Bringing a Pipe to a Gun Fight

One of my favorite blogs is BearingArms.com. They have some excellent material and they accumulate videos from all over. A recent video talks about a man who brought “stupid” to a gun fight. Noting that the errant criminal signaled every turn in a high speed chase, the BA people rightly suggest he was stupid.

There is an old joke about a man sitting on his roof in a flood. He prays “Lord, save me.” Along comes a boat. The boater offers the man safe passage, and he says “no, the Lord will save me.” So a few hours later as the waters continue to rise, the boat comes back and again he says “No, the Lord will save me.” He drowns and when he gets to heaven he says “Lord, how could you let this happen?” And God says “well you damned fool, I sent the boat by twice for you!”

I am reminded of this by watching the video above. If you have not watched it, do so. In the video the man, wielding a pipe, is told by the Georgia deputy to stop 19 different times. You read that right. 19 times. He tells the man “do not make me shoot you.” Yet apparently the man keeps coming. Apparently the deputy’s error was saying “Sir, stop right there.” Perhaps he should have said “HEY DUMBASS! STOP OR I WILL SHOOT YOU!”  Maybe the man just didn’t understand courtesy.

Sure, Cops Make Mistakes…

There are cops who make mistakes. There are cops who shoot first and ask questions later. And there are cops who are forced into the decision to shoot like this man was. Fortunately, it was all on tape, and the fact that the man was armed with a pipe is well documented in the video.

Sometimes it’s not all that clear. Here is a video that shows Opelika, Alabama police officer Phillip Hancock shooting Airman Michael Edwards after a traffic accident in Alabama. Watch the video, which you will have to recognize is distorted by rain on the windows. It’s not all that clear. Here is what the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals determined in this case. Hancock received a call about a motorist driving wildly. He rolled up on a wreck on I-85. He parked behind the airman’s vehicle.

Now, it’s worth noting that Air Force personnel other than their security policemen do not get pistol training. They learn to shoot the M-16. While some may be trained on handguns in specialized fields, the general Air Force wing-nut does not. That might account for the way the young man got out of the car. Not being familiar with a shooting culture, and not knowing how handguns are handled, the airman got out with his wallet between his hands. In the video you see a dark shape in his hands.  The first time I saw it, I thought its as a gun too.

That’s what Hancock saw. Hancock screamed “show me you hands,” and before the words could finish coming out of his mouth, or so it seems, he shot the airman. He fired two shots; thankfully only one shot hit the man. At this point you need to stop the video because the poor kid lays their and screams for several minutes before aid gets there about 10 minutes later. The young man survived and sued. The 11th Circuit said it was a tragic mistake, but that the officer’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances. This squares readily with the 11th Circuit precedent and Supreme Court precedent.  Cops actions are not judged in hindsight.

Imagine How the Cop Felt

Sadly, none of the stories written about this incident show the officer’s reaction to the events. The officer’s reactions when he learns the kid had his wallet, not a handgun, in his hands, show the real personal anguish this officer suffered as a result of shooting someone who probably shouldn’t have been shot.  And let me be clear here: I am not judging him.  I am not criticizing him.  In his place I would likely have done the same thing.  So, let no one say I criticized this officer.

At 1:10 on the tape, after the shooting, the cop is shown running the light all around the man looking for the firearm he thought he saw. When backup arrives he instructs him to cover the man he shot while he clears the car.   Then he asks the man at 3:01, “are you armed.” The man says “no.” He then enters into a bit of pacing back and forth and tells the other cops to stay with him while he can be seen jerking in frustration at the fact that he has shot an unarmed man. The anguish is real. There can only be one kind of day worse than this, and that’s what the police officer thought he was avoiding when he fired.  You can’t really blame him.  He wanted to go home alive.  But he didn’t want to shoot an innocent man, either.  If the kid had just stayed in the car, things would have been a lot different.

Do I Tell Them?

People often ask me if they have to tell a police officer they’re armed. While some states (like new Constitutional Carry North Dakota) require this, most do not. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell a police officer, in an appropriate way, that you’re armed.

As Rumsfeld once noted, there are known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Or as Jodie Foster once said in the movie Foxes, “you never know what you don’t know, ya know?” You do not know what the last call this officer handled was all about. You do not know how unreasonable the last person was. You do not know if the police officer was disrespected by the last motorist he tried to help. You do not know if he or she is mad at their spouse. What you do know is that you’re pulled over, and in a moment an officer is going to approach your vehicle and talk to you. Your first instinct may be to shout “I’ve got a gun and it’s legal!” If you do this, we might be visiting you in the hospital like the airman in the exercise above. Be smart.  There are better ways to let the officer know you are legally armed.

A far better way to handle this is to hand the officer your license and your concealed weapons permit when he arrives at your window. He should then ask “are you armed?” If the answer is yes, then you allow him to dictate how this is handled. He may want you out of the car. He may want to seize the weapon until the stop is completed. He may want you to simply avoid touching the weapon. Whatever he asks you to do, do it. The cop can be wrong and still be protected by law. You cannot be wrong and protected. So get out, comply, do whatever it takes to make it home realizing that you want him to make it home too.

Accept that you may get a lecture. Not all cops like guns in the hands of the public (although most do).   But even if you’re wrongly arrested and treated badly by the cop, don’t get smart, don’t get mouthy, don’t start telling the cop about your constitutional rights. That’s your lawyer’s job. You just say “yes sir” and fight the matter later. The last thing in the world you want to do is get into a micturition contest with a police officer because if you do, you’re the only one who’s going to get wet.

Respect Engenders Respect

I’ve never had a problem with a police officer. I respect them, and I show that.  Dragnet’s Joe Friday once described it as “a glamorless, thankless job that’s gotta be done.”  Its a good description.   I’ve never been pulled over with a firearm. I have been with police officers in the community who have asked me if I was armed, and I answered truthfully that I was. They usually say something like “make sure you know where I am in anybody starts anything.” They don’t want to get shot by accident. Neither do you.

Bottom Line Lessons

There are two things that can be learned from the Officer Hancock incident in the video above. The first is, don’t get out of a vehicle until you are told to do so (unless it’s on fire). Wait for instructions. Police officers like to control the scene first because they’re out there with cars whizzing by, and secondly because all kinds of nutcases want to do them harm. Show respect, do as you’re told, and don’t get lippy.

The second lesson is more important and comes to us courtesy of Officer Hancock’s use of deadly force. Nothing bad happened to him because he is protected by law (although he did have to endure quite a long 3 year court battle). But if you had made the same mistake, shooting because you were afraid, shooting without identifying the target, you would be in trouble. When the police investigated the incident, you’d likely be looking at criminal charges. The reasonableness of your mistake would be scrutinized in a completely different way than Officer Hancock’s error was. While criminal charges might not happen, they certainly could happen. And of course, a civil lawsuit could completely wreck your life.

That’s why it’s important to remember that how things look at first blush is not always how they are. It is far better to let the armed bank robber get away than to take a chance at shooting at him as he’s fleeing. You can only shoot at someone who is threatening your life or someone else’s life. You do not have the authority of a police officer. And while the law grants them forgiveness, it is unlikely to do the same for you.

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