later footage expanded the body of evidence. Each shooting involves questions of whether police thought the suspect might reach for a gun. Each shooting remains under investigation by the appropriate district attorney. It is hard to imagine two officer-involved shootings, in one state only two days apart, that could be more similar. One case is a major controversy; the other not so much.
The difference in concern seems largely black and white, involving the age and race of two men who are equally dead.
Without passing judgment on Colorado law enforcement agencies, it is fair to say all officer-involved shootings are a horrible outcome. The loss of life is tragic and worthy of concern, regardless of age or race. All human life matters.