On Monday, an officer with the North Miami Police Department shot Charles Kinsey while he was laying on the ground next to autistic man who was holding onto a toy truck. Kinsey, fortunately, survived.
The officer’s name has not been released, but he has been placed on administrative leave. The officer was placed on leave because at the time of his attempt to end Kinsey’s life, Kinsey was laying on the ground, on his back, with his hands in the air, trying to tell police officers that he was a behavioral therapist at a nearby group home, that the man beside him was an autistic client of his, that his autistic client was holding onto a toy truck, and that the situation was under control.
The officer, when asked why it was exactly that he tried to end Charles Kinsey’s life, responded, “I don’t know…” which is precisely the sort of answer that one wants from an agent of the state entrusted with the ability to legally end lives.
One other thing worth noting: Charles Kinsey is black.
But of course, we knew that about Kinsey. We know because of the coordinated activism of groups whose goal is shining a spotlight on police-involved killings. Because of that spotlight, we also know that police-involved killings – as anodyne a term as is imaginable, given the specifics of what occurs – involve a disproportionate number of African-Americans. Explaining why it is that this is the case is where we run into…well, disagreement is a word that might be used, but given the stakes, it seems insufficient to fully capture the catastrophic fracture that exists between aforementioned groups anxious for police-involved killings to slow and those who believe them justified in almost every imaginable scenario.
If there is a truth about these killings, then it exists somewhere within that divide: there are killings that are unjustifiable and there are killings that are justifiable. The current problem is such that almost every killing is eventually justified by the presiding government apparatus. This includes a black man shot to death for carrying a BB gun in an open-carry state, a black man shot to death for selling CDs, a black man shot to death for reaching for his wallet after being told to reach for his wallet, a black child being shot to death because he was playing with a replica gun in a park. It is almost impossible to keep up with the steady stream of stories which seem to involve police responding with overwhelming force when less would be sufficient.
“Yes, but…” is the common refrain from those who defend these killings as justifiable occurrences, even when the subsequent facts do not support the immediate conclusions drawn by responding officers. “It does not matter that subsequent facts showed that lethal force was unnecessary. It only matters that the police perceived a danger. That perception justifies whatever comes next.”
Those who make this argument accept fully the police’s version of events. In other words, it must have been something that the individual did, rather than any sort of systemic failing inherent in the system. This thinking is an ingrained human failing in which we conclude, so often, that what happens to individuals is the result of their actions, rather than more pernicious structural issues. The explanation – the Just World Hypothesis – helps toward understanding why the response to innocent people being killed is to blame them. To believe that they were in fact the victim is a no-go, because a victim implies an aggressor, and the aggressor cannot be the police because that is a broader systemic indictment. This also goes a long way toward explaining how it is exactly that those who claim to seriously object to the strength and power of government structures can suddenly become enormous cheerleaders in cases in which that strength and power is maximized to its most lethal extent.
For those who are prone toward it, abandoning the Just World Hypothesis requires damning evidence indicating the existence of a reason good enough to justify distrusting the police narrative. This does occasionally occur, albeit very, very rarely. Some police-involved killings, despite those who tend toward defending them in every imaginable case, are so outrageous as to warrant the state’s sanction, as in the case of a police-involved killing in New York City in which an officer shot blindly into a dark stairwell, and the case of a police-involved killing in Charleston, South Carolina in which an officer shot an unarmed, fleeing suspect and then lied about it, only to be undone by video. This finding though is rare indeed, and, as in the two cases above, involves something so unquestionably awful having occurred that justifying it away becomes an impossibility. But still, in the overwhelming majority of cases in which officers discharge weapons, their behavior is sanctioned by the state in a way that it almost certainly would not be if the shooters were badgeless.
The absence of a competing narrative makes accepting the version offered by police easier. A society eager to justify these police-involved killings has an easier task when victims are not alive to speak in their own defense. And that is where Charles Kinsey’s shooting is very, very different.
Kinsey has already given interviews from his hospital bed. It was there that he made his allegation that the officer who shot him explained his behavior with, “I don’t know.” Kinsey will presumably be available to testify in a trial, should one occur, which means that the police narrative will not be the only one available for consideration. His version will at least have the opportunity to compete in a way that others did not, even if competing explanations offered in other shootings were themselves particularly compelling, at least to those whose confidence in the police reflected a more reasonable understanding of humanity.
Further complicating things in Kinsey’s case is the outright absurdity of the emerging defense of his shooter. In this version of events, we are asked to believe that the officer who shot Kinsey was actually trying to protect him from his autistic client. The officer’s statement claims:
“I took this job to save lives and help people…I did what I had to do in a split second to accomplish that and hate to hear others paint me as something I’m not.”
The officer believed this client to be a threat to Kinsey – despite Kinsey clearly explaining that the man was a client of his – and so he shot at the man, missing and hitting Kinsey instead. This version of the story hinges on us believing that this shooting was a terrible, stupid accident, but nothing more than that. Not that it was racist in nature. Not that it was evidence of an untrained officer whose inability to respond to a situation was matched only by his inability to accurately discharge his weapon. Not that a culture of police immunity to sanction makes it easier to go straight to gunfire. Only that an officer perceived a threat and responded accordingly.
Those taking that position, though, will have to grapple with two things. The first is that Kinsey’s explanation of the shooting from his own perspective is a thing that exists. The second is that the officer – who was only trying to save Kinsey, we are assured, and who only had a split-second to make a decision, and who then accidentally shot Kinsey instead of his alleged target – subsequently placed a bleeding Charles Kinsey in handcuffs.